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  1. Business

Banker Barry Alpert shares tales of business greats who shaped bay area

Talking to longtime banker Barry Alpert is like chatting with someone who palled around with a local version of Frank Sinatra's Rat Pack.

The 71-year-old reflects easily on how business heavy hitters like Jack Eckerd, Gus Stavros, Tom James, Charlie Rutenberg, Nelson Poynter, Chester Ferguson and others shaped the Tampa Bay region. Some are gone, but they remain local legends. Others are still active.

These business executives lived large, took risks and influenced generations. Many became philanthropists and shapers of much of what makes this region distinctive.

Rutenberg, the visionary home builder who would head U.S. Homes and develop the Countryside area of Pinellas County, first lured Alpert to Florida from his native Chicago. Back then, Alpert says, housing communities for people 55 or older dominated the area and he struggled to find a place to live. The leading local department store, Maas Brothers — which became Burdines, then Macy's — did not even carry maternity clothes.

Alpert and Stavros were partners in opening a bank. The two, along with Rutenberg and real estate developer Al Hoffman, pulled off the land deal that, with money from Jack Eckerd, founder of the Eckerd drugstore chain, built Clearwater's Ruth Eckerd Hall.

Clad in his ever-present blue blazer, Alpert recalls the passion and strong opinions of Poynter, who then owned the St. Petersburg Times, now the Tampa Bay Times. "Problem was, Nelson was usually right," Alpert says with a laugh. The self-deprecating, soft-spoken Alpert is a born storyteller who, in this visit, barely scratches the surface of his repertoire.

He gives special leadership credit to Tom James, his boss at Raymond James.

Now Alpert's wondering who will fill the shoes of all those influentials.

"I do not know where the next leaders are coming from," Alpert says. "I suspect by need they will emerge."

Alpert himself is no lightweight. He started and sold insurance companies and banks. In addition to chairing Ruth Eckerd Hall, he helped found the Florida Holocaust Museum and served on the boards of the PBS television station WEDU, the Florida Orchestra, the Tampa Bay Partnership and All Children's Hospital, among other cultural and educational anchors.

Alpert officially ends his 21-year investment banking career at Raymond James this week, saying so long (as he puts it) to the "middle seat" on too many airplane flights in search of new business opportunities. Instead, he will stay "closer to home" near North Redington Beach as a senior vice president of investments with Raymond James & Associates, advising individual clients on money matters.

His chief contribution, he says, is to help clients understand their investing options and to measure their tolerance for investment risk.

"That's what investment advising is all about," he says.

Alpert, whose parents immigrated to Chicago from Russia, stopped by the Tampa Bay Times recently to share a dozen stories. He recalled St. Petersburg's green benches, the Doc Webb variety store and the Suncoast Symphony — which would become part of the Florida Orchestra.

He credits his success to making things happen without seeking credit, and to marrying wife Judith 42 years ago.

On to the next adventure. Says Alpert: "I am the luckiest man I know."

I'm not arguing.

Robert Trigaux can be reached at