You love your bosses—you really, really love your bosses! OK, we know some local workers may be suffering under tyrannical Scrooges or The Office's Michael Scott-type incompetents. But judging by the record number of entries in our 2011 Best Boss competition, they’re in the unfortunate minority. This year, 160 employees filled hundreds of pages enthusing about the inspiring men and women who lead their teams. Many noted the extraordinary skill and leadership required to successfully navigate through troubled economic waters and to keep employees feeling loyal and motivated when revenues are falling and workloads are rising. Our six 2011 Best Bosses surfaced as savvy, passionate and generous employers, and we congratulate them all. Many thanks to all who nominated and to our Best Bosses judges, Lisa Krouse, senior vice president of human resources and support services at FCCI; Ursula Nixon, assistant vice president of human resources at The Zenith Insurance; and Linda Tiffan of T2 Management Consultants.

 

Jeff Manley, President, Koala Tee, Inc.

What we do: Screen printing and embroidery for clothing and promotional products

Years as boss: 15

Number of employees: 23

Mentors: Tony Robbins and his father, Jerry Manley

Best tip: “Get your hands dirty. Get on the production line alongside your employees and show them that you respect the job they’re doing. A team atmosphere is built with all of the players helping out whenever and wherever they are needed.”

Jeff Manley, the president of Koala Tee, Inc., is a hero. For example, in 2001, a tornado hit Koala Tee and took off the roof, flooding the entire building. Manley jumped into action, and kept the business running in a temporary warehouse and borrowed office space. “How do you keep a business running with literally no roof over your head?” asked one employee. “I don’t know how, but Jeff did it.”

“I was working the night shift, and my car was broken into in the parking lot,” says another employee. “Jeff surprised me by offering to pay the deductible so that I could have my car repaired.”

Manley started at Koala Tee, a family business, when his father, Jerry, hired him as a student. “He started me with the worst, dirtiest, nastiest job here—cleaning and re-cleaning screens,” Manley says.

Initially, he didn’t aspire to take over the screen-printing and promotional product company when his father retired. But after graduating from the University of Florida and returning to Sarasota, Manley grew into the role. Today, he operates Koala Tee with his partner, Barry Fox, and his wife, Carmen, who is the top salesperson.

Company revenues were $2.3 million in 2010, up 30 percent from the year before. Koala Tee’s biggest client is the Army Air Force Exchange Service, for whom Koala Tee prints military T-shirts, performance wear, knit caps and polo shirts.

“Most everyone here is blue-collar. We work fun, flexible and fast,” says Manley. It helps the respect factor if you know how to roll your sleeves up and get dirty.”

—Kim Cartlidge

 

Doug Wagner, Director, Adult, Career & Technical Education of the Manatee County School District

What we do: Prepare students of all ages for the work world

No. of employees: 500 in Adult, Career & Technical Education; 20 administrators

Years as boss: 10

Mentor: “My father. He used to say you have to lead by example. If you expect people to work late, you better be working late longer. If you expect people to come in early, you better be here before them. Treat them the way you want to be treated.”

Best tip for other bosses: “Give employees the tools to do their job. It’s not about me; it’s more about what I can do for them. I’m the cheerleader; they’re the ones out there doing it.”

In a climate of budget cuts and teacher bashing, Doug Wagner, director of Manatee County School District’s Adult, Career & Technical Education, is a life line for his employees.

His passion and his tireless pursuit to find money for his teachers and students have kept them focused, motivated and proud, they say, and has helped make Manatee County No. 1 for career and technical education out of the nation’s more than 10,000 school districts in national competitions. In the last eight years, Adult, Career & Technical Education has received more than $53 million in grant funding because of Wagner’s skill.

“My philosophy is, let’s not have a whole bunch of administrators,” he says. “Take that money and give it to the classrooms.”

Wagner will go to almost any length to support field trips, equipment needs, and training for his teachers. Because of Wagner, his employees boast, Manatee County has more industry-certified teachers and students than any school district in the nation.

He’s been in their shoes. Before taking his current position, he worked as both an engineering teacher and a certified mechanic. He was also the state’s Supervisor of Technology Education.

“People are doing great things,” he says, “and if they’re busting their butt I always send a little thank-you card. I bet I’ve sent a hundred thousand cards.” —Graham Clark

 

Rose Chapman, CEO, Jewish Family and Children’s Service of Sarasota-Manatee

What we do: Provide comprehensive, nondenominational social services and counseling, including therapy, family life education, substance abuse prevention, eldercare, at-risk middle school program, food pantry, military assistance, support groups, Alzheimer’s care, home visits

Number of employees: 80

Years as boss: 18

Favorite business book: Good to Great by Jim Collins

Best Tip: From Good to Great, “Get the right people on the bus, the right people in the right seats, the wrong people off the bus, and then we can take the organization to a great place.”

Rose Chapman, the CEO of Jewish Family and Children’s Service (JFCS), took to heart words from one of her first bosses when she began her career in social work.

“When I first entered the field I was pretty young, and my supervisor wanted me to take my first student,” Chapman says. “I didn’t think I was ready. She said, ‘You do good work, and it’s your duty to provide that knowledge to the next generation.’”

Since then Chapman has mentored many employees at JFCS and at USF, where she has been an adjunct professor in the School of Social work for 15 years.

She joined JFCS of Sarasota-Manatee in 1993, when four people did the work in a three-room building on a $250,000 budget. Today, JFCS has a budget of more than $4.2 million, more than 80 staff and a wide range of safety net programs—from homelessness prevention to its newest pilot, focused on supporting Alzheimer’s caregivers. Under her leadership, JFCS was named agency of the year in the $1 million to $6 million category by the Alliance for Children and Families.

