Movers & Shakers

People to Watch 2015

Biz(941)'s People to Watch lists the newest up-and-comers and movers-and-shakers in Sarasota-Manatee.

By Susan Burns Photography by Barbara Banks October 30, 2015


The economy is improving, the population is growing and businesses, entrepreneurs and ambitious young professionals are thriving in our region. With a pile of nominations from our readers, community leaders and insiders, we’ve whittled this year’s list down to 19 people you need to know about. From a scientist making miniature sensors to an executive launching a brand-new football league to the executive director of our new museum of modern art, we’re proud to introduce our People to Watch for 2015 and beyond.

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JENNIFER ROMINIECKI, the new president and CEO of Marie Selby Botanical Gardens, has big plans to broaden the gardens’ support in this 40th anniversary year and beyond. Rominiecki, a transplanted New Yorker, studied art history in college and worked at the Guggenheim Museum and Metropolitan Opera before spending 15 years at the New York Botanical Garden, where she led a hugely successful $479 million fund-raising campaign. “I learned so much there about how to operate botanical gardens as cultural institutions,” she says. “I see that parallel here. The museum model is a good one; you’re creating experiences to keep people coming back.” Rominiecki is in conversation with “an international museum for a major loan in 2017; something really exciting,” she says. She’s also reaching out to local performing arts organizations. “It would be wonderful to have music and dance here,” she says. She’s also exploring licensing botanical illustrations from the gardens’ rare books collection for Selby-centric merchandise and is guiding board and staff through the development of a five-year strategic plan. “We have to shore up our aging infrastructure, and for long-term sustainability we have to grow our endowment, which now stands at $2.5 million,” she says.—Ilene Denton




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JIM RALSTON, who’s been in the mall biz since 1992, is the new general manager of both Westfield-owned Sarasota Square and Southgate (soon to be rebranded as Westfield Siesta Key), a challenging assignment since the Mall at University Town Center opened in 2014. “Our goal is to make Westfield Sarasota Square the area’s go-to family center and Westfield Southgate the boutique property everyone’s talking about,” he says. Southgate recently has undergone $10 million in renovations, and both malls have opened new stores; Abercrombie & Fitch, TreborStyle and Art Avenue have opened in Westfield Siesta Key and Alexander Clothiers is coming soon. A 15,000-square-foot Old Navy and a new H&M have storefronts in Sarasota Square. And under construction at the Southgate location is one of Cobb Theatres’ popular CinéBistros—an upscale movie theater with a gourmet menu and bar. Scheduled to open in February 2016, the theater is part of the reinvention of Southgate as an entertainment destination for well-to-do customers and tourists. Ralston knows his malls have to win over and keep shoppers. “Competition is not a bad thing,” he says. “It makes you hone in on what your goals are and smarter about what you do.” —Megan McDonald




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SCIENTIST LOUISE SINKS is vice president of US Nano LLC, which moved to Sarasota from South Bend, Ind., earlier this year. She is a pioneer in the growing field of nanotechnology, the process of manipulating matter at the molecular level to make new technologies and devices. Sink and her team of six other scientists are using a nano material that can be made into ink and printed onto a variety of surfaces to create flexible, cost-efficient sensors. The applications—civilian and military—from cell phones to testing water quality to searching for disease markers are almost limitless. “In the Internet of things, every object is smart,” she says. “A bridge can tell you if a strut is expanding. A room can tell you if it’s getting too hot.” Sinks and US Nano, which won $930,000 in National Science Foundation grants, were lured to Sarasota by Alex Gusev, another entrepreneur scientist, who owns locally-based Ultrafast Systems. Sinks says it has been easy to convince other scientists to work in a beautiful community. She can see the Ph.D. staff doubling or tripling in the next five years. “This is going to be the center of US Nano. This is our final location,” she says. —Susan Burns




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TALK WITH Anne-Marie Russell, executive director of the Sarasota Museum of Art (set to open around January 2017), and you quickly realize how much goes into the building of a new contemporary art museum. Russell, who got a similar museum off the ground in Tucson, Ariz., has at her fingertips details large and small, from food service to retail to sensitivity training for security guards, as well as the museum’s curatorial and educational aspects. Officially on the job since May, Russell (who has a B.A. in anthropology and M.A. in art history) says she’s been doing “ethnographic field work” to learn everything she can about the Sarasota community and the Ringling College, with which it is affiliated. “We want SMOA to be a ‘big tent’ site, to serve all aspects of the community,” she says. “We’ll use a lot of guest curators, because I want a lot of diverse voices.” She’s also conscious of the SMOA building’s place in history as the former Sarasota High. “We have a wonderful responsibility to steward the heritage of this facility,” she says. “We hope to be around for 100 years or more.” —Kay Kipling




