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In times of great economic fear, we look to our tried and true leaders and grizzled veterans. And maybe some father figures, too.

Each January in our St. Petersburg Times survey, we pose this question to Tampa Bay's business community:

Whom do you see emerging as the area's top business leaders?

Once again, Tom James, the top executive of the St. Petersburg regional brokerage firm Raymond James Financial, takes top honors. Amid our economic crises, James has spoken wisely and, frankly, Raymond James Financial survives while some bigger Wall Street names have not. In our business and philanthropic circles, James, now 66, remains an A-lister.

Who comes next is a bit unusual: A father and son team. John Sykes, founder of Tampa's Sykes Enterprises, re-emerges after years of quiet because, at 72, he is an elder statesman of the business community and an active philanthropist. Most significant, he's jumped back into the business game by leading an investor group in buying the Tampa brokerage and investment firm, GunnAllen Financial.

Which brings us to the freshest arrival on the leadership front: Charles "Chuck" Sykes. He took the reins as CEO of global call center business Sykes Enterprises from his father in 2004. Sykes was Tampa Bay's only larger, publicly traded corporation to end 2008 with a higher stock price than when the year started. The accomplishment did not go unnoticed or unenvied by his peers.

But Chuck Sykes, 46, literally bursts on the leadership ranks in our survey. On Friday, both Stuart Rogel and Chris Steinocher, executives at the Tampa Bay Partnership regional economic development group, praised Sykes for diving into regional issues (especially economic development strategies) with a strong mix of organization, leadership skills and can-do energy.

Stuart said Sykes fils often can be seen with note pad and pen, taking copious notes on economic issues. Chuck Sykes will chair the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce next year, and is a member of a regional business group looking at potential sites for a new Tampa Bay Rays stadium.

After these big three in this year's survey, we get to the tier of business leaders who are among the rock-steady folks cited year after year. They include Progress Energy Florida chief Jeff Lyash, whose resume ranges from starting a new nuclear power plant in Levy County and (briefly) lowering electricity rates in response to hard economic times to chairing that same regional committee exploring stadium options for the Rays.

Another leader mentioned year after year is University of South Florida president Judy Genshaft. She's willingly chaired area economic development groups here and cemented a bond between a business community, stretching from Sarasota to Tampa Bay to Lakeland, and a USF regional university system. Both groups are striving for better jobs and trying to raise central Florida's economic bar.

Others named in the survey include Baycare Health System chief Steve Mason, Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio and Fowler White Boggs law firm chief Rhea Law. Names briefly mentioned - and here we'll have to see if we see brief moments in the spotlight or true starts of future leaders - are Judy Mitchell, president of Peter Brown Construction in Clearwater; Henry Gonzalez III, a Bank of Tampa executive and current chair of the Tampa Chamber; and Gary Sasso, CEO since 2006 of Tampa's Carlton Fields law firm.

Sasso, 56, is on track to chair the Tampa Bay Partnership in two years. But he's concerned the business community is losing its focus because of our extreme economic trauma.

"It's like an accident on the expressway where everybody slows down and people become paralyzed while driving," he says. "Businesses must keep their focus on the fundamentals."

No less interesting in a survey conducted during tough economic times are some former leadership heavyweights who were not mentioned. They include Outback Steakhouse co-founder Chris Sullivan, ranked No. 1 five years ago.

So who dominated ten years ago? You'll love this.

Top ranked was John Sykes. Followed by Tom James.

Contact Robert Trigaux at