Big-name HQs: Tampa Bay pursues leap up evolutionary ladder

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As an adolescent in the 1980s and 1990s, the Tampa Bay business community was delighted to be dubbed the nation's Call Center Capital. During its latter teen years, the metro area tried on such nicknames as Wall Street South, eager to leverage its ability to attract more sophisticated back office operations of major financial institutions and corporations based elsewhere.

Now Tampa Bay's economic developers want the world to know the economy here has become an adult, capable of recruiting and sustaining corporate headquarters — ones with real name-brand recognition. That's why the first meeting of a task force devoted to recruiting corporate headquarters was held here this past Tuesday.

Its mission: to start crafting an in-depth strategy to find, woo and relocate the headquarters of better-known companies. Not some A-level name like Apple or Google or Procter & Gamble. The early aim is to target recognizable B-level brands, especially companies based in the more expensive (and colder) metro areas of the Northeast and Midwest.

The surprising and successful headquarters relocation in 2013 of Hertz, the rental car giant, from New Jersey to Estero, north of Naples, was a clear wakeup call to Tampa Bay that, under the right circumstances and the right timing, many major corporations might consider a move to warmer and typically far less expensive Florida.

After all, Atlanta's got Coca-Cola and Delta Air Lines headquarters. Charlotte, N.C., boasts Bank of America and Duke Energy. Tampa Bay is home to three low-profile Fortune 500 companies and a total of seven Fortune 1000 headquarters. Raymond James Financial may be the highest profile among the seven, in part because it long ago paid to put its name on the stadium of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

"We think this is the right time," says Rick Homans, CEO of the Tampa Hillsborough Economic Development Corp., whose group is charged with growing the size and quality of business in this market. He rattles off a long list of promising economic signs, from the start of Tampa's downtown revival, transportation and airport expansion to the rise of area universities and the possibilities of a new baseball stadium and a new USF medical school downtown.

"Put all of this together with the quality of life here in Tampa Bay," Homans says, "and we feel the time is right for us to recruit a brand-name corporate headquarter to Hillsborough County."

Gordon Gillette, TECO Energy's head of its Tampa Electric and Peoples Gas units, agrees the timing bodes well. Gillette and Chuck Sykes, CEO of Tampa's Sykes Enterprises, are co-chairing the headquarters task force during its early stages.

After a hard recession, Tampa Bay is rebounding economically, Gillette says. Companies are starting to make longer-term plans, which, for some, might mean corporate relocations. Plus, the Tampa Hillsborough EDC — now in its fifth year after formerly operating as an arm of the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce — has gained enough private and public investment, enough members and enough expertise to tackle the extra challenge of trying to recruit the headquarters of some brand-name companies.

Gillette and Homans make it clear that the quest for headquarters will not come at the expense of the EDC's basic tasks of attracting jobs to the area.

But that does not make Tampa Bay's aspirations any less intense to become a bigger player on the business scene.

Gillette cautions that the task force will need patience.

"There are big returns but low probability," Gillette says. "There are a thousand companies in the Fortune 1000. Perhaps 100 will be thinking about headquarters relocation at any given time, 20 may be serious and a smaller bunch may be looking at the Southeast. So this is a long-term endeavor we are committing to — to try and take our economic development effort to the next level."

To help identify more likely candidates, the headquarters task force and the Tampa Hillsborough EDC are calling on relocation experts for guidance. Ellen Harpel, the founder of consulting firm Smart Incentives, specializes in helping communities like Tampa Bay evaluate the competitiveness of their incentives offerings when recruiting businesses.

And Barry Quarles, a consultant with Market Enhancement Group in San Diego, has worked with economic developers here for years. Twelve years ago, Quarles surveyed hundreds of CEOs across the country to capture their perceptions of the Tampa Bay business market. Now he is doing it again, polling 50 CEOs based here, 50 CEOs with some kind of regional ties (perhaps a subsidiary operates here) and an additional 250 CEOs with no connections to this area.

CEO attitudes about the Tampa Bay market have changed since 2002. Quarles will share those insights with the headquarters task force later this month. "There's a lot of good news in there, but also some wakeup calls for us," Homans says.

The EDC already has produced some compelling testimonial videos praising this metro area from such area executives as Bloomin' Brands CEO (and Manhattan transplant) Liz Smith, Tampa Bay Lightning owner and former Boston hedge fund manager Jeff Vinik, and John and (son) Chuck Sykes talking about their own headquarters relocation of Sykes Enterprises from Charlotte.

The hope is that recruiting the headquarters of a few name companies will whet the appetite of other corporations in higher-tax, higher-priced parts of the country to take a fresh look at the Tampa Bay market. Headquarters, especially of better-known name companies, raise the profile of entire regional business communities. They generate influence, clout, better jobs and career opportunities, and simply raise a community's profile.

And all that, after all, is what this economic quest is all about.

Contact Robert Trigaux at [email protected] or (727) 893-8405. Follow @venturetampabay.

 
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