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Tampa Bay's top business leaders inspire employees

At Tampa's Kforce, St. Petersburg's American Strategic Insurance (ASI) and Tampa's St. Mary's Episcopal Day School, you can sense a business version of the Lake Wobegone effect. That's a reference to Garrison Keillor's fictional town where "all the children are above average."

Amid these three business cultures, all employees are superior. The companies hire smart, work hard and play harder. Most of their workers tend to be rewarded in pay or perks, in promotions or at least in praise, for typically outperforming competing companies.

That "you're special" message is a big reason why the top executives at these three firms stood out for outstanding leadership in the 2012 Top Workplaces survey. With Tampa Bay crawling out of a deep recession, executives who garner enough employee loyalty to win leadership awards bear some scrutiny. What's their secret?

Kforce CEO David Dunkel won in the survey's large company size. While the media-shy Dunkel declined to be interviewed about leadership, his employees apparently like what they see, according to our annual workplace survey results. Fortunately, Dunkel speaks often to investor groups, analysts and C-12 — the Tampa Bay chapter of Christian CEOs where he is a member — to glean insights of what matters to him.

ASI CEO John Auer is the first executive to repeat as a leadership award winner (he first won in 2010) for the mid-sized business category. He explains that business environments may change but leadership principles do not.

"I recall a (former Florida State University football coach) Bobby Bowden quote when somebody asked about the quality of coaches," Auer says. "He basically said the team with the best players wins despite who the coaches are."

It's vintage Auer. He is part of a leadership team, he says, whose job is to explain to the company what is "critical to succeed and what we need to be doing."

In the small business/organization category of leaders, Scott Laird wins as St. Mary's headmaster. Remarkably for the third straight year, St. Mary's is the top workplace among small organizations. No other company can claim that level of success.

Each of these executives has created a winner mentality in the workplace. Each company lavishes attention on their employees. Some use mentors to make sure newcomers get up to speed quickly (and to monitor those not cutting it). Some use team approaches to get jobs accomplished. Some, like St. Mary's, assure teachers get the best classroom equipment and access to top continuing education opportunities.

It's not quite Hogwarts. But as St. Mary's teacher Lori Jungers told a Times reporter, "It's just a magical place."

At Kforce's campuslike setting, a young, go-getter workforce often celebrates staffing and recruiting victories. The publicly traded company also emphasizes community involvement — what Dunkel calls "stewardship" — as shown by Kforce's recent commitment of money and staff hours to help Tampa's Hope Children's Home for abused and orphaned kids.

The company slogan sounds like one Tampa Bay Rays manager Joe Maddon might endorse: Great People = Great Results.

Contact Robert Trigaux at

ASI's John Auer wants positive attitudes

John Auer, 58, CEO

of American Strategic Insurance, a residential and commercial insurer based in St. Petersburg.

Employees: 261

What employees say about him: "A humble visionary who believes in us employees and gives us credit for doing a great job." "Keeps the company ahead of the pack." "Very clear in explaining what is important to ASI, the direction the organization is going, and the reasons why certain decisions are made."

How he tries to lead: Auer's a repeat winner in the Top Workplace award for leadership, having won in the Times inaugural 2010 survey. He's not big on being in the spotlight but he is big on the right employee vibe. "Positive attitude" is the foremost attribute sought when hiring. One of Auer's biggest challenges? Figuring out how best to thank his employees.

Best detail: ASI stands for American Strategic Insurance, but employees prefer to think it stands for "Attitude, Speed and Innovation." ASI also rewards physical activity. Its gym membership reimbursement program pays employees back — but only for

regular attendance. Team-building activities range in recent

years from white water rafting and canoeing to hiking. This

year, ASI is taking it easier, probably with an employee cruise.

Scott Laird makes St. Mary's

'fun, free-thinking, fulfilling place'

Scott Laird, 55, headmaster of St. Mary's Episcopal Day School, a private school in Tampa

Employees: 56

What employees say about him: "Most definitely an out of the box thinker. He does not shy away from seeing to the smallest details . . . makes St. Mary's the fun, free-thinking, fulfilling place that it is." "Always looking to improve, never content with good enough."

How he tries to lead: "Schools should be a fun place. Our greatest responsibility is to instill a love of learning and an appreciation for the educational experience in every child in our community," Laird states. He also counsels teachers to appreciate the "emotion" factor when dealing with the parents of students.

Best detail: The New Jersey native is a self-described "devoted fan of the New York Giants and the New York Mets" but don't hold that against his leadership talents — too much. He's okay with the Rays and Bucs, certainly since Bucs ex-coach Jon Gruden in 2003 (whose kids then attended St. Mary's) took the football team to a Super Bowl win. But Laird supports his staff. Every classroom teacher and staff member has his/her own computer. All teachers have interactive SmartBoards (hardly the case in area public schools).

Kforce workers say David Dunkel communicates

David Dunkel, 58, chairman and CEO of Kforce, a staffing and outsourcing firm based in Tampa.

Employees: 2,200, and 10,600 "consultants" (temporary staffers placed at clients' businesses).

What employees say about him: Praise for his open communications, ability to inspire. "He keeps Kforce moving progressively in the right direction, which enables us to hire and retain talent." "Someone that is demanding when times need and someone you can still approach and say 'Hi' to."

How he tries to lead: With an entrepreneurial spirit. He's also a long-time member of C-12, an area "Christian leadership" development organization. "Be bold," Dunkel say on a C-12 video. "As I've found, the more bold I've been, the more God has rewarded me."

Best detail: Company's campuslike headquarters and location on edge of trendy Ybor City draws young workers willing to work the phones to match best temp staffers with corporate client needs. In November, Kforce teamed up with the Feeding Children Everywhere organization and several local sponsors to participate in a food packing event to provide 250,000 meals to children in Africa.

Tampa Bay's top business leaders inspire employees 04/27/12 [Last modified: Friday, April 27, 2012 7:32pm]
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