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Tampa Chamber: Accentuate the positive

In an ailing economy, a mass hiring is welcome news. So it was when Citigroup Inc. recently said it would hire 500 to 700 bay area workers over the next 12 months to staff a new credit-card call center.

But the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce's news release boasting about the jobs had a few omissions.

The two-page document had no information on how much the jobs would pay. (Starting wages will range from $9.75 to $11 an hour, Citigroup spokeswoman Maria Mendler said Friday.) Nor did it mention that the new jobs won't make up for the roughly 1,300 positions that have been eliminated at Citigroup's Sabal Park campus in Tampa over the past two years.

Chamber executive director Kim Scheeler says it's up to the employer whether to divulge wage information. And while job retention, like job creation, is part of the Chamber's mandate, Scheeler says he doesn't feel obliged to mention layoffs.

"Part of our job is to cheerlead, and we're not about to make a big deal about job losses," he says. "It's not like we're the marshal for whatever happens to every company in the area. . . . I don't get phone calls from companies saying, "Hey, we're going to lay people off.' "

_ SCOTT BARANCIK

Want fewer phone bills? It will cost you

Telephone bills aren't just a way for phone companies to inform you of your monthly charges. They're also a convenient place to stash glossy ads for optional services.

That's why major long-distance carriers such as AT&T, MCI and Sprint all began sending separate bills to their customers last year or earlier this year. (You can still get your long-distance charges included on your local phone bill but now you have to pay $1.50 a month for the privilege.)

The fact that Verizon and other local phone companies are increasingly becoming competitors in the long-distance market gives long-distance carriers an added incentive to keep their bills separate. But Verizon has just launched a new consolidated-billing option that may help counter this trend.

Verizon's customers in Florida can now sign up for a free monthly bill that includes their local phone, long distance, wireless and DSL Internet charges _ but only if they use Verizon and Verizon Wireless for all of those services. Customers who use AT&T, MCI or Sprint for long distance will still have to pay those companies a $1.50 fee every month to have their services on the Verizon bill.

_ LOUIS HAU

Road trip's goal to assure Tampa Electric employees

Tampa Electric Co. president John Ramil and TECO Energy Inc. chairman and chief executive Robert Fagan hit the road last week to begin a series of visits with Tampa Electric's approximately 2,700 employees.

They're trying to rally the troops amid uncertainty in TECO's wholesale power business. While Tampa Electric has been doing well, it hasn't been immune to parent TECO's troubles. About 130 Tampa Electric employees were told last month that their jobs were being eliminated as a cost-cutting move to help the parent company. And the recent plunge in TECO's stock price has hit employees because the company matches individual contributions to its 401(k) plan with TECO stock.

Although Fagan visits company sites, the current road trip is the first to include all of Tampa Electric's power plants, dispatch centers and other locations since a tour he made shortly after becoming chief executive in 1999, TECO spokeswoman Laura Plumb says.

"It's just adding some additional perspective to the news and information that has been published over the past few months," Plumb says.

_ LOUIS HAU

Washers, dryers and Wal-Mart

Circuit City got out of the home appliance business two years ago. And Roberds went out of business. Now Wal-Mart thinks it can turn a profit selling refrigerators, stoves, dishwashers and dryers.

The world's biggest retailer is quietly testing a large appliance center inside the main entrance at a Wal-Mart on U.S. 19 in Clearwater.

The small store-within-a-store stocks GE appliances, mostly in the low to moderate price range. The selection of 10 refrigerators, for instance, runs from $357.62 for a 17.6-cubic footer to $1,096.92 for a side-by-side with an icemaker. Delivery costs $29.97 and haul-away service for old appliances runs $15.

All 250 large appliances that GE markets in any price range can be ordered over an in-store computer kiosk.

"We deliver to most every ZIP code in the country within four days," manager John Kuras said. "I've had snowbirds buy appliances they had delivered to homes in North Carolina, Virginia and Michigan. We match anybody's price."

After opening outlets in more than 100 Wal-Marts around the country, the discount chain has whittled the appliance center list down to 68 stores. One in Tampa closed last month.

"But we are still committed to learning the business," spokeswoman Melissa Berryhill said. "We opened four new locations this summer."

Unworried is Al Greco, president of Apsco Appliance Centers, which had revenues of $19-million in 2001. "Like Home Depot, they're using contractors to do all the delivery and service," he said. "They don't understand the business."

In Greco's 30 years in the brutally competitive Pinellas County appliance market, he counts 92 appliance stores that have come and gone.

_ MARK ALBRIGHT

Southwest's plastic boarding passes not gone

Maybe they're forgotten, but those plastic Southwest Airlines boarding passes aren't really gone. And they won't be any time soon.

Southwest retired the numbered cards last summer, replacing them with computer-generated paper passes.

The plastic passes, which dated to airlines's beginings 31 years ago as a tiny carrier inside Texas, had become a cultural icon to customers accustomed to boarding planes Southwest-style: open seating but with the passes allowing groups of passengers to board depending on how early they checked in.

But the passes outlived their usefulness. Customers could get them only at gate podiums, requiring them to wait in yet another long airport line. And post-9/11 security rules require the passenger's name on a pass so the gate agent can match against a photo ID.

Southwest marketers concocted various plans to give away or destroy the plastic passes _ until an airport operations executive pointed out the federal government requires a backup system if the airline's computers crash.

So Southwest kept tens of thousands of the passes under lock and key at the 59 airports where it flies.

That paid off one recent Friday afternoon. A lighting strike at Southwest's data center in Dallas knocked out every company computer, from desktops to ticketing computers. Gate agents across the country broke out plastic passes and kept passengers moving onto planes.

Southwest is serious about holding onto its backup stock.

In the last days of plastic passes, agents caught passengers trying to make off with them as souvenirs. At a lunch for financial analysts this month, chief executive James Parker chided guests to return passes they'd slipped from the centerpieces into their pockets.

_ STEVE HUETTEL

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