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The headhunter suggests finding six to eight applicants. Three would be best, he is told.
Published Jul. 2, 2010

An executive headhunter hired Thursday said he could return in 90 days or less with a short list of candidates to replace Louis Miller, who abruptly retired in February as Tampa International Airport's executive director.

The Hillsborough County Aviation Authority board unanimously agreed to pay Spencer Stuart International $70,000 plus expenses to find a handful of qualified aviation professionals. Michael J. Bell, a Miami-based partner who will lead the search, said the job will attract a lot of interest.

"This is a decent-size airport, one that's growing in a growing part of the country," he said. Airport directors like to build facilities and launch new services. The first question candidates typically pose, Bell said, is "what am I going to get to do there?"

Like many airports, Tampa International has struggled with declining passenger traffic amid the economic downturn. That pushed back plans for a new $1 billion terminal complex to well past 2020. The complex was originally set to open in phases starting in 2015. Still, the region should see above-average growth, Bell said.

Board member Joseph Diaco balked when Bell suggested submitting an initial list of six to eight names the board could whittle down to a finalist and some backup choices. "I'd prefer you narrow it down to three top-notch guys," said Diaco.

Only two men, George Bean and Miller, have run the airport since the mid 1960s. Miller was sailing smoothly through his 13th year in the job when two new members - Diaco and Tampa lawyer and Republican fundraiser Steve Burton - joined the board last year.

Miller balked at Burton's push for a panel, chaired by himself, to oversee marketing new international routes from Tampa. Board members later criticized Miller's plan to raze the former Continental Airlines reservations center and his handling of variances for buildings that exceeded federal height limits.

He submitted a resignation letter Feb. 24, saying he had accomplished his goals and wanted to explore other career opportunities.

John Wheat, Miller's deputy at Tampa International and earlier in Salt Lake City, has served as interim executive director since March and told board members he wants to compete for the full-time job.

Steve Huettel can be reached at or (813) 226-3384.