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FOURTH-GENERATION Manatee County resident Whiting Preston, president of Manatee Fruit Company, is taking more than 1,500 acres of his family’s farmland to create two ambitious, master-planned communities that will transform West Bradenton and the nearby area. The Prestons founded one of the largest cut-flower businesses in the U.S., but as the industry changed, the family began to diversify, selling off farmland and getting into real estate development. Lake Flores, which has already won approval from the Manatee County Commission, is a 1,300-acre project south of Cortez Road and next to IMG Academy, with plans to build 6,500 homes, 3 million square feet of commercial space and 500 hotel rooms in the next 20 years. Proposed at press time, Peninsula Bay is north of Lake Flores between Cortez Road and Palma Sola Bay. Preston is proposing 1,800 homes, waterfront shopping and dining, a water-related resort and commercial facilities, and a 67-acre lake. The timing is right, Preston says. “We were coming out of a recession. West Bradenton is getting tired and older,” he says. “We wanted something meaningful to change Bradenton in a better way: it will have a lasting benefit,

more than a subdivision or shopping center.” —Susan Burns




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WHEN NEW SUPERINTENDENT of the Manatee County School District Dr. Diana Greene replaced controversial Rick Mills, who resigned last spring, she inherited a demoralized staff, divided board and skeptical public. Fortunately, Greene says, she remains calm under pressure: “I can let people know the building may be on fire, but everything will be OK.” Greene, who had been the school district’s deputy superintendent for instructional services for two years, is credited with raising Manatee County’s school test scores during her tenure. She started as a teacher in Florida almost 30 years ago and has been a school principal and held senior administrative positions in other districts. She sees big challenges ahead for Manatee’s 48,000-student school district, including how to manage growth and rally the community to support new school construction, improve grade-level reading and close the achievement gap for black and Hispanic students. “We want to become a high-performing school district that meets the needs of its students. I want our employees to feel valued and appreciated. We don’t have to agree on everything but they need to know they will be heard and we will work as a team to improve education for students and our community,” she says. —Susan Burns




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CHRISTINA CHERRY STARTED 2015 by moving from managing 3,000 employees in Silicon Valley to opening the startup, InsideOut, in Sarasota with zero employees. By the end of summer, she had eight major clients and 50 employees; by year-end, she expects to have 150 employees in a 7,500-square-foot facility. The company advises inside sales teams of major IT and tech companies, freeing clients to focus on what they do best. Cherry hopes to grow the business to $15 million-plus over the next three years. Her five-year goal includes expansion of services, increasing employees to more than 400, an expansion into the Tampa-St. Petersburg area and achieving revenues upwards of $50 million. The eventual goal is to go global. In Sarasota—a location chosen by a major local investor who remains nameless—she draws from a pool of recent college grads, veterans and former business executives. “We’re a new type of industry for this location,” says the Oxford-educated Cherry. “Most of our clients are West Coast Silicon Valley-based. We’re adding diversity to the community and educating [it] about a different kind of employer. It’s a fast-paced tech environment. We’re going to advance the community a bit.” —Anu Varma Panchal




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AS A PINE VIEW SCHOOL student growing up in Sarasota, Lee-Hayes Byron wanted to be a veterinarian like her father. As a Stanford undergraduate, however, she was drawn to classes in environment and energy. She shifted gears and earned a master’s degree in environment management from Duke University and spent four years as coordinator for a Washington, D.C., nonprofit, the U.S. Climate Action Network. Since 2008, Byron has been Sarasota County’s sustainability manager, teaching businesses, citizens and the government how to save energy, and to think, build and act green. Soon after starting, she won a $2.5 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy to spearhead an energy-efficiency campaign that gave incentives to residents to retrofit their homes. And this year, Sarasota County received the highest score of any county in the state for its sustainability improvements from the Florida Green Building Coalition. Byron is passionate about educating new audiences about the importance of conservation and growing a sustainable economy—both traditional sectors such as home builders and cutting-edge ones, such as a future “Electric Avenue,” for electric cars. Her big picture goals are to connect people and resources to increase our quality of life. “We are definitely making progress,” she says.—Anu Varma Panchal




