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He's a tough and driven leader

He's like a light-haired J.R. Ewing _ firm handshake, deep Southern drawl, big, perfect teeth and piercing eyes. I don't doubt that when you get him in the smoke-filled backroom, he can display some of the other traits of the fictitious, ruthless Texas multimillionaire.

He grew up at the right hand of a man whom many would call the greatest banking mind ever in Florida _ Brooksville patriarch Alfred McKethan, his father-in-law.

And like McKethan, he is good. Real good.

For years, Jim Kimbrough and his family have dominated the political and business scene of Hernando County, operating on a philosophy that what is good for their bank is good for the county. McKethan, now 85, once headed the state road department, and it has been said that he could have been governor if he had wanted. Perhaps. But it is for sure that he and Jimmy have always had the clout to get the governor or most any other Tallahassee bigshot on the phone without having to go through the hassles that block the commoners.

They are the strongest of Florida Gator alumni, which doesn't hurt when you commence to network with the business giants in this state.

It certainly doesn't hurt Pasco County, which is sorely in need of the kind of high-powered business leadership that Kimbrough can provide. He offered a hint of that last week when he brought the prime players in state transportation planning together at the kickoff luncheon for the Pasco Business Development Week.

Don Crane, president of Floridians for Better Transportation, credited Kimbrough for the program that included Ben Watts, secretary of the Florida Department of Transportation; Jim Ely, Florida Turnpike director; and Bill McDaniel, who heads our state transportation district. In a county where economic vitality is not likely to come until there is a high-speed road network carrying traffic to the metro terminals, their optimism about the North Suncoast Expressway was sure welcome.

As I watched Kimbrough in action, it occurred to me that his recent promotion likely means good things for Pasco County, especially if you keep in mind the philosophy he has worked so successfully in Hernando. Kimbrough, who in September added Pasco to his territory as chief executive officer of SunBank and Trust Co., is now in position to believe that whatever is good for his bank in Pasco is good for the county.

SunBank is the Big Dog in Hernando. It does okay in Citrus, which is Kimbrough's northern territory. But in Pasco, it has been a distant fifth with only a 6 percent market share. In Pasco, Barnett is the banking king with 36 percent of the share.

Whether Kimbrough can close ground overnight, he must make the competition nervous. He is a battler, and he knows people in high places.

Just a few weeks before I watched him locking arms with his pals at the Department of Transportation, I marveled at his ability to secure $1,500-a-plate commitments from North Suncoast business leaders supporting the new Ted Williams museum in Citrus County. Kimbrough is a forceful cheerleader in the name of economic development, and he convinced a few hundred folks to pony up for something that will draw the tourists. It will, of course, and in time the museum site may be a Cooperstown south, which, again, can only mean good things for the bank.

Watching Kimbrough dining with Joe DiMaggio, gripping and grinning with Ted Williams and standing on a stage with two dozen sports legends brought home to me just how strong this rural Florida banker has become. He is tough, driven and connected. While he will make his adversaries nervous, he brings to Pasco County a level of competition that can only strengthen the area's political and business standing.

Bill Stevens is editor of the North Suncoast editions of the Times.

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