by Kim Hackett

Photography by Alex Stafford

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“There will be little need for real estate if you are not focused on education, the airport, the hospital and all the things that make people want to live here.”

OVER THE LAST THREE DECADES, KERRY KIRSCHNER has been involved in almost every major civic and business issue in Sarasota, either as mayor of the city of Sarasota or as head of the nonprofit Argus Foundation, a champion of Sarasota business. Last December, Kirschner stepped down as Argus’ president, handing over the reins to Sarasota County Commissioner Christine Robinson.

Kirschner, 68, a Georgetown University graduate and former classmate of President Bill Clinton, grew up in Bradenton and worked in international marketing for several consumer product companies including Schering-Plough, Revlon and Frances Denney. He returned to Sarasota in 1976, purchasing Blue Heron Fruit Shippers, and then forming Bayshore Consulting, a brokerage that specialized in taking companies public.

Kirschner served on the Sarasota City Commission from 1985 to 1991, serving two terms as mayor. He then worked at Mote Marine before coming to Argus in 1993, when it was in turmoil for trying to get county administrator John Wesley White fired. Kirschner is the father of four, including former Sarasota Mayor Kelly Kirschner, who is now a dean at Eckerd College.

I’m not retiring, I’m redirecting. I had a radical mastectomy last spring. It was a wake-up call. There are things to do in life other than work. I’ve got some trips to explore with my wife, including Cuba.

Recognize you don’t know everything. When you are trying to find consensus on a difficult issue, you have to have a reasonable conversation that is not

accusatory.

When I came on board at Argus, it was very focused on real estate development. We needed to be more broad-based. I told the board, there will be little need for real estate if you are not focused on education, the airport, the hospital and all the things that make people want to live here. The membership changed and the organization changed as the YMCA, Goodwill and other groups came on board.

Success is never final and failure is never fatal. One of the biggest mistakes I made in my business life was to get involved in the computer business. It was in the early ’90s and Bayshore Consulting had taken over a company that remarketed mid-range IBM computers to Fortune 500 companies. The computer company’s owners had gotten into legal trouble, so we stepped in. We were dramatically successful, growing it from $3.5 million in sales to $60 million in 18 months. We had 200 employees and multiple offices. Then IBM changed how they wanted to do business. They just picked up the phone one day and said, “We don’t want to sell to you.” And there was nothing we could do. The company went downhill fast. I would go to the end of my drive to get the newspaper and there would be another sheriff’s deputy with legal papers. It was a mess; we were in the middle of merging with another company and they were suing us. Banks were suing us and then because one of our subsidiaries did not pay taxes, the IRS froze my personal accounts. It took five years to clear it all up.

If you can draw a great amoeba, be a medical illustrator, not a doctor. I realized I had no business being in that business in the first place. I came to the conclusion that you have to be in businesses you know. And you need to do things you are comfortable doing.

I like the saying by investor and author Jimmy Rogers, “I cannot invest the way I want the world to be; I have to invest the way it is.” That’s why people with good ideas do not always prevail.

The development of Sarasota is an ongoing conversation that will never end. What disappointed me in revisiting the 2050 plan were the inflammatory remarks. There were people who had a lack of knowledge and a lack of engagement making inflammatory remarks about the motivation behind the changes. We have had responsible development over the years. Look at Lakewood Ranch and Palmer Ranch―both have been successful developments. Building east of I-75 was too restrictive and it led to a proliferation of five- and 10-acre “martini ranches” that did not help the county. It’s not that we want to pave over paradise.

I’m a glass-half-full guy. Most people have ups and downs, but you can’t let situations get you down. You can’t think that you cannot do something. I’ve had times in my life when I thought I was on the verge of financial disaster. I had to tell myself, “We have no debtor prisons; I’ll come through this.” It really helps to control your mind.

Sarasota has grown up pretty well. I grew up here, and in the 1940s, U.S. 41 was a two-lane road. You’d drive into Sarasota and it smelled like rotten eggs. It’s a lot different population-wise but the community has done a good job of keeping the charm. No one comes to Sarasota for purely economic or familial reasons; they come here for a way of life.

We’re improving at attracting and keeping young people, but not enough. That’s what forced me out of here after college; there was not much for young people. With telecommunications, we are starting to get people who don’t physically have to be some place. We have to recognize that the people we need to attract are not heavy manufacturers.

People don’t like change; often they can’t see a future past the present. Change is just the way of the world. Life is a continuum. ■

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