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AFTER PROMOTING Sarasota County as an exciting sports venue for Visit Sarasota, Nicole Rissler has moved to one of the country’s premier sports facilities—the 600-acre Nathan Benderson Park, the venue that will host the Olympic Rowing Trials in April 2016, the 2017 World Rowing Championships and the NCAA Collegiate National Rowing Championships in May 2018. As chief operating officer of Suncoast Aquatic Nature Center, Inc., the nonprofit that administers the park, Rissler ensures that Benderson Park fulfills its vision of becoming a world-class rowing and training center while retaining its role as a community park. The goal is self-sufficiency by the end of 2018; part of Rissler’s focus is on pursuing small grants and sponsorships, and increasing programming. Look for learn-to-row programs starting at middle school, camps, safety trainings and a new boathouse that will become the centerpiece of the park when it is completed in 2017. “There’s nothing like this facility in the Western Hemisphere,” says Rissler, a Sarasota High grad with two young daughters. “I’m busy; there’s no doubt about that. But it’s extra rewarding to know you’re getting in on the ground floor of building a legacy.” —Anu Varma Panchal




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DR. SANDRA STONE has lived on a Tennessee farm and in Chicago and Atlanta; she’s also worked as a social worker, researcher and with the City of Atlanta Police Department’s Narcotics Department. Combine this with nearly 20 years of experience in college administration, and you have the multifaceted new chancellor of University of South Florida Sarasota-Manatee. One of her first tasks has been to complete a five-year plan that aims to increase student success and campus life activities, ramp up recruiting activities, and enhance teaching and learning experiences on campus. Students can expect more critical-thinking coursework attuned to preparing them for today’s workforce and an increase in campus life activities. STEM students will have access to more programs and research space, and arts students can look forward to increased curriculum offerings. Stone also hopes to expand into international study—possibly in Italy—and increase scholarly activity spurred by a new position, coordinator of faculty research. “This community and this institution are really at a very exciting point in their evolution,” says Stone. “It’s the perfect time to bring all the resources together to explode on the scene.” —Anu Varma Panchal




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CAN THE CITY of North Port become a hub for young entrepreneurs? Dave McCarron believes the answer is yes. You could say McCarron is a dream resident for North Port. Since moving here in 2007 to be close to family and for the lifestyle, he’s taken on an R&D position with Capital Care Associates, his family’s New England-based business, and started the nonprofit Stable Grounds, an equine-assisted learning program, with his wife, Kelly. What’s got North Port buzzing, though, is Cowork Hive, a shared workspace he co-ounded in 2014 to help young professionals network and launch innovative enterprises. McCarron’s energy and collaborative nature are fueling the Hive’s growth. He sees his own telecommute to his job in Bedford, N.H., as proof that young people can be attracted to and work in North Port. “We’re hoping to develop an innovation center for the City of North Port and play a collaborative role in feeding that opportunity,” McCarron says. And he thinks Cowork Hive captures the way young people work. “This is the future,” he says. “If [young professionals] are choosing where we want to live, it follows that we’re naturally much more invested in our local community.” —Megan McDonald




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ONLY 29, Rachelle Madrigal is the general manager, director and sales manager of the Bradenton Marauders, taking on the team’s day-to-day operations as well as overseeing the sales and marketing for Pirates Spring Training and the Marauders. In 2014 she was named the Female Executive of the Year in the Florida State League and is the only woman right now to hold the general manager title in the league. Previously the Pirates’ manager of sales and marketing, Rachelle had been influential in five straight seasons of 100,000-plus attendance at Marauder games, marketing the 2014 McKechnie Field renovation and developing outside group business during the off-season at Pirate City. The organization has grown since Madrigal started with the Pirates in Bradenton as a college intern in 2006. “I have definite goals,” she says. “I want to bring the Marauders to the next level. We’ve had steady attendance but I want to see that increase. I want it to be the family-friendly place of choice.” Her biggest challenge? “The weather in Florida. I wish I had a degree in meteorology. It’s the constant uncertainty.” And the days can be long and crazy during the season. “But honestly, I get to wake up and work in a ball field every day. I’m lucky,” she says. —Susan Burns




