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Column: Departing top execs leave crucial void

Tampa Bay's thin bench of business leadership is about to be tested big time with the area's two top business leaders — Tom James of Raymond James Financial and Jeff Lyash of Progress Energy Florida — moving on.

The timing for turnover of veteran leadership is never ideal. These days it may be perilous.

Tampa Bay and Florida is in a once-in-a-generation economic downturn. The talk in business circles is not just "when will the recession end?" It's also, "The economy is radically changing. Will our area leaders grasp that and find ways to keep us competitive?"

That's a far cry from Florida's historical boom times when more passive leadership enjoyed riding a wave of growth and easy money.

Turnover, of course, is inevitable. But it should remind us quality business community leadership here is a constant challenge. Slapping fancy chairman's titles on new folks does not guarantee others will embrace or follow.

James, 67 and longtime chairman and CEO of the Raymond James investment firm in St. Petersburg, is the godfather of Tampa Bay business leaders.

Nobody matches James' combination of longevity in the CEO chair, pedigree (Harvard, MBA and law degrees and son of the company founder), track record, philanthropy, financial industry stature and — on top of his own substantial art collection that adorns Raymond James' headquarters — his commitment to regional arts and culture.

James picked Paul Reilly to succeed him at Raymond James. Reilly ran recruiting powerhouse Korn/Ferry International. After starting his new job in May, he'll officially become CEO in a year.

That does not mean Reilly will fill James' big shoes as a business leader. Reilly's got a lot to learn about a complex Raymond James business. He must establish his own credentials there. Though he's a hometown boy and sure to be involved on various area boards and causes, he'll have to earn his spurs to be perceived as a leader in the greater business community.

Jeff Lyash's departure from area leadership ranks is more formulaic. The ranks of Tampa Bay's business leadership team are full of area execs who report to CEOs based in other states. We used to cynically say Tampa Bay was a "colony" controlled by businesses based elsewhere. We grew tired of that characterization, but it still rears its head.

Lyash's leaving is unfortunate. He's a smart and energetic guy who "gets" the bigger challenge of upgrading our economy in a more competitive era.

But Jeff, we barely got to know ya!

Lyash, 47, served for three years as CEO of Progress Energy Florida, a subsidiary of Progress Energy headquartered in Raleigh, N.C. Now he's heading back to the home office to take on a broader executive role.

Succeeding Lyash at Progress Energy Florida is Vinny Dolan. But Lyash plans to keep his hand in some parts of the Florida operation, including the nuclear power plant. And he'll remain on the business group recommending potential sites for a new Tampa Bay Rays stadium. Commendable, but perhaps detrimental to Dolan's moving up the leadership ladder here.

Next year, Lyash was slated to chair the Tampa Bay Partnership. The regional economic development group recently reached out to Orlando to explore how two metro economies might better coordinate before the two grow into one super-regional metro area. Lyash, whose Progress Energy service territory includes most of Tampa Bay and the Orlando markets, played a key role in making that happen.

Now Lyash will not chair the Partnership next year. The group will meet this month to find a new chairman for 2010.

It's all going to come down to bench strength.

Robert Trigaux can be reached at trigaux@sptimes.com

Column: Departing top execs leave crucial void 07/11/09 [Last modified: Saturday, July 11, 2009 5:31am]

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