Pressing forward: The 25 most influential business players in Tampa Bay

Brian Lamb, center, makes the list of the Top 25 most influential people in the Tampa Bay business community. OCTAVIO JONES | Times
Brian Lamb, center, makes the list of the Top 25 most influential people in the Tampa Bay business community. OCTAVIO JONES | Times
Published December 31 2015
Updated December 31 2015

It's easy to list prominent and powerful business people. Tampa Bay has plenty. It's tougher to choose those whose skills, experience, passion and force of personality make them influential. As in capable of moving a specific industry or part of the regional economy forward in a positive way. As in being here not just today but for the longer term.

At the start of 2016, meet 25 of the most influential players. All are pushing hard. All are helping shape the Tampa Bay business market. Some, like USF chief Judy Genshaft or Tampa International Airport's Joe Lopano or St. Pete's Bill Edwards, are well known community names. They are influential at what they do.

Others among the 25 are less obvious. People like Jim Geurts, Jude Grosser, Mike Griffin or Joy Randels who are bringing about change and raising the economic bar here in their own areas of expertise. Read on.


1. The What's Next Guy: You may not know his name (yet) but Jim "Hondo" Geurts is a budding rock star in Tampa Bay's defense industry. As acquisitions deputy for U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM) at MacDill Air Force Base, he's responsible for all special operations forces research, development, acquisition, procurement and logistics. He's also a driving force behind the "Thunderdome" and SOFWERX efforts to establish idea incubators, for now at least in Tampa Heights and Ybor City, to create more innovative military equipment for special forces needs. That includes the exo-skeleton "Iron Man" suit, formally known as the Tactical Assault Light Operator Suit (TALOS).


St. Petersburg businessman Bill Edwards

2. The Renewer: He's suffered a few public relations blows and legal encounters of late. But the reality is no one in St. Petersburg has shown more bullish drive and willingness to invest his own money than Bill Edwards to keep pushing the city's downtown to new heights. He acquired the ailing BayWalk retail complex and reinvented it as Sundial. Two years ago he bought control of the Tampa Bay Rowdies soccer team, later rehabbing the languishing Al Lang Stadium into the team's home turf. He helped revive the sagging Mahaffey Theater and hired 2-term St. Pete mayor Rick Baker as his right hand man.


University of South Florida President Judy Genshaft

3. The Workplace Feeder: She celebrates 16 years in the new year as the longest tenured president of the University of South Florida. Under the leadership of Judy Genshaft, USF has morphed into a transformative economic engine for the entire bay area. The state university is building a tradition of coordinating USF efforts to better the communities it represents. In 2016, watch for USF's medical school to make strides in relocating to downtown Tampa. And USF will help underpin the emerging "Innovation District" to spark more economic life to struggling areas near the main campus. Genshaft in one year or another has chaired most of the major economic development groups in the bay area. This fall, she welcomed the strongest academic class in school history.


Tampa International Airport CEO Joe Lopano

4. The Fly Higher Fellow: It's hard to tell if Tampa International Airport CEO Joe Lopano commutes to work singing along to Frank Sinatra's My Way or belting out "Nobody's going to slow me down" lyrics from AC/DC's Highway to Hell. Lopano runs on his own jet fuel, always pumped to make TIA bigger, cooler and more efficient in the never-ending quest among major airports to stay in the top national and international rankings. Lopano's greatest legacy may prove to be his zeal to pull more of a timid Tampa Bay economy into the 21st century economy.

5. The Disruptor: Is "disruptive innovation" simply inevitable in today's modern economy, with new ideas making things run faster, more efficiently and at less cost? Or are there folks like Christine Mitchell — Harvard grad turned Google analytics nerd turned general manager for Uber's push into Florida — behind the scenes helping shake up the status quo? Ride-sharing service Uber roared into this part of Florida as traditional taxis, their regulators and state legislators still are not sure how to deal with a new player already claiming 2,000 drivers in this area alone. Just remember: Uber's only part of the wave of in-your-face change heading our way.