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THIS SUMMER, when Major League Football chose Lakewood Ranch for its national headquarters, senior executive vice president Frank Murtha emerged as the public face of an endeavor he hopes will help turn Southwest Florida into a sports mecca. The nascent MLFB is establishing 10 professional teams throughout the country in big-city markets, including Orlando, that have neither an NFL nor Major League Baseball presence; games will be played in the spring. “Regardless of how popular football is—and it is the most popular sport in the U.S.—in the fall you have NFL, NCAA and high school, so where would you fit your games in?” says Murtha, a longtime sports attorney, originally from Chicago, who’s shepherded the sale and purchase of NFL teams. For the MLFB’s annual preseason each February, all 10 teams will train at Lakewood Ranch’s Premier Sports Campus—a major factor in headquartering here, as was cooperation from hoteliers to accommodate the 1,000 or so players and personnel expected. Murtha anticipates between 25 and 50 full-time, year-round staff (himself included) at the league office. “Our economic impact will be greater than the two [Spring Training] Major League Baseball teams combined,” he says. —Hannah Wallace




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THE NEW PRESIDENT and CEO of the Gulf Coast Community Foundation is a familiar face in the region and at the foundation. Mark Pritchett, who was the foundation’s senior vice president for community investment, assumed his new position in late September. He was selected after a nationwide search of 300 candidates and now heads up a foundation with $274.5 million in assets and 17 employees. As one of the largest community foundations in Florida and the nation, the Gulf Coast Community Foundation has a huge impact on the region’s health and human services, economic development, education, the arts and the environment. This fiscal year, the foundation gave away $27 million to local causes. Pritchett, who faces a changing philanthropic world, will build on the work of Teri Hansen, who left to run the Charles and Margery Barancik Foundation. “I want to be recognized nationally as a philanthropic organization that addresses the most pressing needs of our region,” he says, needs such as diversifying our economy and dealing with social issues such as hunger and affordable housing. “It’s about being a leadership organization,” he says. “It’s creativity that attracts donors.” —Susan Burns


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AS A TEENAGER, Will Robinson worked summers on the family property, planting trees and fertilizing land. Today, that 288-acre property is poised to become Robinson Gateway, a development expected to transform north Manatee County with 542 home sites, 900,000 square feet of retail, 600,000 square feet of office space, a movie theater and hotel. “It’s exciting,” says Robinson, who is handling the development, the brainchild of his father, Bill Robinson, and partner Ed Vogel II. “My family has lived there for generations. If you look in the north county area, it’s sorely needed.” Construction is at least a year away; the focus now is on pursuing retailers, hoteliers and residential builders to assemble a pool of potential partners. At full capacity (projected for 2025), the development should generate $3.2 million in city tax revenue and $3.1 million in school board revenue. A former chair of the Manatee Young Professionals, Robinson hopes the walkable, multi-use nature of the development will appeal to young people who may opt to stay and raise families here rather than move to bigger cities. “Robinson Gateway will draw not only people in the area but also those from other regions,” he predicts. —Anu Varma Panchal




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WHEN MANATEE COUNTY government department heads assembled a group of Millennials earlier this year to take a look at the huge employee recruitment issue looming as baby boomers began to retire, they didn’t envision the influence the Manatee Millennial Movement—or M3, as it’s now known—was about to have. But millennials jumped at the chance to get involved in issues such as affordable housing, employment, land planning and transportation options that would appeal to their generation and hopefully attract more of their age group and keep them here. The movement spread to include millennials at the Manatee Chamber of Commerce, the Bradenton Area Economic Development Corporation and Realize Bradenton, and now these young professionals are meeting with county decision-makers and are having an impact in shaping Manatee County.


We found four millennial leaders whose passion and commitment are fueling the movement: Simone Peterson, 26, a neighborhood specialist in Manatee County government’s Neighborhood Services; Ogden Clark III, 32, Manatee government’s ambassador program coordinator; Catherine Ferrer, 34, the community engagement coordinator for Realize Bradenton; and Stewart Moon, 27, vice president of Air & Energy in Manatee, and the chair of both the chamber’s Manatee Young Professionals and the EDC’s Thought Leaders group.


Clark summed up this group’s dedication: “You have to be the change you want to see. I’m passionate about Manatee and want others to know this is a great place to live. There are going to be a lot of opportunities for young people.” —Susan Burns



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