Every year, Biz(941) searches Sarasota and Manatee for the change makers and risk takers who will impact our lives and the way we do business. We received hundreds of nominations from our readers over the summer and then asked community leaders to send in their suggestions as well. We were overwhelmed with the quality of nominees this year, and we think you’ll agree that our 2013 People to Watch are exceptionally impressive. While it’s no surprise to find out that our region is home to big thinkers and doers, we see evidence of an improving economy in the bold ideas and energy of the 20 people you’ll meet on these pages.
If your family has owned The Greatest Show on Earth for 46 years, you’re used to superlatives. Still, it’s no exaggeration that the economic future of north Manatee County is being reshaped since Kenneth Feld, 64, CEO of Feld Entertainment—which, with shows like the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus and Disney on Ice, is the largest producer of live family entertainment on the planet—moved Feld’s global production headquarters from Vienna, Va., to Ellenton this year. Feld has invested $25 million-plus in purchasing and rebuilding the 590,000-square-foot Siemens plant on U.S. 301, “and that’s just for now,” he says. When both units of the Ringling Bros. circus are in rehearsal next December, 1,000 employees will be buzzing about the 47-acre campus. The company also is building a new high-tech superhero show here, “Marvel Universe Live,” that will go into rehearsals next May. Bradenton Economic Development Corporation estimates an economic impact over the next
20 years of $2 billion.
Hometown: Washington, D.C.
Former pro basketball player Neil Phillips, 47, has embraced a tall task: to create an all-male charter elementary school to provide disadvantaged youngsters with the educational and social tools to succeed. Phillips, a Harvard grad, Aspen Institute Educational Entrepreneurship Fellow and private school administrator in Bethesda, Md., before moving here with his wife and their two young sons in 2011, is the founder of the Visible Men Academy, which opened in August in Bradenton. Its name is a reference to the Ralph Ellison novel, The Invisible Man. “There are untold stories of success, and we need to see role models who are right before our eyes,” he says. “We spend so much time talking about the challenges, but not enough time talking about what’s working.” Phillips has recruited an impressive board of community leaders. “What we’re doing is important,” he says. “The plan is to one day be running multiple schools, because the crisis demands it.”
Home Country: Jamaica
Drs. Bo Martinsen and Anne-Marie Chalmers
After practicing family and preventive medicine in Norway for decades, husband-and-wife team Drs. Bo Martinsen, 60, and Anne-Marie Chalmers, 59, founded Omega3 Innovations in Venice in 2003. The company develops high-dose, ultra-fresh fish oil products—a tasteless, odorless liquid supplement, and gluten-free fish oil cookies and chocolates. Sales have grown to about $2 million a year online. The latest goal for the couple, who are passionate about the health benefits of fish oil as long as it’s super fresh—“It’s a scandal that people use rancid oil,” says Martinsen—is “to make Sarasota the fish oil capital of the world” by building a fish oil refinery here in 2014 that uses fresh product from Alaska and Norway and advanced technology that will remove impurities such as mercury. The doctors are shopping for sites and investors and say they anticipate increasing sales tenfold (to select stores, spa chains, corporate wellness programs, global pharmaceutical companies and schools) and doubling their staff of 14 once the refinery is up and running.
Martinsen, Oslo, Norway; Chalmers, Seattle, Wash.
Natural foods industry expert Geoffrey Robinson, 47, wants to revolutionize your shopping experience. His four-year-old company, Digital Earth Network, based at the HuB, offers business intelligence to manufacturers, distributors and retailers in the form of current data (how much Aubrey Organics sunscreen did customers buy and in what stores?), software development (especially user-friendly ecommerce and mobile sites) and has a complete video production house that makes commercials for natural foods stores and products all over the country. His software is in 4,000 stores throughout the U.S. and Canada and his accounts are large independent brands such as Barleans, Renew Life, Enzymedica and Nature’s Plus. Digital Earth Network has four employees and sales of about $1 million, but Robinson is testing a new virtual experience that ties to point of sale for consumers that he says will change the retail ecosystem beyond the natural foods industry. “This is a massive project,” he says. “Independents can’t build this, but I can.”