Tampa Bay Lightning owner Jeff Vinik

6. The Town Cheerleader: Show me a more laser-focused, big-picture guy than Jeff Vinik who spends as much time selling Corporate America on the potential of a revamped downtown Tampa lifestyle and workplace. Nobody else comes close. Vinik's got just the right mix to make him the region's most credible business promoter. He made a name for himself in Boston and on Wall Street before he got here, so he talks their language. He bought the Tampa Bay Lightning and made them legitimate contenders. Now he's developing 40 acres around Amalie Arena, taking care to do it right. Watch him and a core of Tampa economic development leaders fire up their hunt for a corporate headquarters in 2016. Some day, when Vinik falls off this list, we may all regret it.

Fifth Third Bank

Market President of Fifth Third Bank Brian Lamb

7. The Playmaker: A former USF basketball point guard, Brian Lamb has leveraged his teamwork skills, competitive edge and accounting degree to become market president of Fifth Third Bank. He spent much of the past year hunting for a new CEO to run the Tampa Bay Partnership, which he chaired in 2015. The key regional marketing group lost its focus just as Tampa Bay was bouncing back from a rough recession. Lamb and his search committee chose local executive Rick Homans who had just kicked the Tampa/Hillsborough Economic Development Corp. into a higher gear. Lamb's just getting his feet wet. He's already vice chairman of the USF board of trustees. And in Hillsborough County he's part of an elite committee ready to talk relocation with the Tampa Bay Rays — once the team has permission to do so.

MamaRazzi foto

Raymond James Financial CEO Paul Reilly, left

8. The (Non) Wall Street Guy: No other large public company based in the bay area is pushing as hard and as successfully to grow more than Raymond James Financial. CEO Paul Reilly is a big reason for that. After merging with regional brokerage Morgan Keegan, Reilly in 2015 agreed to buy Deutsche Bank's U.S. private client services unit adding about 200 private wealth advisers. The deal pushes St. Petersburg-based Raymond James closer toward its geographic goal of becoming a bigger player in the wealthier parts of America, including the Northeast, Middle Atlantic and California. So far, Reilly wins applause for deftly handling a fast pace of growth while so far avoiding a label on RayJay as just another big Wall Street firm in the making.


Rick Homans

9. The Fixer: Can the guy recruited from New Mexico to re-energize the Tampa Hillsborough Economic Development Corp. now work the same mojo to refresh the Tampa Bay Partnership? Rick Homans left the EDC in late 2015 with a can-do reputation and a pipeline full of coming job expansion announcements. But can he duplicate that success heading a partnership that's ballooned to a membership of eight area counties with different priorities? The good news is Homans believes in the power of selling Tampa Bay as one regional metro area, just as major corporations with relocation interests do. The question is whether the local powers within this area will ever see it that way.

10. The Innovation Celebrator: It takes the entire first paragraph of his bio just to note all the titles that belong to Paul Sanberg. He's USF's senior vice president for research, innovation & economic development. He's president of the USF Research Foundation. He's distinguished university professor of medicine, engineering, and business, and also executive director of USF's Center of Excellence for Aging and Brain Repair. Oh yeah, he's president and founder of the National Academy of Inventors in Tampa — himself an inventor on 111 patents — that is a rising organization that salutes academic innovation. And a few years ago, he started the Florida Inventors Hall of Fame to draw more attention to innovators in the Sunshine State.

11. The Citrus Defender: There's still no commercially viable remedy against the citrus greening disease that threatens to annihilate Florida's orange juice industry. But the work of Jude Grosser, professor of plant cell genetics at the University of Florida's Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, looks to be making some promising strides in that direction. Grosser and fellow researchers have developed genetically modified citrus trees (using genes from the mustard family) that show enhanced resistance to greening. If this works, we may be witnessing the salvation of one of Florida's key agricultural crops.

