Best Bosses

By Hannah Wallace April 30, 2008

They come from widely varying backgrounds—a former pharmacist, an engineer-turned-entrepreneur, an executive for a national retain chain. They manage staffs of one, 50 or hundreds. Grateful and inspired employees say the seven finalists of Biz941’s 2008 Best Bosses contest trust them, help them grow, make them feel valued and create workplaces that are a pleasure to walk into every morning.

As for the bosses, most are slightly embarrassed, though proud, to hear what their employees have to say. Although they lead very different kinds of companies, they all abide by the timeworn—but obviously true—practices of treating others the way you would want to be treated, really listening to people and communicating clearly.

Building Respect

FRED STARLING, owner and president, The Starling Group.

More than half of the employees at The Starling Group wrote in to nominate Fred Starling, who founded one of this region’s most respected full-service commercial real estate companies back in 1981. The Starling Group has completed more than $200 million in real estate development including, most recently, the clubhouse at The Founders Club, the headquarters of Unisource Administrators and CattleRidge Business Park.

“He’s been there—at the hospital at the birth of an employee’s child, or bedside after an employee’s surgery or after the fire at another employee’s house,” writes Laura Kern, construction bookkeeper. “He makes time to do the right thing.”

Starling treats employees like family, is respectful and kind, and values integrity above all else. Last Christmas, he put crisp $100 bills in each employee’s bonus check, asking them to pass the money on to the cause they felt would most benefit. To celebrate an employee’s 25-year anniversary with the company, he offered to fly her out to visit her two daughters, or have them come out to visit her. An avid fisherman, he occasionally brings in his fresh-caught fish to share with staff and has brought in his grill to cook for them.

The humble and low-profile Starling, his employees warn, is likely to be embarrassed, if not annoyed, that his employees nominated him. He’ll only say that the secret to hiring an excellent work force is to hire people who are compatible with the group to begin with. He maintains an open-door policy, celebrates teamwork above individual accomplishments and will do whatever he can to help an employee. “I believe in treating employees like you’d want to be treated,” he says, “with respect, dignity and compassion.”

Creating a Corporate Culture

STEVEN S. CROWELL JR., North Port City Manager

With 103 square miles, a $154 million budget and 630 employees, Steve Crowell Jr.’s job as city manager of North Port, one of the fastest-growing cities in the nation last year, is complex.

But since starting the job in July 2005, Crowell has brought order and clear expectations into the workplace, has developed staff and always listens to concerns.

Some of that comes from Crowell’s background as an executive for GAP, where he built and opened new stores, hired and trained personnel and stocked merchandise. It was a job that entailed travel, resourcefulness and a focus on customer service—a focus he’s trying to cultivate in North Port city government.

“In government, you don’t have somewhere else you can go,” says Crowell, who is encouraging employees to create a customer bill of rights for city residents.

Crowell involves employees in management as much as possible by holding regular staff meetings and taping or broadcasting the proceedings for those who may have missed one. When employees make suggestions, he encourages them to take ownership of the ideas and make the solutions happen. He spends time with employees on the job, even riding with police officers, firefighters and sanitation workers.

“I ask ‘why’ a lot,” says Crowell. “One of the answers that drives me nuts is, ‘Because we’ve always done it that way.’”

The secret of his managerial success is deceptively simple: “It’s about making expectations clear and making sure systems are in place to make that happen,” says Crowell.

Teaching and Mentoring


Helping an employee with homework after working an 80-hour week might sound a little above the call of duty, but Sandy Boyd, who owns PrideStaff, a staff leasing franchise with her husband, really does stay after work to help their sole employee, Michelle Tull, with her math homework.

Sandy and her husband, Tom, bought the business in June 2007 as a second career after long and fulfilling first ones: hers as a pharmacist and his with Channel Ten, WTSP-TV in St. Petersburg as a technician in the engineering department.

Today she likes nothing more than making sure that employees are going to companies where they will be treated with respect and where their skills and personalities will be best matched—and that extends to Tull.

Tull reports she was hired with little training for her current administrative position and was terrified that she wouldn’t meet her boss’s expectations. But Sandy reassured Tull that she fit the mold of the person she wanted to help her grow her business and has turned every question or mistake into a learning experience, in addition to helping with school work.

“I am getting a much-needed addition to my business education by working for the Boyds, seeing them conduct business with honest, integrity and a solid sense of community and a commitment to excellence,” says Tull.

Working with people is not always “a love fest,” Boyd admits, but a sense of humor comes in handy, as does her pharmacy experience in dealing with sometimes-difficult people.

“You have to treat people with value,” she says.

Keeping It Fun

ART CONFORTI, owner and president, Beneva Flowers & Gifts

Coming to work for Art Conforti of Beneva Flowers & Gifts may be many things—challenging (“He’s a pain in the neck, but in such a great way,” wrote one employee), surprising, tiring—but it’s never, ever boring.

“Even though he has 50 employees under his roof, he treats us all as vital contributors to his success,” writes employee Teresa Taft. “Art is never too busy to talk, to coach and to listen, not only to his employees but also to shops all across the country. Art is a humble guy with a huge heart.”

Conforti, whose mile-a-minute speech reflects his New Jersey roots, grew up in the floral business. His parents were florists in New York for decades before moving to Sarasota and opening a flower shop here. Conforti purchased the business from them in 1992. He started out with just one employee, but one of the first changes he made as the new owner was investing in a larger staff.