Throughout all the growth, Chapman has continued to work hands-on with employees and clients, and her staff says her quiet strength and ability to lead by example are awe-inspiring, especially in an economic climate when so many more clients need food, shelter, drug counseling and medical help.

“Mission is a priority,” Chapman says. “I look for staff who have passion for their work and see it as more than a job.” —Kim Cartlidge

 

David Beesley, CEO, First Step of Sarasota, Inc.

What we do: Provider of addiction prevention and treatment programs in Sarasota, Manatee and DeSoto counties.

No. of employees: 176

Years as boss: 10

Best tip: “Never assume anything about an individual based on appearance. Respect people for who they are and let the relationship evolve.”

David Beesley can counsel a distressed family member of an addict in one moment, speak the language of powerful elected officials in the next and then go bonkers over the New York Yankees and Star Trek. His staff says that sums up their charismatic boss, a man who “loves diversity,” “is always up for a challenge” and “loves a good belly laugh.”

He’s also having success in a difficult arena. With a budget close to $10 million and 176 employees, First Step served 13,556 individuals in 2010. As one of only four addiction-receiving units in the state, First Step has helped 260 pregnant women deliver drug-free babies since 1995 and is the Florida Department of Corrections treatment provider for the 12th Judicial Circuit. “Seventy percent to 80 percent of people in jails or prisons have a substance abuse problem,” says Beesley.

The work is stressful by nature, and Beesley is known to lighten the atmosphere with humor, even by singing and dancing in the hallway.

His own job is a balancing act of Tallahassee lobbying, local community and board work, overseeing operations at multiple facilities and strategically positioning First Step for healthcare reform and advances in medical records technology.

“I give a lot of credit to sports—football and rugby,” he says. “I’d line up against these monstrous people and stick my head down and just play. Today, I focus, put my head down and plow through it.”—Kim Cartlidge

 

Keith Kitchens, Executive director, Suncoast Center for Independent Living, Inc.

What we do: A nonprofit that helps individuals with disabilities live independently

No. of employees: 12

Years as boss: Five

Favorite business book: “I don’t really have a favorite book. Bruce Lee always said: If you go by the book, you never go anywhere. You take what you learn and you apply it to real life, and so you learn from others.”

Best tip for other bosses: “Just be the team leader, vs. trying to be the administrator. Hire the best people you can, encourage them to do the best they possibly can, and give them the tools they need to do that.”

It’s not his title, rank or degree of authority,” wrote one employee about Keith Kitchens, executive director, Suncoast Center for Independent Living, Inc. “It’s that he does the right things for the right reasons.”

And although he’s willing to step in and help when needed, Kitchens is not a micromanager. He believes in the abilities of his staff—at least 50 percent of whom have disabilities—and provides the direction they need to improve their skills.

Kitchens, was hired as executive director in 2006, when “The whole existence of the organization was in deep financial disaster,” he says. Today, Suncoast Center for Independent Living “is well managed and maintained, and our finances are in good shape. We’ve been able to take limited dollars and stretch them,” he says.

His clients have severe physical, mental, cognitive and sensory impairments.

Last year, more than 8,000 hours of service were provided to more than 600 clients by a staff of only half a dozen case workers. That sense of purpose—and Kitchens’ willingness to keep fighting for equality for the disabled in a time of tight dollars—have kept his staff going.

Kitchens makes his employees a part of hiring and wants feedback on important decisions. Everything is about “how we as a team can achieve our vision for OUR organization,” wrote one employee.

Kitchens, of course, chalks up his success to others. “We rely on a great number of volunteers,” he says. “They’re here every day. It’s teamwork and communication with people more than anything.” —Graham Clark

 

Philip Nace Jr., President, Esprix Technologies

What we do: Global provider of high-performance chemistries for multiple consumer goods

No. of employees: 14 in Sarasota, 1 in Massachusetts, 4 in Shanghai, 2 in Mumbai, 1 in Tokyo.

Years as boss: 30

Favorite management book:  Success Through A Positive Mental Attitude by W. Clement Stone

Best tip: “I have a problem today. How can I make the most of it?”

Philip Nace Jr. doesn’t like the word “boss.”

“I don’t hover over people. I hire you for a job, and you do it as long as you get results that are acceptable,” says Nace, whom employees describe as a super-smart, hard-working man of his word.

Esprix Technologies provides performance chemistries for auto manufacturers, chip and circuit makers, digital imaging, textiles and pharmaceuticals. Most of the products are manufactured in Asia or Europe, and Nace travels a good deal of time. Esprix also operates the only independent toner laboratory in North America; its biggest client is Toyota.

Esprix suffered during the recession and saw an eight-month dip in revenues in 2009. Nace sent a company memo, titled “Heavy Weather Ahead,” to prepare staff for his cost-cutting measures.

“While these expected deteriorating conditions may test all of us, if we work together we should be able to save the ship and sail into calmer waters,” wrote Nace.

Esprix employees took five percent and 10 percent salary cuts in 2009. In 2010, Nace paid them the money they had lost, and by end of 2010, their salary levels were restored. Employees weren’t surprised. Known for his fairness and intensity, Nace had promised to pay them back in better times. Revenues increased to $14 million in 2010, and Nace projects additional growth in 2011.

“Be honest, be straight. Don’t pull punches,” says Nace. “Honesty is always the best policy, with your customers, and especially with your employees.”—Kim Cartlidge

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