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Entrepreneur John Sykes takes CEO spot at GunnAllen

Serial entrepreneur and philanthropist John Sykes has big dreams of transforming Tampa's GunnAllen Financial brokerage firm, which he recently bought with some fellow investors, and Tampa's NorthStar Bank, where he is also an investor and director, into a junior version of Raymond James Financial. To make that happen, Sykes — the founder of Tampa's Sykes Enterprises — picked his right-hand man of many years, 59-year-old Gordon Loetz, to lead the corporate charge as GunnAllen CEO in November.

But Loetz drowned in late March in an accident in heavy seas off Puerto Rico while trying to save his wife who was trapped in the capsized boat. She survived but Loetz, described by Sykes as his personal financial adviser and "like a son to me," did not.

Now the 72-year-old Sykes, GunnAllen's current chairman and the private company's single largest shareholder, is taking Loetz's spot as CEO. Sykes first met last spring with Gunn­Allen co-founder Rick Frueh at SideBern's in south Tampa to discuss a possible deal. Earlier this month, Frueh stepped down as GunnAllen president.

"The firm will continue and we are committed to seeing Gordie's vision for the firm fulfilled," Sykes said in a statement.

It's not the first time Sykes has stepped back to run one of his companies in need. In 2000, David Grimes was named CEO of Sykes Enterprises, as John Sykes prepared to retire. Grimes left four months later, prompting Sykes' return. Sykes Enterprises is now run by John Sykes' son, Chuck Sykes.

•••

Infamous 1980s' savings and loan banker Michael Wise took his own life earlier this month by leaping from the ninth floor of a parking garage at Tampa International Airport. I won't second guess what trouble Wise, 64, was wrestling with, but he had a lot of history from which to choose.

Wise ran Silverado Savings & Loan in Denver in the 1980s, and recruited Neil Bush — son of then-President George H.W. Bush and also brother of Jeb Bush, who later served two terms as Florida's governor — to join the board of directors. Silverado failed amid allegations of fraud and eventually cost the federal government $1 billion.

Wise, a Republican fundraiser who helped raise $300,000 for then-President Bush, was acquitted by a jury in the matter only to later plead guilty to misleading wealthy investors in Aspen in what was called a Ponzi scheme — an increasingly popular fraud that Florida seems to attract. He used investor proceeds to pay off earlier investors and support his lifestyle.

Wise served three-plus years in prison before ending up in the Tampa Bay area in the mortgage business during the recent housing boom. That gig withered after complaints from customers and after his background was made public here. A hard end to a troubled life.

•••

What do Florida's small business owners and homeowners have in common? Declining prices and so-so demand. If you want to buy a business in Tampa, the current average asking price is about $199,000. A year ago, the average asking price for businesses was $225,000.

The latest numbers are based on 938 area businesses listed at BizBuySell.com.

Robert Trigaux can be reached at trigaux@sptimes.com

Entrepreneur John Sykes takes CEO spot at GunnAllen 04/15/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, April 15, 2009 9:55pm]
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