Best Bosses

By Hannah Wallace April 30, 2007

Here’s a happy problem. When we sent out nomination requests in January for our inaugural Best Bosses contest, we had no idea how difficult it would be to choose from the flood of ballots that poured in. Sarasota and Manatee, we discovered, are blessed with nurturing CEOs, managers and supervisors who inspire their employees to do their best and make them happy to come to work. If there’s a common denominator among the winners, it was this: Our 2007 best bosses treat their employees as capable, trustworthy people who are part of a team that they consult, not dictate to. And despite all sorts of newfangled management theories and techniques, it seems that the age-old Golden Rule still rules. Treat others as you would want to be treated was the most common piece of advice. Here are our 2007 Best Bosses.

Putting People First

Mark Dunlop

, market executive, CNL Bank

Wouldn’t it be nice to know your boss actually puts people in front of profits? We found just such a principled, caring boss in Mark Dunlop, the market executive of CNL Bank in Sarasota, a banker who once dropped everything at work to go shopping when he heard a needy nine-year-old boy’s wish for a shiny new bike at Christmas was about to go unanswered. 

As his executive assistant, Joseph Shafer, wrote, “I’ve worked with hundreds of men and women in this industry—some I wish to forget for their selfish, unscrupulous motives—but for the last seven years I’ve worked for a man whose moral character and integrity have been an inspiration not only to me, but to so many clients and associates with whom I’ve seen him come in contact.”

Dunlop, who opened CNL Bank in Sarasota a year ago and lives by that Golden Rule, doesn’t necessarily think he’s doing anything out of the ordinary, even when that means telling clients that a certain loan or investment is not right for them—potentially losing commission fees for the bank. Not surprisingly, says Shafer, his honesty, instead of turning people away, brings more clients through the door.

It’s also won the hearts of his eight employees, the majority of whom have followed him as he’s moved to different banks. A great listener who never utters a harsh or unkind word, Dunlop motivates his staff to do their best because he sees no limits on their potential.

Far from keeping easy banker’s hours with sunny afternoons on the golf course, Dunlop works late: “Believe me, if I put as many hours on the golf course as I do at work, I’d be a better golfer than a banker.”

Strengthening the Team

Scott Heaps

, president, GravityFree Web Design

Scott Heaps, president of GravityFree Web Design, once packed a stainless steel briefcase with $1,000 bundles of $5 bills and green glow sticks, called all his employees into the conference room, turned off the lights, flipped open the case, and began throwing cash bundles to his staff.

“They were surprised,” is how Heaps, who despite that flamboyant action is actually understated and publicity-shy, describes the general reaction.

Inspired years ago by touring Manatee County’s Sun Hydraulics, a company with no titles or hierarchy, Heaps has fashioned an organization where no employee has to report to anyone, all viewpoints are welcome and the team has precedence over the individual. When he considers taking on a major new project, he’ll go to each employee to find out if they’re on board, asking, “Where do you want the company to go?” “What is the GravityFree you want to work for?”

The result? One of the most unique and enthusiastic workplaces we’ve ever seen.

“We’re allowed to flourish and share ideas because everything’s encouraged and appreciated, even the stuff that doesn’t ‘make the cut,’” wrote Jessica Moats, GravityFree’s marketing director, on the nomination form.

Employees profit share and are privy to all company information, including financial statements. No wonder they all volunteer to stay late on Thursday nights to brainstorm. (Heaps supplies the pizza.)

Their commitment extends beyond the office. The GravityFree team, including Heaps, volunteer together for local causes and take fun trips to concerts. (He recently took all employees and their families to St. Pete via limos to see Lynyrd Skynyrd and Hank Williams.)

Heaps’ strategy is paying off. GravityFree’s net revenues in 2006 were up 147 percent from 2005.

“I hire smart, good people, and I listen to them,” he says.

Sweating the Small Stuff

Pat Neal

, owner and president, Neal Communities

Pat Neal is famously demanding and driven. As president of Neal Communities, one of the region’s most successful builder/developers, Neal keeps his one-, five- and 25-year plans under his desk blotter, leaves voicemails for staff at 5 a.m. and notices whether employees’ shirts are ironed and whether their cars are parked in the right spot.

Nonetheless, 11 of his employees nominated Neal. Far from quivering before a tyrant, they see their boss more like an iconic and brilliant high school teacher who pushes students to do the impossible—in  the process winning their undying respect and gratitude.

And Neal is not a stern, ego-driven mentor. His 130 employees (whose names he memorizes from day one) describe a man who asks for their input, trusts their judgment and stresses teamwork above all else. 

“Pat Neal isn’t the only Pat Neal here,” wrote administrative assistant Ravonna Vimpeny. “He has embraced us all as Neal Communities. It’s really nice to have a real person working side-by-side with us and not just on the sidelines barking out orders.”

In fact, no one could imagine Neal on the sidelines, no matter what type of work is involved.

“Pat will dig his own test holes, pick up trash from the grounds and parking lots, walk the wetlands, make his own coffee (and brew a pot for the office), and put dishes away in the dishwasher,” says his executive assistant Priscilla Heims.

His tip for other bosses? The unusually loquacious Neal pauses and then keeps it short and simple: “I just want to have happy employees and happy clients.”

Keeping it Positive

Leslie Power

, general manager, Hotel Indigo Sarasota

It’s hard enough to keep an ordinary hotel running, but imagine building one from scratch. That’s why Leslie Power, general manager of Hotel Indigo Sarasota, impressed her employees when she opened the new boutique hotel last October at the corner of U.S. 41 and Boulevard of the Arts.