12. The No Go Activist: The fumbling, finger-pointing mass transit project known as Go Hillsborough seems quite capable of crumbling by itself. But Hillsborough County Tea Party co-founder Sharon Calvert stands ready to make sure Go Hillsborough continues to go nowhere. She's against more taxes committed to county mass transportation at the expense of fixing underfunded roads. It doesn't matter if tourism or downtown Tampa agencies pitch the merits of Go Hillsborough mass transit. As Calvert has said: "Every government agency is for the tax."

Times files

C1 Bank CEO Trevor Burgess

13. The Labcoat Banker: C1 Bank CEO Trevor Burgess will be compensated somewhere north of $40 million when the sale of his St. Petersburg community bank to Bank of the Ozarks is completed in 2016. But he will stay on as the merged bank's Florida market president and, far more compelling, also serve as the merged bank's innovation chief. C1 boasted a rare track record for a small bank as an innovator. Its C1 Labs was created to develop smart ways to measure client profitability (using C1's Smart Loan Express calculator) or speed account openings via an iPad service in under three minutes.

14/15. The Twin Towers of Tourism: Tampa Bay enjoys hotshot tourism agency leaders on both sides of the bay, a prime reason this area continues to burst with record numbers of tourism. On the Tampa/Hillsborough side of the bay, Santiago Corrada heads Visit Tampa Bay with marketing savvy aimed at boosting a business convention market and leveraging his agency's tourism brand, Unlock Tampa Bay. On the Pinellas side, Visit St. Pete-Clearwater chief David Downing's clever advertising campaigns aimed at chilly northern cities and a profitable alliance with Allegiant Airlines keeps the Pinellas beach economy robust and happy. Combined, these two polite competitors may generate a regional dynamism bigger than their two halves.

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Entrepreneur Rhea Law

16. The Full Service Lawyer: Few leaders are more in the know on so many diverse business fronts as Rhea Law. She chairs the Florida offices of the 530-attorney Buchanan Ingersoll Rooney law firm, which bought Tampa's Fowler White Boggs several years ago. In between her current and past roles on the boards of Enterprise Florida, USF, Stetson Law, the Tampa Hillsborough EDC and Tampa Bay Technology Forum and many other influential entities, Law spent 2015 chairing the Florida Council of 100, which promotes public policies to improve Florida's quality of life. A key issue? Making sure Florida schools maintain competitive standards. Warns Law: "We either need to demand superior performance from our students now, or employers will be forced to tell them that they are unqualified later, when they apply for work." That's the kind of tough love we need.

17. The Downtown Backer: Ever wonder why Publix Super Markets is building its second store in downtown St. Petersburg, and has committed to put its first ever store in downtown Tampa? These are the hotspots of urban live-work-play that St. Pete and Tampa so eagerly want to deliver in order to build a downtown vibrancy for years to come. Kudos to Publix CEO William Crenshaw for a willingness to provide anchor grocery stores in both city cores. A Publix store location is the closest thing to a stamp of approval that the surrounding neighborhood offers good potential to grow. I don't see Walmart or Winn-Dixie or some other grocery chain of note making such a downtown commitment.

Courtesy of Steve Miller

J.D. Porter, far left

18. The Land Giver: Given the vast acreage of Pasco County land controlled by old Florida ranch families, it's a wonder the county has been able to prosper as much as it has. No Pasco family has proved as civic minded and forward thinking as the Porter family and its Wiregrass Ranch holdings. J.D. Porter manages development operations for the Wiregrass Ranch property, whose land is now home to one of the region's popular shopping malls (Shops at Wiregrass), a state-of-the-art hospital (Florida Hospital at Wesley Chapel), a high school and the namesake Porter Campus of Pasco-Hernando State College. Other projects, including a sports tourism complex, are also contingent on the use of Porter lands.

19. The Big Money Manager: He's the chief investment officer of Cascade Investment, but Michael Larson's connection to Tampa Bay goes much deeper. Cascade manages the money of Bill Gates, the world's richest individual. That makes Larson's willingness to commit hundreds of millions of dollars of Gates' wealth to back Jeff Vinik's ambitious waterfront real estate development near Amalie Arena near downtown Tampa a rousing endorsement for downtown Tampa's future. Vinik and Cascade are partners in the Strategic Property Partners firm that will develop Vinik's vision. How many metro areas can claim Gates endorses Tampa's downtown future enough to sink a serious chunk of change into it?


