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Their energy brings change to Tampa Bay area

Who made a difference in 2008? Many. These 10 are just prime examples of folks with drive and vision (even if one was grossly misguided) and a willingness to take the business bull by the horns. Kudos to stirring the pot. Many tasks have just begun.

Gerald Hogan, Pinellas Education Foundation: Hogan once ran the Home Shopping Network here, but now he's rallying around a far greater cause: Improving sorry public school graduation rates. It began with a white paper called "A Case for Change in Pinellas Schools" that was floated this year by the Pinellas Education Foundation, a business organization committed to raising the educational bar. The group called for the public school district to adopt a new system that puts principals in control of their schools and relieves district headquarters of the power to impose its will across the system.

In an interview last week, a semi-retired Hogan — a former chairman of the foundation — said progress was being made. But, "we very much have a crisis in our district as it relates to graduation rates." Florida rates, he stressed, are very near the bottom nationally, while the nation itself is just middle of the road globally. New Pinellas school superintendent Julie Janssen is off to a good start, Hogan said, while fall elections brought fresh blood to the School Board. And increasing standardization of "graduation rates" nationwide is helping cull the fluff from hard statistics — especially the low graduation rates for African-American males.

Hogan wants to be diplomatic. The foundation does not want to come across as a pushy "business is always right" group. But it does want to shake the mediocre status quo of a public education bureaucracy.

Remember: The area business community has a vested interest in seeking a larger number of better-educated high school graduates. They are the core of our future work force.

"We're not about to tell teachers how or what to teach," Hogan said.

"We do bring some expertise in how to manage organizations efficiently."

Urged Hogan: "We have a lot of work to do."

Judy Genshaft, University of South Florida president and 2008's chair of the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce: I'm starting to feel like Cary Grant, whose famous "Judy, Judy, Judy" line sure resonates here. Genshaft on another Top 10 list? Well, there's a darn good reason for it. When it comes to economic development, she's a rainmaker.

Who knew that USF would emerge with such muscle from a sleepy commuter school to a regional player? Nobody's going to confuse USF with Harvard or UNC or USC or, okay, even UF just yet. But Genshaft has harnessed a powerful engine in a large public university that's rising in the ranks of academic research facilities — and enjoying the federal grants and related resources that come with a growing reputation and some self-promotion.

Consider the Big 3 wins for the Tampa Bay area: SRI International coming to St. Petersburg; Draper Laboratory expanding to both Tampa and St. Pete; and the M2Gen joint venture between drug giant Merck and the Moffitt cancer organization. None of these would have happened without the direct role and collaboration of USF.

Do not underestimate Judy G. She arrived in Tampa Bay and, consciously or by intuition, filled The Void. Tampa Bay had no powerhouse corporation that acted as the de facto leader of the area business community. Well, it does now.

Lucas Benitez, Coalition of Immokalee Workers: The group seeking to get more money for Florida's tomato pickers had a banner year. It recently persuaded Subway and its 24,000 U.S. stores to match Burger King and pay an additional 1.5 cents per pound. The 4,000-member coalition has no one leader. Lucas Benitez is one of the few who speaks English, which has helped make him one of the more visible faces of the coalition. Earlier this month, Benitez was honored in Manhattan at the Small Planet Fund's annual party and auction. No word if tomatoes were on the menu.

Matt Silverman, president of the Tampa Bay Rays: The worst-to-first Rays are now baseball legend. Off the field, Silverman helped. Early on, he was everywhere. He wooed Tampa potentials to cross the bay to the Trop. He showed Orlando via real-season games played there that they can be fans, too. Silverman also finessed the new waterfront stadium debate by not alienating those against it, and very much keeping the idea alive for further consideration. Not a bad year at all. More cowbells.

Elizabeth Rondon, Eric Franks and Nedra Banks, Lear Corp. workers: They work, for now, at Lear's electronic assembly plant in Tampa. But they're scrambling for new jobs because Lear's pulled the plug on the entire West Waters Avenue facility, to be replaced by a new plant in cheaper Mexico. It's Tampa Bay's reminder the U.S. auto industry's pain runs wide and deep.

Glen Young, vice president of zoological operations, Busch Gardens Tampa: Young was a driving force behind Jungala, the 2008 mini theme park unveiled within the larger Busch Gardens. It's a hit.

Mindy Grossman, CEO of HSN Inc.: Talk about timing. St. Petersburg's old Home Shopping Network, long a cog in Barry Diller's conglomerate, was set free in a spinoff this summer with its own stock ticker: HSNI. Boom. Just in time for the stock markets to tank. Grossman, a tough manager, has been given her own business in the toughest of times.

D.T. Minich, Pinellas County tourism director: Pinellas County is headed for its first down year for visitors since 2002. But Minich kept it from being worse with ad campaigns that attracted more vacationers from Orlando and leveraged Caladesi Island's designation as America's No. 1 beach.

John Ramil, TECO Energy president and chairman of Tampa Chamber's Committee of One Hundred: Ramil is largely credited for the revamp of the committee, its new thinking on how to recruit businesses, and the hiring of Keith Norden as the group's brand new executive managing director. It may be the most important business hire of the year.

Lou Pearlman, former Orlando boy band producer and Ponzi scheme felon now in prison: No way to let Lou escape a final word as Florida's most famous fraud artist sentenced and jailed in 2008. He ruined a lot of investors around here. Now Lou's probably offended that Bernard Madoff's $50-billion Ponzi scheme makes him look like a rookie.

Robert Trigaux can be reached at trigaux@sptimes.com.

Their energy brings change to Tampa Bay area 12/20/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, December 23, 2008 4:51pm]
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