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Keys to business leadership are communication and motivation, say Tampa Bay's top CEOs

Three CEOs, one group interview: From left, John Auer of American Strategic Insurance, Barry Shevlin of Vology Data Systems (the new name of Network Liquidators) and Tom James of Raymond James Financial.

EDMUND D. FOUNTAIN | Times

Three CEOs, one group interview: From left, John Auer of American Strategic Insurance, Barry Shevlin of Vology Data Systems (the new name of Network Liquidators) and Tom James of Raymond James Financial.

What makes a great business leader? The employees of three local companies think they know.

They heaped praise on their CEOs, so much so that they led all the companies in the Times survey of workplaces when it comes to leadership. They are able to create a culture that drives their work force to succeed. It's part motivation, part communication, with a heavy dose of bedrock values.

"He praises his employees continuously," the employees said.

"Is approachable, loyal and genuinely cares about his employees."

"Uses common sense and tries to do the right thing."

How do the leaders pull it off? The Times went to the winners, sitting down with Tom James of the regional investment firm Raymond James Financial of St. Petersburg; John Auer of the insurance firm American Strategic Insurance of St. Petersburg; and Barry Shevlin of the telecommunications/IT equipment reseller Vology Data Systems, the new name as of this month of Network Liquidators in Oldsmar.

James, 67, ranks among the area's best-known, longest-lasting business captains. Auer, 55, wins survey kudos for staying in close touch with employees. And Shevlin, 39, tops survey feedback as an impressive motivator — a key credential running a sales-driven business.

The hour-plus exchange held in the Raymond James boardroom was serious, but at times funny, a bit combative and self-deprecating. It touched on topics ranging from the importance of positive corporate culture and communicating a company's mission to recalling the benefit of mentors. And, of course, possessing the grit and discipline to make swift, tough decisions in difficult economic times.

Best quote about leadership

James (on the value of being prepared for the next business crisis): You will remember the minute the alarm goes off and people will rally around the flag and get to work. You can't sit back and say, "What do we do now, coach?" Someone has to make decisions. That is what leadership is all about.

Auer: Success of an organization has a lot more to do with the people than a leader. A leader needs to get the right people and create the right culture. And he needs to try to make sure people understand what we believe will lead to success in the company and how they can share in that success.

Shevlin: The thing I fear most is complacency. If you enter a difficult time with complacency, you are going to fail. Stopping complacency is a core focus of our leadership team.

Your toughest time as a leader?

James: We were in the center of the recent economic firestorms. A lot of those (Wall Street) companies disappeared in our industry. I had a great benefit. After business school, I got to live through the recession of 1973 and 1974 when three business degrees would not have given me the same experience.

We built a lot of systems then in risk management, so we already knew how to turn the switch and employ practices. In the recent financial crisis, we started watching our cash on a daily basis. Newer people would not know what to do because they'd never experienced anything like these events.

At other companies, professional managers thought they were too good and got into trouble. They did not think they were putting their company at risk, but they did. They did not pay attention to the lessons of the '73-'74 recession when my father (Robert James, a co-founder of Raymond James) and I could not pay ourselves a salary. I even had to sell my coin collection.

Auer: It was during 2004 and 2005 with all those hurricanes (including Charley, Frances, Ivan and Jeanne). We had 51/2 years of property claims in six weeks. I was scared to death, but the employees got it done. It turned out to be a great time of teamwork and very reinforcing. But it was quite frightening at the time. We closed the claims quicker, with fewer complaints, and remained profitable.

Shevlin: It's emotional to let people go who were there at the beginning of the business but no longer fit in the organization.

A lady who first ran accounting is no longer the right person to run it at a $60 million company. We can do a disservice to people trying to fit a round person in a square hole.

You have all just led companies through one of the worst recessions in our lifetimes. Are there lessons to be learned and shared with your employees?

James: I want to remind our people. I do not want them to think this was a bump in the road. Our business plan has to contemplate we are in a tough time, and we will be lucky to survive for reasons outside our control. If you do not have that in your memory bank, you do not do the types of planning you would do otherwise. And that is why you need all those systems.

Auer: We insure homes. And when what you insure is going down in value, foreclosures are at a record rate and people owe more than a house is worth, it is a difficult environment. We have to do everything better than our competitors. As a smaller company, we can have a better attitude, do things quicker, be more innovative.

But on the negative, we do not have the staying power of a State Farm or Allstate. We had good profits last year — knock on wood. Everyone understands. Let's do the work without hiring more people and let's thank the agents (who refer insurance clients to ASI) for their business. So far, it is working. It is not doing anything different but re-emphasizing what led to our success.