Hometown: Toronto, Canada
Jim Abrams and Terry Nicholson
Franchise whizzes Jim Abrams, 66, and Terry Nicholson, 49, are at it again, this time launching BizZoom, a Sarasota-based private equity firm. Abrams’ last company, Sarasota-based Clockwork Home Services (a franchiser of home services where Nicholson was group president), sold for $183 million in 2010. BizZoom’s first big venture is Fyzical, a physical therapy business that they hope will become “the premier physical therapy franchise in North America.” The pair is building an 80,000-square-foot BizZoom headquarters on Cattlemen Road, where Fyzical’s physical therapy center (incuding a spa, restaurant and fitness center) will be located. By year-end, they want 25 Fyzical franchise locations running in Florida, 150 by the end of 2014, and 1,000 in 10 years. “I believe this world-class team is going to change healthcare as we know it today, and the individuals who have the foresight to fly the Fyzical banner are going to experience success beyond their wildest dreams,” says Nicholson. And that’s not all: BizZoom is working on jewelry, restaurant and fitness projects as well.
Hometowns: Detroit, Mich., Abrams; Monett, Mo., Nicholson
After an extensive 18-month search for a new music director, the Sarasota Orchestra has classical music lovers applauding with the choice of Anu Tali for the role. Tali, a 40-year-old dynamo born in the Republic of Estonia, electrified audiences during earlier appearances as guest conductor here, and her passion for and experience with orchestral music, and ballet and opera as well, have made her in demand around the globe. A co-founder of the Nordic Symphony Orchestra with her twin sister, Kadri, she’s also the recipient of the Cultural Award of her native Estonia. Her first concerts with the Sarasota Orchestra take place Nov. 8-10; Tali says, “I think we’ll be good together—the orchestra and the audience. If there is a good connection between the orchestra and the conductor it is possible to do most anything.” Tali adds another name to the roster of 4,579 full-time jobs the all-important arts and cultural groups provide in Sarasota; in all, the arts pump $180 million yearly into the local economy.
Home country: Republic of Estonia
Serial entrepreneur Jesse Biter, 37, represents the market optimism about downtown Sarasota. A millionaire by his 30s; a player in national, state and local politics; and co-founder of Dealers United (a fast-growing Sarasota-based national auto dealership network), Biter is now a major downtown real estate developer. He remodeled a former bank building that houses his company and Sarasota’s tech incubator, the HuB; snapped up prominent Main Street storefronts; and, more recently, purchased the former United Way building on First Street. His plans for this latest acquisition call for a $40-million, 10-story, 180-unit apartment building that will hopefully attract full-time residents, especially young professionals who can afford the $1,000-$2,000 monthly rents. “Success will be having more people living downtown,” he says, a drumbeat he repeats to everyone he meets. Anything else on the horizon? Says Biter, “I’d like to extend Legacy Trail [Sarasota County's recreational trail] to Fruitville and 301.”
Hometown: Chicago, Ill.
Rob Alfieri and Brian Hovnanian
Two years ago, Rob Alfieri, a Sarasota-based entrepreneur and stand-up paddleboard (SUP) enthusiast, joined the race team for Brian Hovnanian’s HovieSUP, a California-based paddleboard manufacturer. Alfieri soon sold Hovnanian on the fact that 70 percent of HovieSUP’s sales were coming from West Florida. That convinced Hovnanian to open a headquarters in Sarasota with plans for five employees and a showroom as well. (Originally, Hovnanian was going to bring his paddleboard production to a Port Manatee plant, but a better fit for labor and manufacturing lured him to Stuart, Fla.) But Alfieri, 45, and Hovnanian, 56, say Sarasota still offers the best water for paddleboarding, so racing events will bring the sport to our coast. On Oct. 12, Alfieri’s SUPSarasota will host the third leg of its inaugural race series in the bay waters off City Island in Sarasota. The first two races, in June and August, introduced hundreds of out-of-town competitors and fans to Siesta Key Beach and Nathan Benderson Park. “We have so much accessible waterway in this region, I wanted to show the diversity,” says Alfieri. “We’re trying to make Sarasota the official destination: What Waikiki is to surfing, Sarasota is to paddleboarding.”
