Best Bosses 2009

By Su Byron Photography by Gene Pollux April 30, 2009

Bosses come in a million different sizes and styles, but the qualities that make some “the best” are surprisingly similar. That’s the opinion of two of the experts who helped us judge this year’s “Best Boss” contest, executive coach Linda Tiffan of T2 Management Consultants in Sarasota and Michael Corley, the president of Manatee’s PES Employer Services.

Corley, who deals with bosses every day in his role of providing administrative and HR services to 1,600 companies in Florida, singles out “honest and integrity” as key qualities. “Only when you have these qualities will people rally behind you,” he explains.

Tiffin, who runs an executive coaching consultancy and has worked with leaders of national companies large and small, evaluates effective leaders by asking these questions: How do they manage their business? How do they manage others? And how do they manage themselves? “There’s lots of room for variety in these three buckets,” she says, “but most successful leaders exhibit both mental and emotional intelligence. They understand their own strengths and weaknesses and how to optimize them, they make willing followers of the people they lead, and they are smart and skilled enough to make good and ethical business decisions.”

The seven people on these pages bring out the best in their employees and in their companies. 



CEO, Mercedes Medical

We’ve heard it before: Happy employees make good employees. It sounds pretty basic, but for Alex Miller, CEO of Mercedes Medical, it’s her core business philosophy. “The more your employees buy into your business, the better it will be.”  

Miller joined this family-owned medical supply firm in 1995. Under her leadership, it has experienced phenomenal growth, bringing in a record $20 million in revenues in 2008, with sales to hospitals, research labs and physician offices across the country and in Canada and Puerto Rico. According to Miller, the secret of that success has a lot to do with her team. 

“Don’t micromanage,” she says. “Motivate and delegate. Set goals and guide your team to achieve those goals. Give your employees what they need to succeed. Be receptive to their input. “

Essentially, Miller takes a pay-it-forward approach. She motivates her managers and they, in turn, employ the same strategy with their staff. “Teamwork is something every employer should strive for,” Miller says. “The former CEO of G.E., Jack Welch, once said, ‘Get all of your people on the bus in the right seat.’ I go one step further. I say, ‘Get them all singing the same song.’”

Miller has a grab-bag of employee motivators, including her famous poker chip system, which rewards employees with tokens that can be cashed in for time off or gift cards. She also encourages her staff to bring their dogs to work, and recently initiated in-office massages. Other extras include company-sponsored health programs and cruises. She also holds weekly meetings to “look at new ways to achieve both personal and professional goals.”

As the mother of two small children, president of the Humane Society of Sarasota, and an M.B.A. student at Johns Hopkins University (she graduates this month), Miller has a talent for multitasking. She believes in setting attainable goals.

“My philosophy is the 70-percent solution,” she says. “If I can achieve everything at a 70-percent level, that’s good enough. If I occasionally hit 80 percent or 90 percent, that’s great.”


President, Willis A. Smith Construction

When dozens of employees wrote to tell us about David Sessions, president of Willis A. Smith Construction, we were ready to apply for a job at his company, one of the area’s busiest construction management firms. Last year Willis A. Smith and its 50 employees completed the $20-million renovation of the historic Sarasota Opera House and are working on student housing and academic buildings at Ringling College of Art and Design.

Sessions’ honor, fairness, integrity and “family first” philosophy came up repeatedly in employees’ heartfelt descriptions. For example, Sessions once loaned his personal cell phone to a new employee who had to make an emergency, all-night, out-of-town road trip for a funeral with her two young children. “It was a spectacular and appreciated gesture,” the employee wrote.

Warren G. Simonds, vice president and CMO, says Willis A. Smith reflects the personal values of Sessions. “In 49 years, I have never worked for anyone better,” he says. Project manager Steve Arrington agrees. “David Sessions has impeccable integrity. If he tells you something, you can take it to the bank.”

Sessions is grateful for the praise but doesn’t understand all the fuss. “Let’s face it,” he says. “If people enjoy their workplace, it shows in the quality of their work. It’s about doing the right thing. We truly care about our employees and their families, and we try to show that we value them in as many ways as we can.”

Sessions shows his appreciation by offering full healthcare coverage, celebrating his team with annual dinners, parties and retreats—even in this weak economy—and pitching in during critical situations. His and his staff’s involvement with community nonprofits and educational efforts is also notable; in 2008 alone, Willis A. Smith donated more than $87,000 to area nonprofits, a reflection, says Simonds, “of David’s desire to give back to the community from which we draw our success.”


General Manager, University Park Country Club

Managing a country club and 145 employees is probably only slightly less difficult than managing a country. (Think about all those demanding members who expect everything from last-minute tee times to a perfect filet mignon.) But Laurie Evans, general manager of University Park Country Club, makes it look easy—even after tackling such initiatives as helping to take the club from private to semi-private status in 2007. Her secret: recognizing each person’s unique skills and talents.

“I get the most success by determining what motivates people,” says Evans. “It could be money, need for community, or a sense of satisfaction for a job well done. Once I figure out what drives someone, I’m much more successful in helping that person excel.”

Her employees agree that Evans has a knack for bringing out the best in people. “Laurie leads by example,” notes Shelley Whiteside, membership director. “She’ll stand in an ice-cold freezer to help the chef take inventory; she’ll skip her own vacation to let a manager take one. Laurie never tells you to do anything; she asks with a ‘please.’”

