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Enterprise Florida CEO John Adams is bullish on Florida during tough times

John Adams, CEO of the state's economic development arm, is the designated cheerleader for Florida's economy.

So if you are looking for good news about Florida's economy, he'll deliver. It helps that he has enough economic ammunition to sound convincing.

While sympathizing with the state's jobless, housing woes and BP oil spill disaster, he defends Florida as well poised for a strong comeback as the larger economy starts to pick up steam.

"We try to look over the horizon a little bit," says Adams, 59, who runs what is officially called Enterprise Florida. "This is the third largest economy among the states and the 15th or 16th biggest economy globally."

Step back from the immediate economic woes, he suggests, and look at a state with lots happening and plenty of bench strength for an upswing.

Since 2006, when first recruited by then Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and others from a similar job in far smaller Laredo, Texas, Adams has been paid good money to make the Florida economy look sunny and compelling in good times and bad.

In a rare interview Wednesday, Adams gave a verbal whirlwind tour of a state economy he considers globally competitive, with a few Dadgummits to emphasize his points.

• In Tampa Bay, Adams praises the arrival and potential of such high-end technology and life science businesses as Merck-Moffitt's joint M2Gen cancer tissue bank, as well as SRI and Draper Lab, especially praising how they work in concert with the University of South Florida. That's a prototype business model for higher-wage jobs we'll see gain in popularity, he says.

• In Orlando, beyond the theme parks, he cites the rise of an industry based on photonics (lasers), and the medical work of the Burnham Institute.

• Along Florida's east coast, he mentions the influence of major California biotech firms that have expanded operations here, including Scripps Research and Torrey Pines Institute plus the soon-to-break-ground Max Planck Institute.

• Both Miami (as Latin America's gateway) and Jacksonville have growing strength in financial services, he says, as more banks decentralize out of their headquarter cities and consolidate in places like Florida.

• Melbourne's got new airline manufacturing with the arrival of Brazil's Embraer.

• Even the Panhandle, whose tourism industry was mugged by bad BP publicity, enjoys a concentration of military bases (with more coming) that statewide contributes more than $60 billion a year to Florida's economy. He also points to a Swedish business called Green Circle that's started making and exporting fuel from compressed wood. It was called "Project Pellet."

"The sky has not fallen," Adams insists. But to build on such diversification, he says Florida has to educate a work force with relevant skills to be employed by such industries. That means refocusing and improving the K-12 system, making sure the community college system is in tune with state work force needs, and upgrading the statewide university system.

Talent is key, says Adams. "That's what I am concerned about. When businesses looking to relocate or expand come here they ask, 'What is the talent base here? Can we expand?' Our competition is not the states north of here but the kids and talent pool globally."

Adams is the first to admit that Florida has a wide-ranging and far-flung economy. So I asked Adams, who is approaching his fifth anniversary as Enterprise Florida CEO: How long did it take to get to know such a diverse state?

Truth is, Adams says he got a sneak preview. He grew up in a military family in Georgia and traveled northern Florida in his early years. He served in the Air Force that included a few years at Eglin Air Force Base on Florida's panhandle. When he worked in economic development in Texas, he traveled often to Florida to try to cherry-pick companies to relocate to the Lone Star State. And his days as a businessman took him to ports, including Tampa's.

But the real secret to knowing Florida quickly: It's a lot like Texas — a pro-business attitude and low taxes. Besides, Adams, who's been on the road for two weeks, says he's been in every one of Florida's 67 counties multiple times since joining Enterprise Florida.

His answer? It took about a year to get a good feel for the state economy.

"I would not have done this job anywhere else but Florida," he says.

Adams even lets us in on a clever strategy of Florida's business recruiters. Don't worry if a big company does not move its headquarters here. Just be sure that the expansion it does put in Florida eventually gets bigger than the main office.

That's one bullish guy. When the rebound arrives, what will he do for an encore?

Contact Robert Trigaux at trigaux@sptimes.com.

Enterprise Florida CEO John Adams is bullish on Florida during tough times 09/22/10 [Last modified: Thursday, September 23, 2010 4:56pm]
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