Today’s economic climate may be better for small businesses than during the pandemic spring of 2020. But with inflation and interest rates rising, and the threat of a recession looming, it’s still not exactly a time of high cotton.
That, said Andy Mayts, is where the Tampa Bay Chamber can help.
“Market conditions, things that are outside of our control, are always going to be there,” said Mayts, the Tampa chamber of commerce’s outgoing chairperson. “But in those times is when the chamber really thrives, because we maintain our base of running a good organization, we still try to be inclusive, we try to be a catalyst for information exchange, and a place where people can continue to do business. So even in times that are uncertain, and perhaps difficult, we’ve seen growth at the chamber.”
On Dec. 1, Mayts, a partner at Shumaker, Loop and Kendrick, will hand the Tampa Bay Chamber’s chair to Brian Butler, president and CEO of Vistra Communications. Butler, for his part, is ready for whatever economic challenges the coming year brings.
“We can’t be caught turning our head all the way backwards and looking behind us,” Butler said. “We just have to take glimpses of that and think about how we trend forward, no matter what the economy does.”
Over a recent Zoom call, Mays and Butler talked about Florida’s business climate, from new residents to equity initiatives to Gov. Ron DeSantis’ fight with Disney. (This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.)
Which economic environment will prove to be tougher for small businesses: the 12 months we just had, or the 12 months upcoming?
Mayts: I wish I knew. We always look at the past as something that we survived and persevered thorough. You can plan for an economic downturn more easily than you can prepare for an unknown, unprecedented pandemic. So I’d say that we’ve persevered, we’ve become stronger through the issues that arose in the past, and I think our businesses are well positioned to continue to have success with an eye on what the future economic outcomes may be.
Can you point to specific ways you’ve seen inflation and interest rate hikes stifle business growth and development in Tampa Bay?
Butler: I serve on the board of a bank, so I follow this in a number of ways. We look at the borrowing potential; we have to watch that very closely. Are businesses going to have access to the dollars to be able to expand? Are they able to continue to acquire? Are they continuing to hire good talent? Talent’s pretty expensive today. People move around a lot chasing additional dollars. How do we stabilize some of that?
Brian, after the George Floyd murder, you wrote an op-ed about your experience with racism and racial profiling. At that time, those issues were being discussed in corporate boardrooms around America. Two and a half years later, do you have a sense of how that conversation has changed? Has it evolved? Has it ebbed?
Butler: On the surface, it looks like companies have started to retract just a little bit from some of the momentum that was going on. But behind the curtain, I believe there are a number of companies doing things differently. We can see that by the number of companies that are sponsoring things like the Minority Empowerment Program and the Minority Business Accelerator program program. We can see that by the number of companies that are deliberately looking for more diverse talent, and talent in their vendor pipeline as well. So there are some things that are different, even though the tune has softened over time.
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Florida’s hailed as a business-friendly state. But the governor has spoken out on his distaste for environmental, social and governance investments, and engaged in a pretty public political fight with Disney. Would you say it’s a good move in this climate for companies to examine and be public about their own ESG initiatives?
Butler: Just looking through my own lens as a business leader, companies have to look at themselves and decide. They have to decide what they want to do, how far they want to go. There are a lot of companies you hear nothing about that are doing great things. And personally, I prefer that than the company that’s beating its drum and not really doing the things that matter the most.
During the Disney uproar, there was a sense that if the governor can start this fight, what’s to stop him or any other public official from picking a fight with a much smaller business? That’s where the chamber might come in, if it’s the sort of business a local chamber might count as a member.
Mayts: We try to stay as apolitical as we can at the chamber. We deliberately do not endorse candidates. We look at issues, and we use our guiding principles to set the pathway for what is important to the business community. So we typically don’t engage in a one-off issue between a member and perhaps a single elected official. That being said, are we ignorant or totally oblivious to issues that are going on? No, but we engage in that in a way that helps the entire business community succeed, rather than in a direct way that can be perceived as being more of a one-on-one type of battle.
Can you give me a couple of development or government projects you’ll be watching closely in the coming year?
Butler: I’m really watching what Moffitt is doing with its expansion into Pasco County and to the south in Hillsborough County. Because when new centers such as those are created, it has a secondary effect of other businesses of a similar nature growing in the same environment. On top of that, I also will be following very closely any and everything we do around transportation and transit.
Mayts: We’re excited to see what continues to come out of Water Street. Obviously, it’s a tremendous amount of growth; we just saw the new Edition hotel open to wild fanfare. We see the airport continuing to grow with new flights; we just had Virgin Atlantic kick off a new direct flight, and that continues to grow our economy. I’m excited to see what happens with the transformation of the areas between downtown and Ybor, and what Darryl Shaw is doing with his projects. He’s contemplating dedicating portions of each of his projects to workforce housing, the arts and other issues. So what we’re going to see in the not-too-distant future is a really full downtown core that’s accessible from Armature Works all the way into Ybor.
Last year at this time, Andy, I asked if you thought we’d have an answer on a new Rays stadium this year. You said you thought the chances were pretty good. What happened?
Mayts: They’re still pretty good. (laughs) I’m just going to leave it with, I think we’ve got chances. I wish I knew more.