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Outback executives can still afford to eat a nice meal out

For Outback Steakhouse Inc., 1996 was a good year, but it wasn't quite good enough. And Outback's top executives took a cut in compensation as a result.

Despite a 24 percent increase in net income for the Tampa-based restaurant chain, bonuses for several of Outback's top officers were cut dramatically last year.

"The annual bonuses are based on meeting certain financial targets, and frankly, we didn't meet them," said Robert Merritt, Outback's senior VP, CFO and treasurer, who saw his bonus drop by 66 percent to $50,000. Merritt's base salary meanwhile rose 8 percent to $200,000.

Also affected were Chris Sullivan, chairman and CEO, and Robert Basham, president and chief operating officer. While their base salaries rose for the year to a respectable $280,000 each, the two men saw their year-end bonuses cut by 40 percent. The two had total compensation packages of $400,000 each.

Outback has added 75 new restaurants each year for the past three years and now has 383 Outbacks and 50 Carrabba's Italian Grill Restaurants. Sales at restaurants open more than one year, however, have been down since April.

"We just have to make sure we execute the concept as well as we can on the store level," said Merritt. "We've done some things to the menu, like add entree salads. And we started advertising Carrabba's on TV a couple weeks ago, with positive results. Carrabba's has done well in this area but our challenge is to drive sales in other markets."

Despite a slowdown in same-store sales, Outback does not intend to slow expansion. "We think we can open a total of 650 Outbacks domestically, and then we'll look to other concepts, like Carrabba's, and international growth to take up the slack," said Merritt. "Our goal is to keep our growth and earnings rate at about 20 percent."

_ KRIS HUNDLEY

Hey, wait a minute. Isn't

this where we came in?

A note from the personnel department: David Bussone, who served a turbulent three years as president of Tampa General Hospital, has a new job with an old employer.

Bussone, whose term at TGH was marked by employee layoffs, board conflicts and secret attempts to sell the publicly owned hospital, is now vice president with Quorum Healthcare in Nashville. Quorum owns and manages hospitals nationwide. Before coming to Tampa, Bussone spent eight years with Quorum, managing University Hospitals and Clinics in Jackson, Miss.

Since leaving TGH in late 1994, Bussone had been CEO of two Columbia/HCA Healthcare hospitals in South Florida. Columbia/HCA and Bussone had gotten to know each other well during Bussone's tenure at TGH. The two had held several closed-door meetings about the possible sale of TGH to the for-profit chain, meetings that eventually led to Bussone's departure.

Last week, TGH board members said they intend to vote later this month to take the public hospital private and pursue a joint operating agreement with Tenet Healthcare Corp., Columbia/HCA's archrival and the nation's second-largest hospital chain.

_ KRIS HUNDLEY

Educator/Chamber head can teach us all a thing or two

For years, the annual meetings of the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce were high-brow, hotel ballroom-type affairs for Tampa's business elite.

But in a sign of the continued image change at the chamber under new chairman Ike Tribble _ the group's first black, non-business leader _ plans are being made for its December annual meeting to be held not at the Hyatt or the Holiday Inn, but at a high school.

Not just any high school, either. Tribble and other chamber executives are hoping to hold the meeting at the new Howard W. Blake High School, a magnet school for the performing arts in downtown Tampa.

Tribble is an educator by training who today heads the Florida Education Fund, which provides minority fellowships and promotes minority faculty development at universities and colleges.

Tribble, who took over the 2,500-member chamber at its annual meeting in December, said holding the group's meeting at a high school should be symbolic.

"One of the things our chamber and others around the state have said is that the most important issue is public education," he said. "So I thought we might show our appreciation and concern by holding the next annual meeting at Blake High School."

_ ROBERT KEEFE

The medicine will cost you, but, hey, the ads are free

Catalina Marketing Corp., the company that brought you coupons on the back of supermarket receipts, has a new outlet for its marketing expertise.

For the past year, a Catalina subsidiary has been moving into drugstores and supermarkets with customized newsletters for pharmacy customers.

With Catalina's system, a diabetic getting an insulin drug also gets a newsletter with a story on diabetes and ads for sugar-free cough syrup. A woman getting one brand of prenatal vitamins gets information about the benefits of choosing a competing brand.

More than 50 over-the-counter and prescription drug manufacturers _ including Glaxo Wellcome, SmithKline Beecham and Schering-Plough _ have signed up for Catalina's new direct-to-the-patient marketing effort.

Though St. Petersburg-based Catalina does not disclose revenues from the venture, the company's president and CEO, George W. Off, recently told investors he believes sales could reach $4,000 to $5,000 per store.

While Catalina's health newsletters are now available in 1,100 stores nationwide, don't expect to get one when you fill a prescription in Tampa Bay. So far, it's being tested at just one unidentified retailer in the area.

_ KRIS HUNDLEY

Investors buying into spin

of Florida Progress spinoff

Three months young, Florida Progress spinoff Echelon International is enjoying some uncommon attention.

St. Petersburg-based Echelon, consisting of big real estate holdings and commercial airplane leases, has been selling itself as a serious up-and-comer in the real estate market. So far, investors seem to be listening.

Pitching its vision to institutional investors this month at the Don Cesar Beach Resort and Spa, Echelon attracted so many attendees at the Raymond James & Associates-sponsored conference that it had to repeat its presentation later. Echelon set the conference attendance record, company CEO Darryl LeClair says, when more than 900 folks showed up.

One factor, of course, is that Echelon has a built-in shareholder base. Most Florida Progress stockholders automatically received stock in the public spinoff.

On the other hand, says LeClair _ just back from a trip to Wall Street _ Echelon is starting to attract institutional investors in New York and Boston.

That's one key signal that the company's pitch _ to become a big Southeastern player in the multifamily housing market _ is gaining some credibility. Echelon's stock, after initially selling in the midteens in December, has been creeping up. It closed Friday at $18 a share.

_ ROBERT TRIGAUX

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