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Innovative work space helps St. Petersburg tech company lure talent

ST. PETERSBURG

One of the latest corporate relocations to town didn't land in a tall office building with marble floors, a glass elevator or concierge services. And the employees aren't toiling away in cubicles or corner offices with views of Tampa Bay.

The 50 people working at GeniusCentral software developer sit at desks made of metal and plywood, on lime green and orange pillows and inside a 1957 shiny, silver Spartan brand trailer.

Their 17,000-square-foot warehouse in the Warehouse Arts District on Fifth Avenue S offers no exterior views, though mattress springs painted blue emitting light are intended to simulate clouds.

"This type of atmosphere is so conducive to creativity and what we do," said Holly Michael, human resources administrator with the company.

GeniusCentral's walls are covered in murals created by local artists. One side of the second floor depicts the progress of communication with cave drawings, Egyptian hieroglyphics, Leonardo da Vinci and mathematical formulas. The images are carved, not painted, into concrete walls. Then, there's the pointillism portrait of Steve Jobs, the Warholesque painting of Mick Jagger and an ode to Mozart made from pieces of old pianos.

GeniusCentral has no cubicles and very few interior walls. Employees make private calls at phone booths painted with the British flag. They eat in a break room with an industrial-sized refrigerator and booths from diners. They burn off stress and build camaraderie playing table tennis, cornhole, shuffleboard and cards.

Innovative work spaces such as this are prevalent in tech hubs like Silicon Valley. Facebook is teeming with original art on elevator doors, walls and floors. Google has scooters, slides and Legos.

But the trend is spreading. Technology giant Citrix recently opened a regional headquarters in a Raleigh, N.C., warehouse that includes a two-story living wall with hundreds of plants, a yoga room with heated bamboo floors and a state-of-the-art gym. In downtown St. Petersburg, online travel insurance company Squaremouth has a billiards table, napping room and keg with local beer on tap. Employees don't have assigned desks. They sit on the floor, on sofas, at tables or on the balcony with their laptops.

Are nontraditional workplaces becoming the new standard in the tech industry?

"I think they are, for those companies that are progressive," GeniusCentral CEO and president John Miles said. "I think more companies are realizing you need to put employees in an environment that's going to make them comfortable and productive."

The average age of GeniusCentral employees is about 31, he said, but added people of all ages really like the company's vibe and surroundings.

"There are a lot of opportunities for everybody to step away and take a breath," said Kelly Rubash, marketing coordinator. "We have a lot of coders looking at a screen all day. It's nice for them to have a chance to get their eyes and mind on something else for a little while."

GeniusCentral designs software for natural food retailers, such as Richard's Whole Foods, and the eight leading distributors in the industry. It can track inventory, sales, customers' buying habits and much more. It also sells advertising from distributors to retailers on the network.

The innovative workplace isn't just for luring and keeping talented employers. Potential and current clients are impressed when they walk in the doors, Miles said. Since GeniusCentral caters to stores selling organic and healthy foods, the design and principals of the office are in line with the philosophy of many clients, he added.

The majority of the interior building materials, furnishings and decor is repurposed.

"When we got bids, it was going to take about $500,000 to (furnish) this place new," Miles said. "It ended up costing about $75,000 by using repurposed furniture."

Metal for the desks were found in another building owned by landlord Phil Farley. Chairs made from barrels, the 1950s television in the lobby and other unique pieces came from Brocante Vintage Market, which also is in the warehouse district.

Miles declined to say how much money Central Genius or Farley spent renovating and furnishing the offices. Farley paid more than the software company, he said, including the cost of adding air conditioning.

If you repurpose it, more will come

GeniusCentral's innovative warehouse goes beyond benefitting the company itself. It's an example of the potential of St. Petersburg's Warehouse Arts District. The enclave around Fifth Avenue S and 22nd Street consists of numerous buildings waiting for tenants. There are already some successful residents.

Artists Duncan McClellan and Mark Aeling have popular galleries and studios. Other tenants include T2theS custom furniture maker and St. Petersburg Distillery, which makes liquor under the brand of Old St. Pete.

Farley, a real estate investor, owns several buildings in the district, including the empty warehouse next to GeniusCentral. It is envisioned to become an incubator where startups could lease small spaces at low rates while they get their businesses going, Miles said.

GeniusCentral already leases about 750 square feet to two startups.

St. Petersburg's growing tech community is one factor that attracted GeniusCentral to move here from Sarasota. The 16-year-old company's board decided more than two years ago it needed to relocate to a city closer to a major airport and more attractive to millennials, the largest pool of technology talent.

It considered Dallas, Boulder, Colo., Los Angeles and Tampa Bay. When Miles, a former CIO for Dell Computers, joined the company in July 2014, the choices were narrowed down to Tampa or St. Petersburg.

"We couldn't find anything like what we wanted in Tampa except near Ybor City," he said. Of the 50 employees, about 35 are commuting from Sarasota and 15 are St. Petersburg hires. The company hopes to employ 100 people within three years.

Mayor Rick Kriseman praised GeniusCentral's creative workplace and its fostering of new startups.

"They are doing what we want to see happen" in the Warehouse Arts District, he said. "Our traditional definition of 'industrial' is not what it used to be. Our definition of 'the arts' isn't necessarily what it used to be."

Contact Katherine Snow Smith at kssmith@tampabay. Follow @snowsmith.

Innovative work space helps St. Petersburg tech company lure talent 09/24/15 [Last modified: Thursday, September 24, 2015 10:28am]
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