“Think about building a home, and this is hundreds of times worse,” says Rene Hampton, the director of sales at Indigo. “So much goes wrong. The whole week before opening we were working 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. If you got to eat you were lucky. I had my moments, but Leslie’s commitment and passion were so obvious. She always had a great spirit and attitude, and I never saw her lose her composure or professionalism.”

Power’s experience and calm demeanor have persuaded her staff to follow her from hotel to hotel, and, in several cases, even state to state. Miguel Gutierrez worked with Power at another hotel in town, then left to become director of housekeeping at Hotel Indigo. “She’s the backbone of this place. Everything is positive, a ‘we’ll get it done.’ She’ll find a way,” he says.

And despite the long hours, employees say, she fights to make sure they keep a healthy balance between work and family time, and never misses a chance to thank them for their contributions.

“You have to understand employees as individuals,” says Power. “Spend quality personal time with them and know what’s important to them. Help them reach their goals.”

And yes, she admits, it helps to have patience: “I’ve been blessed with patience. I try to take every situation one at a time.”

Igniting the Passion

Mack Reid

, CEO, Boys & Girls Clubs of Sarasota

Almost all CEOs talk about passion as the key to success, but enthusiasm is hard to hold onto when you can’t meet payroll and clients are dwindling. In 1989, Mack Reid took the job as president and CEO of Boys & Girls Clubs of Sarasota, facing the near-certainty that the club was about to close its doors. Today that same club has a brand-new building on Fruitville Road, has opened two others and is building a fourth club in Venice. Six thousand kids participate in Boys & Girls Clubs’ programs, and its budget has grown more than tenfold from $300,000 to $3.7 million. And, oh yes, his 150 employees adore him.

“You can’t walk away from his passion,” says Veronica Brandon Miller, the club’s vice president of development. “You want to do good for him.”

Reid has been involved with Boys & Girls Clubs since he was 10. He met his wife at the Sarasota club in 1970 when he was a unit director and she was a volunteer (and the boss’ daughter. Maybe that’s why taking on the challenge of a struggling facility was a no-brainer). He was working in Georgia as a banker when the local club called to say it needed help. “I knew the community,” Reid says. “If anyone could support it, I knew Sarasota would.”

Reid says changing the lives of kids inspires him, and he’s surrounded himself with a staff that feels the same way. Employees call the Boys & Girls Clubs, “a home away from home,” and say Reid treats them all like family, proud of their achievements and supportive of their goals. Their families are just as important to him, and he supports time off so they can be at a Little League game or a school play.

“Be flexible, cross train your employees, make sure you support one another in the workplace, and understand that family is sometimes where your employees need to be,” he says.

Crediting Others

Lori Rodgers

, president, Bert Rodgers Schools

One of the best indicators of a good boss is the number of years their employees stay on the job. Mary Killoran, results coordinator for Bert Rodgers Schools, says the majority of employees at Bert Rodgers Schools in Sarasota never leave. “I need to retire,” says Killoran, “but I just can’t. As a [former] temp, I’ve worked for 36 companies, and she beats everybody.”

Just how Rodgers keeps this intense loyalty is no mystery. She greets everyone when she walks into her office of 26 employees. She asks people for ideas and advice, always says thank you and gives credit to employees in front of everyone.

And then there are the little things: Rodgers brings in silly gifts like blue ribbons, balloons and gold crowns to inspire and thank employees. She regularly takes her staff out to lunch.

And once, to commemorate three employees who had all worked at Bert Rodgers for 10 years, she feigned treating them to an anniversary lunch out of the office, but instead took them to a jewelry store and told them to pick out what they wanted. “They weren’t inexpensive items, either,” adds Killoran.

Rodgers also makes sure that family comes first.

“I just treat them the way I want to be treated,” she says. “I don’t expect people to give up their lives. Life happens.”

Taking Pride

Emilio Stucchio

, first assistant manager, McDonald’s

In the hectic, low-morale, high-turnover world of fast food, creating a happy team seems unlikely—until you meet Emilio Stucchio, manager of the McDonald’s on Cattlemen Road. Stucchio, a favorite of staff and customers, has worked in the same store for 12 years, and his genuine concern for his workers and pride in their service are downright inspirational.

“This business is fast-paced, and if you’re not organized there’s chaos,” says Paulette Heckerman, who nominated Stucchio. “Emilio’s excellent. He gets things done on time, helps everyone, does the dishes, goes from place to place, tells people they’re doing a great job and thanks you for coming in.”

Before he even walks in the door in the morning, Stucchio has mapped out a strategy for his employees. He knows who will be making the Happy Meals, who will be taking orders, and who will be stacking the cups.

“He’ll ask me, ‘Paulette, are you OK?’ if we’re busy,’” says Heckerman. “‘If I need him I just scream, ‘Emilio, I need you!’ and he yells back, ‘I’ll be right there!’”

He also handles complaints graciously. “Customers love him,” says Heckerman, and so do his workers. On Valentine’s Day this year, all the women on his shift baked him a cake and taped Valentine’s Day cards on his office door.

His prescription for success is simple: “Just be nice to everyone,” he says. “It’s hard enough just to work, so make it fun and you’ll have people show up. I actually have people who offer to stay late. Make them feel important. People need to know it’s not just a job.”

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