It may seem folly to anoint one business leader as Tampa Bay's most influential of the modern era. Many made serious contributions. But in this case, the choice is clear.
Tom James has guided Raymond James Financial since he became its CEO in 1969 at the tender age of 27. Ever since, he's steadily grown what was a fledgling investment business in St. Petersburg into what is now the most powerful investment and brokerage firm not based on Wall Street.
Some say it won't be long until even some of those firms, many treading water these days, hear Raymond James knocking on their gilded doors.
James proved to be a dynamic regional leader as well over the decades. He's promoted this area's economic development, mentored many companies here — all while pursuing an aggressive personal agenda of charitable support and philanthropic giving.
This coming Thursday, Raymond James Financial holds its annual shareholders meeting. That's when Tom James, now 74, in a ceremonial passing of a gavel will hand over the title of company chairman to CEO Paul Reilly. The outsider was handpicked by James over an internal candidate nearly eight years ago to succeed him and take the firm that bears his family name to the next level.
In so doing, James will complete his exit from Raymond James's top management team after nearly half a century. He's not going far. He will retain the honorary title of emeritus chairman and remain on the company's board of directors.
As James is quick to tell the Tampa Bay Times, he still will wield the clout of being one of the company's largest individual stakeholders, owning 12 percent of Raymond James. At today's market prices, those shares alone are approaching $1 billion in value, cementing James' status among Tampa Bay's wealthiest individuals.
"It is hard to do something if I am not here and willing to participate in it," says James of his personal stake. Nor does James want Reilly, 62, to sell the company, though he admits "that will only last til I die." James, who spoke at length this past week during a visit to his office at Raymond James, notes he is already 12 years older than his father, Bob James, when he passed away.
Reilly, in an interview, says it's been great to overlap in recent years with James and benefit from his experience. No slouch himself, Reilly marvels at James's energy, work ethic and breadth of interests and knowledge.
"He is one of the few renaissance men I know," says Reilly. "He's seen every movie or play; he seems to read every magazine and newspaper. His thirst for knowledge and capacity to read and remember facts is really an incredible gift." Reilly confides that he and James also enjoyed watching the same TV show: American Idol.
Reilly recalls one scene when a manager pushed for the company to sell a highly profitable financial product only to be chastised by James — a stickler for customer-first thinking — for asking the wrong question. "Is it good for the client rather than for the firm?" James demanded. His passion made an impression on Reilly.
"Tom is the spirit of this place," he says. "I think people are confident I can run the firm," he adds, "but everyone is glad Tom is here."
Raymond James has long vied with other Tampa Bay corporations like Jabil, TECO, Outback Steakhouse and Home Shopping Network to see which business might first break out of the pack as the area's most valuable public company. Raymond James Financial has won that race hands down. Its stock market value now tops $10 billion. No one else in this metro area is close in value.
Like most investment firms, Raymond James has suffered some stumbles.
A recent academic paper analyzed the problem of rogue investment brokers, finding seven percent in the industry were disciplined for misconduct ranging from putting clients in unsuitable investments to trading on client accounts without permission. Raymond James ranked with Wells Fargo Advisors and UBS Financial Services among firms with higher misconduct rates. And in 2011, Raymond James agreed to pay back $300 million to its clients to settle SEC claims it misled clients about auction-rate securities — investments that were pitched as safe and liquid but turned toxic during the 2008-2009 credit crisis.
For Tom James, his leadership extends well beyond his company. He's chaired most prominent business groups in this area and in the investment industry. Never one to suppress an opinion, he's been an outspoken board member for several area companies. That includes a past stint on St. Petersburg's Home Shopping Network (now called HSN). Home Shopping CEO and co-founder Roy Speer gleefully tossed James out of two board meetings after he insisted the company focus more and diversify less. Speer, described by James as "a terrible manager but I liked anyway," later begged him to come back.
James was also one of the founding members of the "No Name Group" — a private business gathering of area elites who still meet to find ways to make Tampa Bay a more vibrant and unified economic region.
And James is a major philanthropist who says he still plans to give much of his money away. The James Heart Center at Bayfront Health is there thanks to his giving and ongoing support to the American Heart Association. The Tom and Mary James Museum of Western and Wildlife Art will open in downtown St. Petersburg and showcase some of the best western art from the many hundreds of paintings, bronzes and other objects that James currently displays on the walls of the many buildings that make up the Raymond James Financial complex in the city's Carillon district.
James says not sure how western art will be greeted in Florida, far from western states and the heart of cowboys and Native American art. But he's prepared to support his new museum even if does not break even. "There's a certain amount of risk associated with the museum being here that I might not have in an Oklahoma City," he says.
Interviews with Tom James last long because he likes to talk and teach. And after nearly half a century of management at Raymond James, there's simply a lot to say. This is about the sixth extensive sit-down interview over the decades I have enjoyed with James. He never disappoints.
On the eve of giving up the chairman's title he has held for so long, James suggests all is as it should be.
"I did what I was supposed to do. I got a good team in place. I got a boss of the good team," he says of Reilly. "They understand what has made us successful, and where we have made mistakes. They are not afraid to talk about them.
"And then if I keel over like my father did at 62, the company will do fine."
James looks hearty and sharp to me. Tampa Bay can rest easy. There's an encore ahead for this influential leader.
Contact Robert Trigaux at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @venturetampabay.