People To Watch

By staff July 1, 2003

Yes, we all know the Sarasota economy is based on tourism and the services that support a luxurious resort lifestyle. But not everyone comes here to lie on the beach. Working in fields as diverse as athletics, science, education, business, non-profits, the arts and the high-tech industry, the people on these pages are proving that Sarasota is a multi-faceted city full of enterprise and talent, and we predict you'll be hearing more about them.

Dragos Alexandru

Sarasota Scullers coach Dragos Alexandru faced two challenges when he landed in Sarasota almost a year ago: build high school rowing champions and avoid the political pitfalls of being a new coach in a town where rowing has suddenly divided into two hostile camps. (Forty percent of the rowers split from the Sarasota Scullers before Alexandru arrived, forming a new team called Sarasota Crew.)

On the first score, Alexandru, is succeeding. He coached the girls' varsity team to an impressive season with gold medals at every race, beating last year's Scullers' record. "We've done very well," he says modestly. And he's also managed to steer clear of much of the politics that ensue when a sports team gets embroiled in parents' and coaches' differences. No wonder. Much of his life has been about avoiding politics.

Alexandru, now 46, started rowing as a teen-ager in Romania, eventually earning a spot on the Romanian team at the 1980 Moscow Olympics. His exposure to the free world led him to apply for a visa to the United States. "From that moment you become a problem," he says. "You are cut off, put on a blacklist." After three years of waiting for a passport, he tried escaping on a Greek freighter but was discovered and jailed. Eventually he was allowed to emigrate. He, his wife Florica (also a former rower who now coaches the Scullers' novice girls) and their son, now grown, worked in New York until last summer when Peter deManio, the founder and boys' coach at the Sarasota Scullers, recruited him.

Now the administrator, head coach, plumber, computer guy "and whatever else is needed" at the rowing club, Alexandru wants to grow and stabilize the club, and make the sport fun for athletes. "A happy team is a fast team," he says.

Tony Frudakis

In a little orange bungalow in downtown Sarasota, Dr. Tony Frudakis, the founder and chief science officer of Sarasota's DNA Print Genomics, is using the findings from the Human Genome Project-the worldwide, 13-year scientific undertaking that has mapped the three billion letters of human DNA-to further unlock our genetic code.

The 36-year-old molecular biologist was the first to isolate the genetic markers for race and the first to offer a consumer product, called DNA Witness (for police forensic departments) and Ancestry by DNA (for amateur genealogists). For $158, you can order a test kit, and discover what percentage of your genetic makeup is sub-Saharan African, East Asian, Indo-European and Native American.

In five to 10 years, doctors will prescribe for our particular genetic makeup, Frudakis predicts. For example, working with the University of Miami, he's discovered the marker that can tell how a woman will respond to Taxol, a drug used to treat ovarian cancer. Thirty percent of all women cannot metabolize it in a way that makes it useful. By testing patients' DNA, he says, doctors can predict which women will benefit. "In the future, when you show up with an affliction, this is how the doctor will choose your medicine," Frudakis says.

Sarasota became home base because Frudakis' father lives here and because he found access to venture capital from Tampa Bay Financial. He also used his own money and took the company public to raise more. So far, he and his team of scientists have been operating on about $3 to $4 million at a loss. They need much more capital-difficult in a tight economy when no one wants to take a risk, he says.

"I'm a maverick," he says. "I loved the idea of a biotech company in a place known for tourism. In Silicon Valley we'd be another car on the freeway."

Nicole Kelby

Novelist Nicole Kelby, 46, joined the ranks of Sarasota writers a couple of years ago when she set up camp with her husband Steven, a springer spaniel and two cats amid a forest of banana plants. Her first book, In the Company of Angels, received rave reviews when it came out two years ago. A finalist for the Minnesota Book Award, it was named one of the best Young Adult books for 2001 by the American Library Association. Her next, due out this month, is called Theatre of the Stars, a "suspenseful story of mothers and daughters and secrets," she says.

Kelby, who publishes under the name N.M. Kelby, wanted to be a writer as she was growing up in St. Petersburg, Fla. She followed her first husband to Minnesota and ended up editing a weekly newspaper. Her life took a wrenching turn when her six-day-old daughter suffocated in a crib. Kelby began to speak publicly about the dangers of soft mattresses. One of these interviews was with a CNN reporter, who told her, "You'd look good on camera" and encouraged her to try out at the local TV station.