Hometowns: Cherry Hill, N.J., Alfieri; Los Angeles, Calif., Hovnanian
Some Sarasotans may know her husband, modern architect Guy Peterson, better, but Cynthia (Cindy) Peterson, 55, is also a force on the local and state architectural scene. A certified architectural archivist, she’s currently at the helm of the Elling O. Eide Library (set to open in 2014 in south Sarasota as a center for Asian studies and home to one of the largest private Chinese literature collections in the country). She’s also president of the board of the Center for Architecture Sarasota (CFAS), a prime mover in bringing CityLab-Sarasota, the University of Florida’s Graduate School of Architecture program, to town next year. CityLab will be housed in a William Rupp Sarasota School of Architecture building on Orange Avenue, providing space for UF students who will work on local projects and an opportunity for others to learn about Sarasota’s architectural history through exhibitions and lectures; CFAS is raising $150,000 for renovation. “I’m still in awe that it all worked out so well,” Peterson, who just received the prestigious Florida A.I.A. Bob Graham Architectural Awareness Award, says about the project.
Hometown: Vinita, Okla.
Rectrix Aviation, a jet charter service and fixed-base operator, made headlines earlier this year with the acquisition of the APP Jet Center at Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport, bringing Rectrix’s footprint at SRQ to about 40 acres and 12 hangars. “The business is really taking off,” says Richard Cawley, the company’s president and CEO, who splits his time between Massachusetts and Sarasota. “No pun intended.” Rectrix currently runs an executive flight terminal at the airport, and it is developing a full-service jet maintenance facility as a satellite of a jet repair station in Westfield, Mass., where Rectrix already has a strong presence. “Sarasota’s beautiful," says Cawley, 62, “and getting businesses to go down there is not hard. You just have to have a place to do it.” Rectrix will eventually employ at least 30 people in Sarasota, including technicians, mechanics and pilots. All that’s left is finalizing the permits and paperwork with Manatee County. “That,” he says, “is not for the faint of heart.”
Hometown: Boston, Mass.
As executive director of leasing for Benderson Development, Mark Chait is playing a big role in the growth of the University Park corridor that is going to reshape how people shop, play, live and work in the region. He is working on about 1.5 million square feet of development in the area, including restaurants, retail, office and residential areas—not to mention the $315-million, 880,000-square-foot Mall at University Town Center, scheduled to open late next year. “It’s the only enclosed mall under construction in the U.S.,” says Chait, “and well over 50 percent of the tenants will be new to the market.” Benderson has tapped Michigan-based Taubman Centers to develop and lease the mall, but since the two companies are full partners, Chait, 50, is involved in the approval of tenants on a day-to-day basis. He also helped orchestrate the partnership and legal agreements with Taubman, a role he fits well with his background as an attorney. The work, he says, is all about being a dealmaker: “There’s an adrenaline rush in it, and that’s what drives us in leasing.”
Hometown: Buffalo, N.Y.
Everyone’s watching new Sarasota City of Commissioner Susan Chapman, after a brutal election that pitted her decades-old reputation as a neighborhood-friendly, anti-business and development activist against an opponent who was campaigning for more business and young people downtown. Chapman, known for her indefatigable energy, remains undaunted by her detractors and the challenges ahead. The city is facing a leadership crisis, she says, and, despite her divisive reputation, she hopes to get everyone on the same page. She cites four major issues: pension agreements, vagrancy, a form-based code and public infrastructure. “That’s the hardest part, they’re all presenting at the same time,” she says. Each issue requires a balancing act—city versus county, public versus private, benefit versus cost—and Chapman’s biggest concern is that the commission will allow itself to be distracted. “They all have to be resolved in the next year or two,” she says. “That’s the challenge.”
Hometown: Quincy, Ill.
After more than 35 years working as a hospitality industry executive from New York to Florida, Robert Rosenberg relocated in 2010 from Fort Lauderdale to North Port, where he planned to retire. Fortunately for North Port, his retirement lasted 18 hours. Rosenberg had heard about the nonprofit North Port Economic Development Corporation and got hooked. Now Rosenberg, 66, serves as chairman of the NPEDC, with the goal of kick-starting $270 million to $770 million in new construction and adding more than 1,700 new jobs in the fields of medicine, education and tourism. He wants to make Warm Mineral Springs a local economic engine by extending it beyond the existing 81 acres, launch a Main Street district centered around an educational institution, create a recreational canal walk, establish a retirement center that offers lifetime learning courses, and enhance the Toledo Blade Corridor. And, he adds, “We’d like to see a school of hospitality brought into South County.”
