You don’t get to be a top leader in your field if you don’t know how to inspire others. But as a leader, where do you find your own inspiration?
That’s the question we put to three CEOs of small, midsize and large Tampa Bay companies singled out for their leadership in this year’s Tampa Bay Times Top Workplaces survey. Employees praised Thomas Feidnt of Tampa’s Grow Financial Credit Union, Willy Nunn of Tampa home builders Homes by WestBay and Casa Fresca Homes, and John Connolly of St. Petersburg electronic components distributor NAC Group their approachability, their insight and their down-to-earth outlook.
We caught up with Feindt, Nunn and Connolly to find out who inspired the tools and methods they use to earn employees’ respect and grow their companies. Here’s what they said.
The QB of the company
Sports culture is everywhere in the offices of NAC Group, a 115-employee St. Petersburg firm that provides semiconductors and other components to the manufacturers of some of the world’s biggest products.
The conference rooms are named for Tampa Bay’s professional teams. There’s a basketball goal and fitness equipment in a warehouse break area. And John Connolly’s business card, which he hands to every new employee, ends with “TB-199.”
As in Tom Brady, the 199th pick in the 2000 NFL Draft.
“His whole career was about being the underdog,” Connolly said. “Our company is built with a street-fighter mentality, that everybody looked over or passed over us; (we’re) not the Harvard grad or whatnot. So we give out an award every year, the TB-199 award, to the guy that’s got a little bit of grit, or the girl that’s got a little bit of grit.”
Connolly, a former college baseball player, peppers conversations with all types of sports metaphors — MVPs, starting fives, winning championships — as a way of keeping his company focused on teamwork. NAC Group rewards high performers with bonuses and even cars, and has a well-stocked snack room for everyone. And if the company hits a specific weekly sales quota, everyone gets to go home, fully paid, at 3:30 p.m. on Friday. Reach the next level, and it’s 2:30. The next level, and it’s noon.
“I’m just obsessed with creating a winning culture here at NAC,” he said. “I say this time and time again to our employees: the most important thing in any organization drives up to the parking lot every day. That’s the people.”
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The TB-199 award actually predates Brady coming to the Buccaneers in 2020. That’s how much the quarterback’s story means to Connolly.
“Every single day, he’s trying to kill you,” he said. “He doesn’t have to work anymore. He didn’t have to work five years ago. He didn’t have to work 10 years ago. But every year, he figures out a way to be there first, to stay there late, and to continue to figure it out.”
Learning all the way up the ladder
If Thomas Feindt hadn’t started where he did, he might not be where he is today.
Feindt began his credit union career as a loan processer and loan officer. From there he became a branch manager and eventually department head before becoming CEO of Grow Financial Federal Credit Union in 2020.
“I was not one of those young people that was born with a clear definition as to who I wanted to be when I grew up,” he said. “But as I found the value of leadership and the opportunity to make an impact on my team, then I decided that the road to CEO was ultimately what I was shooting for.”
The pandemic quickly pushed Feindt into a new kind of leadership mode, one that required him to manage Grow’s workforce of 563 from afar. He launched a weekly town hall videoconference series to communicate with teams and highlight what they were doing well under difficult circumstances.
Much of what he learned during the pandemic, he said, Grow has embraced permanently. The company now has employees working remotely in 15 states, and the town hall series is still going.
“It’s one of those things we kind of just lucked into, never realizing the real opportunity to use it as a platform in a small amount of time to be very specific with the messages that are shared across the organization,” he said.
Feindt didn’t learn everything on the fly. He points to mentors inside and outside of Grow, as well as local networking opportunities. He participates in leadership training programs like the Center for Creative Leadership and the Credit Union Executive Society, which tap experts from schools like Wharton and Cornell to help executives develop strategic thinking.
All of it augments his experience within the company, and is knowledge he hopes to pass on to other employees.
“Unequivocally, I’m a better leader because of the roles and the experience I’ve had, not just in one part of the house, but in a multidimensional aspect,” he said. “We work on that even here at Grow. We try to create rotational opportunities, and we have our own internal development programs. Especially as you move up higher in the organization, we try to promote that it’s not about knowing one part of the business. It’s about, how do you think about the business as an ecosystem, collaborative across all levels?”
Taking Buffett’s lessons to heart
Willy Nunn always read a lot of books and articles on business. Then one day he saw an interview in which Warren Buffett outlined his nine essential rules for running a small business.
“After reading that article, that was pretty much it,” he said. “I was never going to read another business book.”
It’s worked out so far. The privately owned West Bay Homes and Casa Fresca Homes, a subsidiary focused on building less-expensive houses, surpassed expectations with $450 million in revenues last year, Nunn said. Part of that is due to the ongoing influx of new residents in Florida — Nunn said the company’s out-of-state buyers have tripled since the pandemic.
But part of it may be due to Nunn’s business philosophy. Three of Buffett’s tips are “keep it small,” “keep your focus” and “keep calm in the face of volatility.” With 197 employees, WestBay Homes isn’t small. But Nunn has kept it focused on his company’s core slice of the marketplace.
WestBay employees have equity in the company, and Nunn has no interest in changing that by taking it public. And while Casa Fresca’s launch in 2018 proved to be a huge success, he doesn’t envision expanding to build even more homes at even more price points.
“We focus on execution and what’s in front of us, and understand that the future brings very unexpected scenarios,” he said. “There’s way, way too much effort in business culture on essentially fortune telling to predicting the future, rather than efforts to go into execution, which is what we focus on, which is delivering an outstanding customer experience, and an outstanding team experience for our team members. I think that’s the differentiating factor for us.”
Grow Financial Federal Credit Union
Nearly 70 years after forming at MacDill Air Force Base, Grow Financial Federal Credit Union has more than 200,000 members doing business at 25 locations, including 23 in Tampa Bay.
Employees in Tampa Bay: 547
Employee comments: “Thomas is a very down-to-earth leader that directs the company in very relatable way that fosters trust and inspires the best out of me.”
“He has an open-door policy; he also has the open chat and keeps us all in formed through the town hall meeting and in encourages all to join. He listens and respects our opinions.”
“Thomas communicates his expectation clearly and will answer any questions a team member has. He is not afraid to make bold decisions that may not always be popular.”
Homes by WestBay/Casa Fresca Homes
Homes by WestBay builds new upscale houses in residential developments at price points ranging from $600,000 to $1.3 million. Subsidiary Casa Fresca Homes, which began in 2018, focuses on houses in the mid-$300,000 to high $400,000 range.
Employees in Tampa Bay: 196
Employee comments: “He’s always calm, even in the midst of chaos.”
“Very down to earth but highly intelligent. He understands the business from a micro and macro level.”
“I am surrounded by good people who care. This is the healthiest work environment I have ever experienced.”
NAC Group distributes semiconductors and other electronic components to manufacturers of products around the world.
Employees in Tampa Bay: 115
Location: St. Petersburg
Employee comments: “Ownership treats the employees like gold, provides an environment for success, and genuinely cares about its employees and gives back to them in some cases beyond where it should to show their appreciation for time and efforts being put in.”
“He stands on the righteous rock of the truth. It’s his consistent message of ‘just do the right thing.’”
“I work for a company that, even on my worst day, they have my back.”