Just when we started to see a little daylight in the economic clouds, the jobs picture darkened again as Florida reported losing 22,000 jobs between June and July.
Yet some companies are hiring, expanding robustly in the Tampa Bay market. How can this be? Are they big risk takers? Or just nuts?
I prefer to call them smart opportunists. They are businesspeople in the right place at the right time with the right product or service.
Consider four very different companies that recently announced plans to hire more people here. Two — Xcelience and Savtira Corp. — are entrepreneurial firms in Tampa. Combined, they are adding more than 300 above-average-wage jobs to our regional economy. Two others — health care service provider Humana and big bank JPMorgan Chase — are national giants in their industries. Together, they're adding at least 400 positions now, but in the past year they have hired more than 1,000. They say there's more to come.
In interviews, top executives at each of these companies offered fresh insights into why they want to grow now, despite such rough economic times and the threat of another downturn.
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Xcelience CEO Derek Hennecke runs a small firm, founded in Tampa, that helps pharmaceutical companies and biotech firms accelerate their drug products from development stage to market. Hennecke's firm said it will add 45 jobs, including openings for chemists, that will more than double the firm's workforce. Why? Because small biotech firms that had cocooned themselves during the worst of the recession are now back trying to get more drug products to market. And they want this company's assistance.
On average, it takes a whopping $800 million to get a drug to market in a process than can take as long as 10 years. Big and small drug companies are turning to firms such as Xcelience because they can help compress the time and cost of getting a new drug from the development stage, once animal testing is over, straight through clinical trials with people.
"What's good about Tampa is that we have a very loyal labor force," Hennecke said. In this line of work, "it's important to have people who have worked together a long time."
To its client drug companies, then, Xcelience is a cost-cutting and productivity tool. That's important. We'll hear a similar theme with some other companies.
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Mel Martinez, a former Florida U.S. senator, now waves the flag for JPMorgan Chase, where he serves as the megabank's chairman of Florida, Central America, Mexico and the Caribbean. The hiring surge in Florida, he said, reflects a simple strategy. Chase Bank was not very big in Florida and, along with its presence in California, the bank wants to build up its presence here quickly — even in this slow economy.
"At a time when other financial institutions are retrenching, it's a wonderful time to grow our business in Florida," Martinez said.
Since 2009, after Chase bought the branches of Washington Mutual, the institution has added 4,000 workers in the Sunshine State. It plans to add between 500 and 1,000 jobs annually over the next several years.
In the Tampa Bay area, Chase already employs 5,000. It announced plans to add 30 auto loan collectors to pursue bad debts but also hire another 180 to staff its expanding branch network. Martinez says this pace will continue for a while.
"We are not near our saturation point."
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At health service provider Humana, Dr. Scott Latimer, Central Florida senior products market president, makes a convincing argument that hiring more people in Tampa Bay now can save his company money in the long run.
Humana has added about 900 jobs in Tampa Bay in the past year. This summer, it's been hiring at its Tampa telemarketing operation, as well as at its Humana Cares operation in St. Petersburg, where nurses and social workers work by telephone with Humana's most fragile seniors.
The idea, Latimer explains, is that if Humana can provide preventive steps to help its patients avoid pricey hospital stays, then the patients win by staying healthier. And Humana wins by avoiding expensive hospital costs.
Humana's adding 200 jobs to its national Medicare service and operations center at NetPark by the end of September. Humana Cares added more than 200 jobs this year. And the company's national telesales call center at NetPark recently completed hiring 150 employees for this fall's Medicare annual election period, which starts Oct. 7.
Why expand in Tampa? According to Latimer, Humana's telemarketing arm is able to find plenty of strong employee candidates with experience at other established telemarketing operations here, including JPMorgan Chase. On the St. Petersburg side, Humana's found a good supply of nurses and social workers, mostly from this market.
"Knock on wood, we hope to grow more here," Latimer said. For Humana, Tampa Bay is its No. 1 growth market when it comes to adding jobs.
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Tim Roberts, CEO of "cloud commerce" firm Savtira Corp., is so busy he resembles an executive sipping water from a firehose. His business — getting retailers and other companies set up with e-commerce systems on Savtira computers to better handle customers online — is positively booming.
That's why Savtira said it will more than quadruple its staff by adding 265 mostly technology workers by the end of 2012. Average wages will top $80,000. That pace of growth will spur company executives to relocate to downtown Tampa from their current offices in Ybor City.
Disruption from digital change is coming fast.
"Almost every industry we see is being turned upside down," Roberts said. "It does not matter if you are a print publisher or retailer or a broadcast syndicate. All are being disrupted like nothing I have ever seen before. Companies are racing to reinvent their digital and commerce strategies."
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Four businesses with aggressive hiring plans in rough times are surely bucking the norm. Their hiring numbers alone will not bring down the state's rising jobless rate. But there are some lessons here.
Companies such as Savtira or Xcelience that help business clients save money or improve their own quality of service can find themselves in big demand even in Florida's challenged economy. And national players such as Humana and JPMorgan Chase that have the financial muscle and longer-term strategies to hire now are aiming for bigger payoffs later.
They are part of a small but solid core of companies expanding right now in Tampa Bay. Perhaps they can inspire a few others to test the hiring waters.
Robert Trigaux can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.