Walter Energy, a local touchstone for decades that swelled from a modest home builder into one of the area's biggest public companies, is pulling out of Tampa.
In a decision that caught local economic development officials flat-footed, Walter Energy said Wednesday that it is relocating its headquarters from Tampa to Birmingham, Ala., with a new CEO at the helm.
The departure of what until recently was called Walter Industries signifies the endgame of a process that began when its leaders decided to focus on mining coal and exit the company's onetime core business of home building. Though a fraction of its former size, Walter remains a force, boasting $1.5 billion in revenue in 2008 and 2,100 employees.
Walter spokesman Michael Monahan acknowledged "mixed emotions" about leaving Tampa, the company's home base for 63 years. However, he said, the board wanted to unite corporate staff with the bulk of employees working in Alabama mines.
"Obviously, this company has deep roots in this community. Our employees have deep roots in this community. But going forward, we really feel our future is in Birmingham," Monahan said. "The lion's share (of workers) already are there, and corporate staff is looking forward to joining them."
The Tampa headquarters has 53 employees. Many of them are expected to make the trek to Birmingham, the company said. Walter said it is evaluating sites in the Birmingham area and expects to open its new office there in the first half of 2010.
Economic development officials in Alabama are compiling an incentive package involving tax credits for Walter. The company declined to discuss details until the deal is finalized.
Monahan said there was never an attempt to solicit a counter offer of incentives from Tampa. "That's not what this is about," he said. "We want to be in Alabama. We want to be closer to our mines."
Indeed, the announcement surprised local economic development leaders.
"As far as our committee was concerned, it wasn't on our radar," said local banker Brian Keenan, who heads the Local Business Retention and Expansion group for the Committee of 100, the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce's economic development agency.
Keenan, Tampa market president of Fifth Third Bank, said it was tough to hear of the loss of another corporate headquarters. He blamed the departure in part on the depth of this recession.
"There are a lot of companies out there making tough decisions every day," he said. "Sometimes it helps Tampa; sometimes it hurts the area."
Chamber CEO Bob Rohrlack Jr. said it was disappointing to lose a company with roots as long and broad as Walter's.
"It's an unfortunate reminder that in slow economic times we have to be on our game," he said. "Now we have to guard our perimeter" against other departures. "Florida has been a target state of others recruiting businesses for the past decade or two."
Walter Energy's strong ties to the bay area stretch back to 1946, when Tampa home builder Jim Walter started erecting houses geared toward veterans coming home from World War II.
His story is legend within company walls. At the age of 23, Walter saw a two-line classified ad for an unfinished house selling for $895. He bought it and within three days sold it at a profit. Thus was born a business of selling unfinished houses for do-it-yourself homeowners to complete.
The company's former bridge-shaped headquarters off Interstate 275 was a well-known Tampa landmark for years, until it was torn down in 2004 for the Walter's Crossing retail development. Two years earlier, Walter had relocated to new headquarters near International Plaza.
Over the years, the company diversified into building materials, water pipelines, marble quarries and coal mining. It was part of one of the most drawn-out Chapter 11 bankruptcy reorganizations in history - from 1989 to 1995 - and a central player in asbestos litigation that dogged home builders for years.
A few years ago, the Walter Industries conglomerate boasted sales topping $3 billion. In the 1980s, it had more than 600 employees in its Tampa headquarters alone.
But in recent years, the company's size and focus have both changed radically.
In 2006, it spun off its Mueller Water Products unit, which makes fire hydrants and other infrastructure products, into a new publicly traded company. Along with exiting the home building business, it spun off its mortgage financing business.
In April, the firm rebranded itself Walter Energy, underscoring its core business of mining metallurgical coal, used to make steel. Along with the coal mines, Walter operates a Birmingham-based operation formerly known as Sloss Industries, which turns coal into metallurgical coke.
News Wednesday morning of the planned exodus was simultaneous with the promotion of a new management team. Named chief executive is Victor Patrick, 51, who most recently served as vice chairman, chief financial officer and general counsel. George Richmond, 59, who was running the company's Jim Walter Resources subsidiary, will lead all operating units as president and chief operating officer.
Michael Tokarz will remain nonexecutive chairman.
The CEO post had been vacant since then-chairman and CEO Greg Hyland went to Atlanta in 2006 to run the Mueller spin-off.
In a statement, Patrick said he was looking forward to leading the company. "I'm also delighted at the prospects of having the full team in one location, facilitating our ability to work even more effectively together," he said.
Times staff writer Robert Trigaux contributed to this report. Jeff Harrington can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8242.
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53 Employees at Walter's Tampa headquarters. It employs 2,100 companywide.
$1.5B 2008 revenue
1946 Jim Walter buys, then sells, his first home, laying the foundation for Walter Industries
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Biggest area firms The 10 largest public companies, by revenue, with headquarters in the bay area, based on the companies' most recent fiscal year.*