Evans puts her people skills to work overcoming challenges with both club members and employees. “My philosophy is always to put myself in the other person’s place. You can solve most problems when you take an empathetic viewpoint.”

“It’s rewarding to listen to Laurie handle complaints,” says Dawne Waite, Web site and IT administrator. “It’s amazing how well she can make people calm down or understand her way of seeing things.”

Evans is one of the few female country club managers in the area, but she says, “The only special challenges I face are those that I create myself. I’ve never felt any less empowered than any of the men I’ve worked with or for.”

At the end of the day, says Evans, it comes down to a simple tenet: Listen. “I’m really busy, everybody is; but if I stop for one minute, clear my mind and give someone my full attention, I can successfully manage most situations.”



Owners, Children’s World Uniform Supply

What’s the secret ingredient in Tim and Cynthia Holliday’s leadership philosophy?

“R-e-s-p-e-c-t,” Cynthia spells out. “If you can see the best in people, you can bring out their best.”

Tim agrees: “We are a team. Our employees go above and beyond what they need to do because they know we go above and beyond.”

The Hollidays, who purchased the venerable 45-year-old Children’s World Uniform Supply retail store in 2001 and relocated it last year from Bahia Vista Street to Bee Ridge Road, demonstrate that respect in numerous ways. They offer their six employees lucrative profit sharing and retirement programs, weekly meetings, social outings, gifts, bonuses and flexible scheduling, and they encourage an environment of open communication.

During those weekly meetings, Cynthia says, “It’s shocking how much we can get done. When everyone’s in the loop so much can be accomplished.”

They also discuss new inventory with their staff. “If they don’t like a product, we won’t sell it,” says Tim. “That’s how much we value their opinion.”

“It’s the complete opposite of ‘my way or the highway,’” says Cynthia. “Their influence helps make our business successful.”

Carmen Judge, sales assistant, appreciates the Hollidays’ direct management style. “Tim and Cynthia make work fun and challenging,” she says. “They don’t micromanage every step, but they do expect us to work hard. They also expect us to think. Cynthia will say ‘Let me know if you disagree, because my way is not always the right way.’”

Flexibility is an important ingredient in keeping a workplace healthy, says Tim. “It’s important to be flexible when an employee is having issues that interfere with his or her schedule. Like any family, we laugh together, cry together and get mad together. But in the end, we know we’re going to get through this together through teamwork and respect.

“Empower, push, praise, encourage growth,” he says. “You’ll be repaid a thousand times over.” 




County Tax Collector

Talk about taxing jobs. Sarasota County Tax Collector Barbara Ford-Coates leads 86 employees responsible for managing the accounts of nearly 330,000 taxpayers. Where others in her position might take the attitude of a bean counter, she never treats anyone as a mere number. It’s her goal to make everyone feel a viable part of the team.

“People need to know they’re appreciated,” says Ford-Coates. “Customer service is vital in our business. In our office, we think of everyone as a customer. That applies to the people across the counter and the people behind the counter.”

Community outreach administrator Coleen Miller says that through Ford-Coates’ encouragement, “Our office has developed a culture of celebration.” Employees observe holidays, accomplishments and important dates, all of which add to “an esprit de corps.” Employees also raise funds for area charities through their Casual Friday program. In the past 10 years, the Ford-Coates team has donated $67,000 to area causes this way.

After 30 years in county government, Ford-Coates understands that positive change is necessary to keep any enterprise thriving.

“It’s easy for things to become institutionalized,” she says. “My theory is, there’s always a better way to do things. We create opportunities to ask questions that lead to new ways of doing things. A leader has to always be asking the question: How can we do this better?”

The bottom line, Ford-Coates says, is that “One person is not the answer. A good leader knows that. It’s a waste of resources to lead through dictatorship. I have 86 brilliant brains around me; I’m going to take advantage of each one.”

And others outside the region are taking notice. Last year, the National Association of County Collectors, Treasurers & Finance Officers named Ford-Coates the Outstanding County Tax Collector in the U.S.


Mike Brown knows what it’s like to start at the bottom. His father, Ben, hired Mike when he was still in high school—to clean the office bathrooms. In 1973, Mike Brown joined Ben Brown Insurance Agency full time, and has been “been in the trenches ever since.”

Now president of this 56-year-old Sarasota firm, Brown is still willing to handle any task that has to be done, according to his 19 employees. “He never plays the boss card,” says one of his employees. “It’s a breath of fresh air to work in a place where everyone’s opinions count.”

Brown, who says he’s motivated by working with people, says he simply abides by the Golden Rule. “It’s a pretty simple principle,” he says. “I treat my employees the way I expect to be treated. The trick is to find the right people and then give them the tools to do their jobs. When you support your people, they support you and your customers. It creates a good feeling all around.”

Brown’s hands-on style and eye for detail mean he stays in tune with the day-to-day operations of his company and can stay on top of industry changes and trends. To keep this edge, Brown encourages his staff to further their education. “We reward continuing education,” he says. “It keeps all of us on top of our game.”

And how many bosses ever hear these words from an employee? “Am I well paid for the job?” asks employee Lynn Wright. “Yes! But I would work for half just for the chance to work with Mike Brown.

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