Columbia Restaurant Group President Richard Gonzmart

20. The Foodie Fan: His name is long synonymous with Tampa's landmark Columbia Restaurant. But restaurant developer Richard Gonzmart and his Columbia Group now have much more on their plate. After the 2014 opening of Ulele, the Native American-inspired restaurant in Tampa's historic Water Works Building on the Hillsborough River, Gonzmart geared up to open an Italian-Sicilian restaurant in Ybor City. He's also keeping his hand in negotiations in St. Petersburg over a possible restaurant site to accompany the city's new pier. On the front burner, Gonzmart is resurrecting the iconic burger brand Goody Goody, with plans to open the fast-casual eatery in South Tampa. Gonzmart's foodie binge reflects the bigger regional hunger to bring new (and reinvented) food options to bay area diners.


Tampa Port Authority CEO Paul Anderson

21. The Port Master: Embarking on his fourth year as CEO of Port Tampa Bay, Paul Anderson shows no sign of slowing his pace to keep the port a major contributor to the regional economy. Anderson loves to quote the port's formidable impact: $15 billion annually supporting close to 100,000 direct and indirect jobs. At a recent gathering, he shared cell phone photos of immense cranes now under construction in China that the port has purchased and will install in 2016. These state-of-the-art cranes will enable the port to handle the cargo loading/unloading of much larger vessels that will soon arrive via the widened Panama Canal. Now if he can only figure out how to save the port's cruise ship business, soon to be endangered by new ships too big to fit under the Sunshine Skyway Bridge.

22/23. The Digital Duo: Two new cable companies are about wield great clout by taking over the bulk of Tampa Bay's cable TV and Internet market. CEO Daniel McCarthy heads Frontier Communications, which in 2016 will replace Verizon as the Tampa Bay provider of FiOS and related digital services to the home. Also in the new year the larger Charter Communications, headed by CEO Thomas Rutledge, will absorb Bright House Networks. Will service improve but prices rise? Or will the growing risk of cable customers "cutting the cord" in favor of a growing menu of online entertainment alternatives force McCarthy and Rutledge to offer more options and better value to satisfy consumers increasingly hungry for speedy Internet access?

24. The Focused Millennial: A decade ago as a young 20-something he was one of the first to head Emerge Tampa, the newly created arm of the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce to recruit young business professionals for future leadership positions. How time flies. A year from now Mike Griffin will become the first Emerge Tampa graduate to chair the Tampa Chamber. To those who know Griffin, a sharp and enthusiastic USF graduate who now works as a commercial real estate adviser in Tampa for Savills Studley, his rapid rise is no surprise. To a broader Tampa Bay business community grown used to gray hairs in charge, get over it. Griffin is the real deal and can deliver a great message that talented leadership of any age can find good opportunity here.

25. The Start-Up Whisperer: Her entrepreneurial record is extensive. Joy Randels has launched at least 14 companies and two initial public offerings, grown and sold 10 companies and raised more than $357 million in venture capital. The head of Bradenton's New Market Partners venture capital and advisory firm is seemingly everywhere in the area start-up scene, helping run or found Startup Grind, Startup Weekend and other events. She is also one of Tampa Bay's biggest start-up fans and toughest critics. "I've had a dozen VC's (venture capitalists) visit our community, tour the area and meet startups during 2015, and met with two real accelerators who considered Tampa as potential location but decided to go elsewhere." Why? Randels says they all give the same answer: "You don't understand what a real tech community is. People in Tampa think IT is tech and it's not even close." She doesn't sugarcoat things, but does try to make the start-up community smarter. As she is the first to acknowledge, Tampa Bay has to be in this for the long haul.

Contact Robert Trigaux at [email protected] Follow @venturetampabay.