She got a job as a reporter and laughs as she describes her look back then-a Dior suit and a "perky look." But she decided that, temperamentally, she wasn't cut out for TV and turned to serious writing instead. Now Kelby's happy to be back in Florida-her husband was lured to the area to sell boats-and says the Sarasota environment "makes me more focused. It's a profoundly quiet place-the right kind of silence-it creates a flurry of work."

Coming next: The American Dream, about a loser salesman in Florida who sells RVs and eventually believes he's Jesus. "Sort of Garrison Keillor does Carl Hiassen," she says.

Colleen Kvetko

She's already a well-known figure in Naples, but Colleen Kvetko, the exuberant and friendly president of Fifth Third Bank, Florida has branched into Sarasota. If her track record in Naples is any indication, she's bound to grow the Ohio-based bank, one of the largest in the country, here in Sarasota.

At 16, Kvetko started off as a teller at Fifth Third in Cincinnati. "It got in my blood and never left," she says. Eleven years ago, she was tapped to open "a little boutique" of Fifth Third in Naples. Soon Kvetko, 48, was offering commercial and consumer services, car loans, mortgages and trust services and opening more banks in Naples and Fort Myers. "We became a real bank very quickly," she says. To date, Fifth Third has 14 offices in Southwest Florida.

Her friend Fred Pezeshkan, president of Kraft Construction, told her Sarasota was ripe for a bank like Fifth Third. So last year, she opened a branch on St. Armands, offering trust services and private banking; in 2004, she'll open one at Stickney Point and U.S. 41. In 2005, Fifth Third is opening a regional office, becoming an anchor tenant at the Plaza, the new residential and office/retail high-rise at Five Points. And she's also eyeing Lakewood Ranch. "We're entering the market full force," she says.

Like Naples and Fort Myers, where 40 percent of the residents are "mature" seasonal Midwesterners, Sarasota attracts the solid demographics Fifth Third likes. And these folks know the bank from its presence back home. Much of the bank's Florida growth can be traced to Kvetko's tireless forays into the community and involvement on influential boards. "If you're out there, people see you," she says. "People associate me with the bank."

Dr. Elzie McCord Jr.

As a research scientist with Dupont, Dr. Elzie McCord Jr. specialized in insect toxicology, studying why most bugs eventually become resistant to pesticides. He was transferred to Sarasota in the mid-'90s to be in charge of Florida and Puerto Rico. But as the agricultural industry moved offshore, he was downsized in 1999. He didn't want to leave Sarasota-"one of the most beautiful places I'd ever seen"-or the sailing that he loves.

He answered an ad for a cell biologist at New College. "I didn't qualify," he admits, but two months later the college called him back as another position opened and asked if he'd act as a "visiting professor" in botany. He had some familiarity with the field because of insect interaction with plants, but still, he says, "I had to learn really fast. And because New College students are so smart, it about killed me. I squeaked through, though, and now I teach botany regularly."

The 54-year-old assistant professor also teaches entomology courses-his first passion. He relishes handling aquariums full of three-inch-long Madagascar cockroaches and flying cockroaches from the rain forests of Brazil. He's even helped host an "Insect Weed and Feed" festival on campus, tempting the intrepid to try edible weeds, meal worms and crickets in salads.

Not loath to leave the ivory tower, he has helped facilitate racial healing workshops for Sarasota's Drug Free Communities; lectures at schools and mentors students; encourages local blacks to become blood donors; and, after a recent bout with prostate cancer, has become a traveling advocate about the need to be tested for this cancer. As a black man who picked cotton in Georgia as a boy and one of the first black graduate students at the University of Florida, he says, "I feel the sense of obligation to give back."

Drayton Saunders

Even if Drayton Saunders, 31, had wanted to keep a low profile in Sarasota, it would have been an exercise in futility. The scion of real estate icon Michael Saunders, his last name is plastered on signs from Palmetto to Venice. And now that he's being groomed to take over the empire his mother founded, Drayton Saunders is firmly fixed in the limelight.

Saunders studied philosophy with a minor in economics at Colgate University in New York. "I swore I'd never get in the real estate business," he says with a laugh. He spent summers abroad in Costa Rica and Ecuador, building houses in rural areas, organizing volunteers to provide sanitation and learning Spanish. After graduation he headed to Santiago, Chile. As he combed through the want ads every morning at a French bakery there, he looked around at the locals, vacationers and Westerners sipping their coffees. "I have nothing better to do," he thought, so in between job interviews, he came up with a business plan for a bagel coffee shop. "Somehow I got the project off the ground," he says (even though Chileans initially thought bagels were "the worst doughnuts they'd ever tried"). He opened New York Bagel Bakery in 1995, eventually expanding to two locations and a wholesale bakery.