Shevlin: We felt we need to make decisions quicker, whether it is adding people or letting people go. We work on that daily rather than wait for the end of the quarter to make decisions out of fear of the overall (economic) environment. Early last year I made sure I was in front of my employees every day, whether it was to fix a problem, a strategy, a customer or policy issue. It's something we do every day, and we will not deviate from it.

What is the one specific piece of advice you would give to others seeking to become stronger leaders?

James: Stay true with your values and conduct yourself with integrity.

Auer: Most companies do not excel. They go to work from 8 to 5 and do not take pride being on a winning team. Kids are on sports teams and work out every day with no thought of being paid. Why? The joy of winning.

If a company is winning, employees should understand how important it is to share that pride. That's why it bothers me sometimes when it seems I get the credit. The best thing I did was hire them, and I want them to understand how important that is.

Shevlin: I would go back and focus on building other leaders in your organization.

Contact Robert Trigaux at trigaux@sptimes.com.

Tom James, CEO,
Raymond James Financial

Age: 67

Employees: 7,000
(10,500, including independent contractors)

Why he's a "top" leader: Breadth, depth and tenure of 40 years as head of Raymond James. Few business executives are more active in the community, from influencing regional economic policy to helping steer the new Salvador Dali museum in St. Petersburg, to providing philanthropy like the James Heart Center at Bayfront Medical Center.

Best quote: He was worried the financial panic of 2008 and 2009 would hurt his company just as he finished his years as CEO. "For a while I was saying to myself, 'I am near retirement. Am I riding out on a black horse?' This was not what I envisioned."

James, who plans to step aside as CEO in May, wanted to go out with his business on top.

"I wanted a Super Bowl or an Olympic medal. This was very important to me."

What employees say about him: "He knows the industry.
He has his eyes and ears open.
He communicates frequently,
and we understand his strong
ethics and values."

John Auer, CEO,
American Strategic
Insurance

Age: 55

Employees: 167

Why he's a "top" leader:
His employees revere him, and ASI's flat management structure keeps Auer close to his troops. He can come across as almost the reluctant CEO with a whiff of the laid-back California "dude," but ASI's steady profits and performance — even in the dicey Florida property insurance market — suggest otherwise.
ASI makes it work and is
expanding to other states.

Best quote: "I am a little
embarrassed about the amount of credit that comes to me.
It is not me. Our culture is very unique. People notice people are having a good time and are happy. Maybe it's too much like a country club, but they get their work done. They do not feel
like they have to sit there
looking busy."

What employees say about him: "Our leader is great at empowering people. We are allowed to make decisions and be creative without too much intervention, as long as what we do is consistent with our company values."

Barry Shevlin, CEO,
VOLOGY DATA SYSTEMS
(formerly Network
Liquidators)

Age: 39

Employees: 110

Why he's a "top" leader: Simple. He makes an organization that sells refurbished telecommunications equipment want to sell. More than half of his Vology Data Systems staff are salespeople; the rest help the salespeople sell. Shevlin is chief cheerleader and motivator. New employees are reviewed after 30 days, then 60 and 90, so it becomes pretty apparent after three looks if the new person fits well or not.

Best quote: He's big on attacking complacency. As we slowly emerge from the recession, is that message sinking in to his staff? "Probably not as much as it should, but I am banging that drum loudly. I started this year with one word on the wall — complacency. It's been a theme for 2010."

What employees say
about him: "He constantly
motivates and shows that he is here to help everyone in the
organization, not just himself. You
know that if you needed him to get on the phone with a customer to help finish a sale, he would not only have no problem with that, but he would also close the deal."

John Auer: I was with Bankers
Insurance (in St. Petersburg) and Bob Menke was my primary mentor in the business. I have a lot of respect for him and felt bad when I left. But I'm glad I did. He was a wonderful person who cared a lot and taught me about good business sense.

Barry Shevlin: I am a member
of the YPO (Young Presidents Organization), which has been very helpful to learn about leadership and solving problems. And there is a group of area tech CEOs that get together that includes Tom Wallace of Red Vector and Tony DiBenedetto of Tribridge.

Tom James: My father,
Robert James, co-founder of Raymond James Financial, who taught me the importance of caring for people and providing good service.

Keys to business leadership are communication and motivation, say Tampa Bay's top CEOs 03/21/10 [Last modified: Sunday, March 21, 2010 2:00am]

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