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From new USF St. Petersburg business dean to urban placemaker, four people to watch

Amid a heightened economic pulse, the Tampa Bay market is experiencing an exciting inflow of fresh business talent from afar and reinvention by locals. This column introduces (and reintroduces) readers to four folks, a representative sampling of the many people offering new ideas and agendas for the regional business community.

Let's see what they will be up to in the coming months.

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New dean, new ambitions:

Nobody can say Sridhar "Sri" Sundaram won't have plenty of "new" on his plate as the incoming business dean of the Kate Tiedemann College of Business, or KTCOB, at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg in the city's downtown. The business school has new names (Tiedemann for the college and, more recently, Lynn Pippenger for its new building) and philanthropic money. The new building is coming out of the ground on the edge of campus and will be ready this fall. And with new expectations to fulfill, Sundaram will be the first dean of a business college with a place to call its own after years of faculty being scattered across the campus.

Sundaram is wrapping up his work as associate dean at the Seidman College of Business at Grand Valley State University in Grand Rapids, Mich. He starts his new gig in July.

"It is exciting times for USFSP and the St. Pete community," the incoming dean said in an exchange of emails. "During my campus visit, I saw a revitalized downtown St. Pete and a very engaged university." He said he will look "to engage the local business community and help develop programs that serve its talent needs."

So what does Sundaram bring to Florida's table? He chaired the finance department of Grand Valley's business school for seven years, building undergraduate and graduate business programs. Recently, he has worked to integrate seven outreach centers (that work with the regional business community) with the university's academic side.

He recently spoke in Michigan about what motivates millennials in the workplace, using the phrase "a profit with purpose."

"These experiences along with my ability to work with people and think outside the box will serve me well as the dean of KTCOB" — an abbreviation we'll need to use often given the long titles of named business schools these days.

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Prepping for a bigger stage: After years running SunTrust Bank in St. Petersburg, Roy Binger caught the entrepreneurial spirit, starting Binger Financial Services in St. Petersburg and looking for a breakout strategy for his young insurance, lending and financial advisory firm.

He may have found it in Aon, one of the world's leading risk-management service companies. Binger recently formed an alliance with Aon Cornerstone, a unit that specializes in working with select, certified minority business enterprises, or MBEs, like Binger Financial.

The mission? Binger Financial can get Aon's clout and expertise to take on bigger clients, from cities to major corporations, and Aon aligns itself with a new MBE that can take advantage of increasingly popular "diversity spends" (spreading a portion of business/financial deals to minority-run firms) sought by both governments and private companies.

It's a win-win, Binger and Aon vice president Pete Guzman say. Binger Financial is Aon's only MBE in the bay area. "I am proud of that," Binger laughs.

But Binger sees a bigger mission: to grow his MBE to a size where he can serve as a role model for the future that doesn't require such artificial alliances.

"Just the fact that you have to use the words 'diversity spend' means you are not there yet."

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New CEO at Twinlab's HQ: It's been a year since we've reported that Twinlab Consolidation Corp., the makers of Metabolife wellness supplements and Alvita herbal teas, said it will move its New York headquarters to two floors in First Central Tower in downtown St. Petersburg. After that, events are less clear.

Twinlab CEO Tom Tolworthy, a former Barnes & Noble executive, is already gone. Naomi Whittel was named new CEO in March, elevated from Organic Holdings, a company she ran that Twinlab had acquired last fall. Whittel was an EY "Entrepreneur of the Year" award winner in 2013 in Florida's "emerging" business category, as well as a national finalist.

In a recent industry interview, Whittel said Twinlab is going through a reinvention. "You're going to see a lot of changes over the next period of time. And our goal is to underpromise and overdeliver as we reinvent this company," she said.

Here's what we know at this point: Twinlab shares that traded on the OTC (over the counter) market at $1.45 a year ago now trade at about $1.16. The company lost money in each of its past four reported quarters for a combined loss in excess of $35 million.

In February, Mark J. Bugge was appointed to Twinlab's board of directors. He heads VA Enterprises LLC, the family office representing the Van Andel family, whose core holding is Amway Corp., a $10 billion in revenue direct-selling organization. That's no coincidence.

How is Twinlab surviving? By taking on debt and issuing more shares of stock. The company's latest SEC annual filing states: "Our independent registered public accounting firm has issued its report dated March 30, 2016, which includes an explanatory paragraph stating that our recurring losses, among other things, raise substantial doubt about our ability to continue as a going concern."

Welcome to St. Pete, Twinlab CEO Whittel. You have your work cut out for you.

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Delivering on Vinik vision: Cue the Mission: Impossible theme song. "Your mission, James Nozar, since you've already accepted it, is to deliver on boss Jeff Vinik's high-profile, $2 billion vision of a 40-acre-plus 'live-work-play' real estate development in the Channel District near downtown Tampa. Not only must you please Vinik and his financial partner, Bill Gates-affiliated Cascade Investment, but win the hearts of the no-less-demanding and at times mercurial general public of Tampa Bay."

Good luck, Mr. Nozar, in your role as CEO of Strategic Property Partners.

Nozar's still getting settled. But the early betting is the SPP project may take on at least some of the same attributes as the high-end projects Nozar helped build in and around Washington, D.C., where he most recently worked as a development senior vice president at JBG Cos.

Nozar's forte, of course, is expected to be urban "placemaking" — that overused, not easily understood idea of transforming a bunch of city blocks into a unique, cohesive and hopefully pleasing community that blends residential living, entertainment and options for work.

One thought: One of Nozar's last projects in the nation's capital was to start developing projects near the site of the Washington Nationals stadium in a still up-and-coming neighborhood on the south side of D.C. We realize Nozar already has a 24/7 job at SPP, but — if the Tampa Bay Rays ever end up in a new stadium — tapping his experience and insights on how to raise the development bar could not hurt.

Contact Robert Trigaux at rtrigaux@tampabay.com. Follow @venturetampabay.

From new USF St. Petersburg business dean to urban placemaker, four people to watch 04/29/16 [Last modified: Friday, April 29, 2016 6:24pm]
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