But as the world-weary often do, Saunders decided to head home. He put his business up for sale, moved back last winter and has been busy learning the ropes. Is it hard being in the shadow of his mother? He smiles and sighs. Apparently, it's a common question. "I don't expect to be my mom. Whatever contributions I make will be in my own way. It's a challenge, but I don't feel burdened by it. It's an honor."

Javier Suarez Jr.

At the Sarasota Architectural Foundation last spring, architect Javier "Javi" Suarez Jr. spoke provocatively about the parallels between jazz and architecture-not a typical takeoff point for a discussion of design in a town full of cookie-cutter Mediterranean homes more like Muzak than jazz. Suarez loves cutting-edge contemporary design, whether it's in architecture, art (he's a painter as well) or music. "I was raised on De Kooning and Basquiat," he says. "I love jazz, hip hop, anything that's contemporary."

Suarez, 30, was destined for architecture. His father, Javier Suarez, also an architect, is one of the founding partners of Sarasota's ADP Group. Ironically, the father tried dissuading him from the profession. "Be a lawyer or doctor instead," he told his son, warning him that architecture was full of clients who think they know space and design better than the professionals. "But I'm a little hard-headed, and I fell in love with architecture," Suarez says.

Suarez got his degrees in architecture from University of Florida and UCLA, then began working for a small firm in Los Angeles, designing high-end, high-profile residential projects. He had no plans to move back to Sarasota, even though his mother kept pestering him that she wanted him closer to home and peppered him with: "Your father is sooo busy." Eventually love-and his family-intervened. His sister called him one day and matched him with a Sarasota-based marketing consultant named Liz Lozano-Benzaquen. When the two met and fell in love, Suarez moved back into town and began working at ADP. "I was definitely set up," he says with a smile.

He's happy to be here, and he even thinks there's a market for modern design. "The Sarasota School of Architecture started here," he says. "I'd like to be part of the new wave."

Rich Swier

As a math major at the University of Florida, Rich Swier had never touched a computer. Today, at the ripe old age of 30, Swier, an ambitious and self-taught computer entrepreneur, has already started and run two high-tech businesses and moved on to his latest-Startup Florida.

Swier's first foray into computers was right out of college with Sarasota Online, which eventually became the biggest Internet provider in the area. Comcast bought him out, and Swier started Backsoft Corporation in 1997, which developed software for companies like Coca-Cola, Volkswagen and Anheuser-Busch. After the dotcom collapse, he merged with another company-and shifted his focus. "I like things when they're exciting and risky and I enjoy working with entrepreneurs and creative people," he says.

Startup Florida hopes to profit by helping other tech companies get their start by offering consulting and services such as office space and equipment. The profit comes when and if Swier and his investors get in on the ground floor of the next great high-tech innovation. It's a risky venture in tourism-based Sarasota, but Swier says the company reaches statewide. "Our goal is to grow companies that are national quality," Swier says. He's also started a dinner club of angel investors who commit $100,000 each. So far, the club has invested in three companies. (One of them is Swier's, a company called Hop Network, which will provide mobile broadband access on trains so people can link up to the Internet with their PDAs or laptops on their way to work.)

Sarasota is a good base for this kind of company, Swier says. "There's a million guys like me in Boston." Besides, he has a wife and two-year-old daughter, and he jokes that it would be easier to change the economy in Sarasota than to change his wife's mind about living elsewhere.

Elizabeth Van Riper

Before artist Elizabeth Van Riper agreed to move to Sarasota with her husband three years ago, she gave him a list of qualities she needed in a new hometown. One of the most important was the presence of an artists' community.

A mixed-media painter whose work sells all over the country, Van Riper was shocked to discover the visual arts seemed moribund in Sarasota. She was also dismayed that few local galleries displayed the work of local artists. "There was no venue for my work," she says. "It's become a mission of mine to change that. Sarasota has got to be more than Budweiser, daiquiris and the beach."

Van Riper, 53, may be one of the few artists with the business credentials to back up her intentions. After decades as a bank vice president for Citicorp in New York and director of marketing and public relations for a financial services firm in Dallas, she knows how to develop a business plan and market ideas.

She quickly became involved in events such as Season of Sculpture and joined organizations such as Women Contemporary Artists, becoming president of Pen Women (a local branch of a national women artists' group). And, last spring, she was part of a group of women who commandeered the annual board meeting of Art Center Sarasota, nominating more than a dozen women from the floor and getting them placed on the board-herself included.