Hometown: New York , N.Y.
Dean Eisner came to Sarasota three years ago after retiring as the president and CEO of Manheim, a $3.8 billion company that leads the world in buying and selling autos at auctions and online. Then Eisner, 55, a full-time Longboat Key resident, tirelessly began working on selling another kind of vehicle, this one to encourage local entrepreneurship by connecting young innovators with mentors and investors to prevent the brain drain of the region’s most talented students and creative people. After presenting the concept to educational institutions, private sector investors and foundations, Eisner finally found the perfect “buyer”: Gulf Coast Community Foundation. With $100,000 in startup funds, the foundation is launching BIG, Bright Ideas for the Gulf Coast, and will be hiring a project director, with an opening date later this year. Eisner will stay involved. “My hope is to alter our image from a retirement community to a community of successful business leaders who foster next generation growth,” he says.
Hometown: Atlanta, Ga.
Sarasota businessman Brian Caswell, 35, runs Cazley Financing Solutions, a private investment company, as well as his five-year-old nonprofit Economic Development Investment Fund (EDIF). This year he moved EDIF into a 6,000-square-foot business incubation facility at 1945 17th St. to provide startups everything from office space and furniture to capital, media and art design, onsite CPAs and loan underwriters, training, and an entrepreneur’s library center. EDIF is funded mainly by Cazley, but is also the administrator of a $265,000 revolving loan fund from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which provides business loans to new and existing microentrepreneurs located in 11 counties in South Florida. EDIF is hoping to close soon on a $1 million loan participation fund with several banks, and is setting up a program-related income loan with a local foundation. To date, EDIF has helped more than 400 businesses with about $1.2 million in funding, provided more than 6,240 hours of technical assistance and created 165 new jobs. “We are Sarasota’s best-kept secret,” Caswell says. “We kind of make dreams happen.”
Hometown: Lilburn, Ga.
Rick Mills, 58, Manatee County’s new school district superintendent, has his job cut out for him. The district’s recent troubles—a $38 million budget shortfall, a lack of planning and transparency, low employee morale—are well known. Mills, previously a school district CEO in Minneapolis, started March 20 and wasted no time implementing a 100-day entry plan to assess the district and map the steps toward recovery. After 24 years in the U.S. Army, he has a reputation for discipline, structural efficiency and strict adherence to budgets. His recovery plan, which aims to increase the district’s reserves from just more than $100,000 to $10.3 million by June 2014, was approved by the state this summer, and Mills says he is optimistic. “We’re not going to turn this district around overnight, because it didn’t get to this state overnight,” he says. “But I’m very confident that we have a structure in place to get there.”
Hometown: Johnstown, Pa.
Dr. Carol Probstfeld
Seven months into her presidency at State College of Florida, Dr. Carol Probstfeld has been steadily moving the institution of 27,000 students—the region’s largest producer of college graduates—away from the controversial tenure of embattled Dr. Lars Hafner. Previously SCF’s vice president of administrative and business services, Probstfeld, 52, has used her 10 years of financial experience and a warm personality to instill confidence in her board, faculty, staff and students so she can concentrate on educational goals. “We want to be able to produce highly qualified students to become employees in this area,” she says. Strengthening ties with the Sarasota-Bradenton community is also a priority, and she immediately reached out to USF Sarasota-Manatee and other groups. She’s also looking to promote the region. “We have a hub of education here, and we haven’t beaten the drum yet to let the rest of the world know,” she says.
Hometown: Whittier, Calif.
Susan Burns, Beau Denton, Ilene Denton, Griffin Guinta, Kay Kipling, Loren Mayo and Hannah Wallace contributed to this story.
Photography by Barbara Banks
P2W BY THE NUMBERS
Number of nominations: 228
Most nominations submitted for one person: 24
Age range of nominees: 35-66
Average age: 53