“You’re only as good as your employees,” says Conforti. “When I started, I thought all I needed was myself because help was looked on as an expense. Now I look at it as an asset.”

A sports buff, Conforti says his management style is much like a coach who puts the right players in the right spots and then hands them the ball. At that point he switches from coach to cheerleader. He prides himself on almost total accessibility and doesn’t mind carrying his Blackberry everywhere. His enthusiasm is contagious among employees, and while he does not balk at the idea of disciplining someone, he’s especially good at making sure an employee hears about what’s being done right, whether that’s by taking a driver who received a compliment from a client out to lunch, handing out gift certificates for massages on Mother’s Day or taking the whole staff out for a Tampa Bay Lightning game and dinner afterwards for Christmas.

And his employees stick around: one has been here for 17 years, and several have hit their decade-long mark.

It all pays off. “There are good things going on here,” says Conforti. “There’s buzz. There’s energy.”

Treating Employees Like Clients

HIDAYET KUTAT, owner and president, Gulf Coast Signs of Sarasota

Seven years after Cindy Bliss Hayford came to work for Gulf Coast Signs of Sarasota, she was diagnosed with cancer. Her new boss, Hidayet Kutat, who had just bought the struggling company the year before, went out of his way to help Hayford keep her job.

Says Hayford: “He and other employees split up a portion of my job, allowed me to become part-time, which I needed while going through treatment, and gave me tremendous support and courage to win my battle.”

Kutat—a former chemical engineer with 23 years of experience working for DuPont and six years with his own operations improvement consultancy firm—bought Gulf Coast Signs when it was operating a loss, had it breaking even in one year and operating at a profit in 2005. All the while, he treated his employees with “total respect, fairness and concern,” says Hayford. He gives them interest-free loans, improved the company’s 401(K) plan and distributes performance bonuses. His secret?

“I cannot be everything to everybody,” says Kutat. “I have a team I can trust who are as focused on satisfying customers as I am.”

Weekly sales meetings help employees stay abreast of all projects and deadlines, and he encourages and facilitates cross-training to help keep turnover low and staff motivated.

Most importantly, perhaps, Kutat does what so few bosses actually do: treats the employees as if they are as valuable as clients.

“It’s a very hard thing to follow, but without our employees, we would not have our customers,” he says. “Without employees, we have no business.”

Combining Professionalism with Family Atmosphere

O. DENISE GREER, vice president, King Engineering Associates

When employees at King Engineering Associates talk about vice president O. Denise Greer, they mention two seemingly disparate qualities: being the embodiment of extreme professionalism as well as the architect of a warm family atmosphere.

A civil engineer who took up this particular position four years ago after 16 years with another civil engineering firm, Greer has racked up respect from peers and employees who value her warmth, input, positive attitude and her ability to bring out the best in others. Greer encourages two-way communication with her staff, turning the tables during evaluations and asking them how the company can help them. She deals with discipline issues head on, and is careful about the line between chumminess and leadership.

“I could have never imagined that working for someone could be such a partnership,” writes Misty Servia, senior planner. “She is a true team leader who inspires us daily with her work ethic, honesty and professionalism. When your boss sets an example like this, it radiates throughout the office as the standard mode of our day-to-day operation.”

The mother of three children—14, 9 and 7—Greer knows what it’s like to balance family and career. She’s an expert at coming home from work, shutting off and then picking up later when she has to—her staff is not surprised to get work e-mails sent out at midnight. So she is happy to let her employees take advantage of flex hours and is quick to send a personal note if there’s been a surgery or illness. She also hosts cookie contests, chili cook-offs and bowling trips, fishing trips and a visit to Adventure Island that included the whole family.

“We all have families, so let’s embrace it,” says King. “It’s nice to get together on a different level.”

Valuing participation

ROB BROWN, vice president, Atlas Insurance

As the third generation of the Brown family to lead Atlas Insurance in Sarasota, Rob Brown is hardly an unknown quantity.

But there are many things about his management that others may not know, such as the fact that that his employees enjoy monthly chair massages, bagels or doughnuts every Friday, two casual days a week and recognition for perfect attendance. Or that if you work for Brown, you get a plump package of benefits that includes 15 flex days upon hire,100 percent employer-funded healthcare and annual Employee Appreciation Weekends to Key West, Disney World or spas. Or that Brown passionately encourages philanthropic activities, even during work hours. His employees have built a house for Habitat for Humanity, organized food drives and volunteered at the Pines of Sarasota.

“Not only is [Rob] a pure, caring individual at home and in the community, his behavior with his employees shows his desire for our success and abundance,” says his executive assistant Louise Wallick.

A sincere, attentive listener with a self-deprecating sense of humor, Brown describes his management style as “participatory.” “I’m a believer that you’re only as good as the people around you,” Brown says. “The decision rests with me, but I give a sounding board to others. I’m open to listening to just about everything.”

Being the boss, even of the company your grandfather founded, is not always easy, Brown says. It’s tough to juggle day-to-day operations with long-term planning, and tough to cut off an overload of information or redirect people to the right channels. He makes use of professional training, which has helped him create clear channels of communication and accountability.

But the really exciting thing about being the boss? “When employees have really run with the position, and you can see them eager to take on, learn and apply… that’s what gets me juiced up,” he says.

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