Those who work with her say she's smart, inclusive and aggressive. And she doesn't hold artists blameless. "They can't just sit in their studios and not reach out," she says. "We can get Sarasota on the map as a visual arts community. There's no reason we can't be another Santa Fe."

Tim Wilkins

In Tim Wilkins' sixth grade yearbook, under the heading of future goals, at a time when most boys still want to be an NBA or NFL star, Wilkins wrote, "to be a stand-up comedian"-no joke.

And finally, after years of struggle-waiting for hours at improv clubs and bars to get a three-minute open-mike spot-the 34-year-old comedian is booked solid year-round. Wilkins has been other things, of course. A Marine, a body builder and a personal trainer for starters. But comedy has always been the goal. He paid his dues on cruise ships, in clubs and at colleges. He was in a grocery store in Atlanta in 1998 when he got a call from his agent, asking if he wanted to open that night for Earth, Wind and Fire at Ruth Eckerd Hall in Clearwater. He drove down and performed in front of 2,200 people. "I'd never been before a crowd close to that size," he says. He must have done well, because the entire band piled into his dressing room and offered him five more shows.

Today, he opens for bands such as Earth, Wind and Fire and the Righteous Brothers as well as solo artists such as Paul Anka, Engelbert Humperdinck and Julio Iglesias. With such headliners, his comedy isn't the edgy stuff of Chris Rock or George Carlin. But that's not who he wanted to be, anyway. "I grew up on Bob Hope and Johnny Carson. I work clean," he says.

Although he'd love a TV show one of these days, his current schedule keeps him closer to his wife Kimberly and two young children in Sarasota. "I get to go to their football games and plays," he says. Opening for pop stars and doing 80 to 100 shows a year is a dream gig-for now.

Ray Villares and Scott Heap

Computer geeks and occasional musicians Scott Heaps and Ray Villares met in 1997, when most businesses and consumers were still clueless about the Internet. (Yes, the dark ages were only six years ago.) Heaps was in business for himself, developing custom Web sites. Villares was helping Comcast develop its first Web site. At first Heaps wasn't interested in a partner, but he had "a pretty sizey job" and offered to split it with Villares. And Villares says he was just interested "in making 40 grand a year and working for myself." So they started GravityFree Internet Business Solutions with $3,000.

They began by designing Web sites for small businesses for $300 to $1,200. Their slick, eye-popping sites won them awards and lots more clients. Their first national client was, an online dating site. Then they got a huge job providing the first streaming video of a live classical concert. Their biggest breakthrough was landing the Web site design for Rooms to Go, a million-dollar job.

Today, GravityFree employs 12 people (80 percent under the age of 25) in a hip office setting that includes a recording studio so Villares, 28, and Heaps, 37, can jam in spare moments. The company and its founders are becoming part of the old guard business establishment, joining civic organizations and garnering business of the year awards from the Sarasota Chamber of Commerce. Villares was even elected chairman of the Small Business Council.

They're talking GravityFree in a new direction, too. In addition to custom Web sites-their signature service-which are labor intensive and expensive, they're delving into "application development" for various industries, such as the floral industry. "We don't sleep a whole lot," says Heaps.

Donna Wolski

After Donna Wolski relocated to Florida from her job as head fund-raiser at a Vermont college, she went online to a professional fund-raisers' site and saw two jobs advertised. The first was for the Florida Dental Association in Tallahassee. The second was for Sarasota's science museum G.WIZ (Gulfcoast Wonder and Imagination Zone). She immediately knew where she'd send her resume. "I loved the name," she says. And she ended up loving the museum full of kids walking through butterflies and playing with exhibits that teach science the way it's supposed to be taught-hands-on and full of wonder.

Wolski became G.WIZ's director of development almost a year ago, taking over at a critical juncture of the museum's history. Gift giving, visitors, memberships and gift shop receipts were declining, and the museum was $1.5 million in debt from its $3.5-million renovation of the old Selby Library. She also took over just as the board decided it wanted to embark on a capital campaign-something she admits would have been easier to tackle after she'd been here a year. But Wolski may be just the person to pull the museum's nose above the horizon.

A professional fund-raiser for almost two decades, Wolski, 51, has a polished presence, experience with major gift-giving, a template for action and a refreshing frankness. So far she's been organizing membership and marketing campaigns and holding events (her first featured special guests Dick and Denby Smothers) and has raised $450,000 in campaign pledges in six weeks. And she's hoping to reach donors who often write out big checks to other organizations: "An angel or two who typically make a large gift to an older institution could make a difference. A large gift could be life changing for us."

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