To most of the world, the Sarasota-Bradenton environment means white sands, 60-something temperatures in the winter and (red tide notwithstanding) a great place for deep-sea fishing. But for the roughly 700,000 people who live and work in the region, the ecosystem requires more elements than a retiree paradise. The place serves as a habitat for young families and growing businesses, a biome of commerce and communication. So what best survives in Southwest Floridaís existing economic ecosystem? What makes some companies boom as others wither? SRQ studies the entrepreneurial environment to see what thrives.

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Safe Haven

The vitality of any species depends on a healthy environment for the young. A herd that can’t protect its young bucks won’t survive as the old ones pass. Not every youngster in the Southwest Florida’s population grows up dreaming of actuarial spreadsheets and policy waivers. That’s no secret to the professionals at FCCI Insurance Group. But the work can prove surprisingly rewarding, the sort of thing folks stick with once they start. “This is a business about helping someone at their worst time,” says Lisa Krouse, FCCI executive vice president of Human Resources. “We can be there when there’s a crisis in a business. When a person or individual or a business is at their lowest point, we’re here to lift them up.”

And the business since 1959 has been a staple of Sarasota. While the insurance company now does industry in 19 states, its corporate headquarters remains in Sarasota, where some 425 employees work and thrive each day in a campus on University Parkway. Call it home to the region’s strongest agent herd. The company, founded in part by the late Sarasota City Commissioner Gil Waters, holds deep roots in the region, and considers its community connection one of the pillars of the company’s success. That also means a commitment to developing talent here to fill jobs. If the children dreaming of becoming superheroes serve as the area’s bucks, locking horns in play battle, FCCI serves as the majestic prince of the forest, watching over the flock.

It’s important to Krouse and other executives that young people growing up in Sarasota know opportunities exist to work at one of the biggest business insurers in the country—without having to move across the nation. Not everyone there works directly in insurance—there’s everyone from human resources professionals to staff at the in-house café. But plenty do require specific education.

FCCI and other employers in the region partner with educational institutions like State College of Florida, Manatee-Sarasota and University of South Florida Sarasota-Manatee. That can mean conspicuous sponsorships like the sponsoring of the main rotunda on the USF campus, or it can mean outreach to go into classrooms or provide internships. “We know in the next five to 10 years we will have an exit of lots of baby boomers,” Krouse says. “We know the preparation of the workforce to come is important, and we spend a great deal of our effort getting that pipeline of talent ready, to sustain ourselves and our community.” That Sarasota has a substantial industry of insurance companies helps the entire sector, and it’s important to inform people of opportunities, from risk managers at Feld Entertainment to brokers and agents that work directly with health providers. And helping grow a solid environment of educational resources helps employers outside the field. The broader range of skills, certificates and degrees available at local colleges helps address one of the greatest challenges for Southwest Florida, which is providing the workforce with high-paying jobs.

Kevin Cooper, former president of the Greater Sarasota Chamber of Commerce, notes the region’s particular demographics mean a lower workforce participation rate than most parts of the country. Within Sarasota County’s 420,000-person effective population, less than half want, need or even look for work. By comparison, more than 70 percent of people nationwide play an active role in the job market. “We have an older demographic that’s more reliant on retirement income and investments,” Cooper says. The job of business leaders in turn must be to take that challenge and make the most of it. Otherwise, the herd might thin to the point no one could survive.

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CEO Sean Dotson of RND  Automation. Photo by Wyatt Kostygan

New Life

No food chain can endure for long by eating its young. That’s why in recent years, business leaders looked to create an environment that fosters cooperation and nurtures companies from a larval state onward.

At RND Automation, a team of workers creates tech for assembly lines and other automation means to build everything from medical supplies to aerospace navigation equipment. “We’ve been growing pretty rapidly over 14 years,” says CEO Sean Dotson, who started the company with just three employees and now sports 47 on his payroll.As the company picked up a GrowFL award for being a Company to Watch in Florida, that delivered the most recent affirmation in a series of successful years. “It just validates the work we’ve done in recent years,” says Dotson.

But it also belies the myth that manufacturing can’t survive in the state of Florida. Yes, the state puts a high worth on protecting the environment, but there’s been significant growth in the past decade for “clean manufacturing,” Dotson says. That’s ironically helped both the region’s fauna and its factories find a warm and welcoming habitat. Dotson’s company had to find a niche and develop symbiotic relationships with other firms. It relies on other businesses, anyone that can benefit from automation. That includes a wide range of manufacturers doing business in the Sunshine State. RND now plays a role in building components for turbo engines and for precision carving instruments. The company as a result experienced exceptional growth and just advertised eight new job openings. As for what Dotson needs in his workforce, a few of those jobs will require applicants that hold engineering degrees, but some just require a certificate from one of the area’s technical colleges. “A lot of our community colleges have a two-year degree in instructional technology and automation,” he notes.

On the bright side, the school system in Sarasota County boasts a significant tax base of high-wealth individuals who place little stress on the system. And strong philanthropy in the region provides additional funding to local schools. And while metropolitan areas with major universities attract major research-based companies around campuses, there’s been a decided focus locally on professional service training that prepares individuals to go directly into the workforce.

“In higher education, we maintain a balance between focusing on the skills of today’s job market and forecasting those of the future,” says Dr. Carol Probstfeld, president of SCF. “Society has moved from the industrial age to the technological age and now to the creative age. Each age has radically changed the workforce. To remain competitive, creative and collaborative thinking must be emphasized in our educational system as we prepare our community members for the workforce.” A corporate and community development division at SCF helps identify the greatest needs in the region and will nurture those with specific instructors to provide contract training and specific professional development in fields including insurance, along with construction, healthcare and paralegal work. And USF’s local programs, with specific degrees like Hospitality Management, work closely with employers around the region to place internships.

Mark Huey, president of the Economic Development Corporation of Sarasota County, says the region’s greatest challenge remains workforce availability. “Certainly with tech companies, that’s our biggest problem,” he says. Fortunately, that’s a problem for nearly every community in the nation. But it’s one regional leaders have tackled in a number of different ways, from working with the University of Florida to open a engineering extension in Sarasota to encouraging job outreach with higher education institutions through the Cross College Alliance.


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Executive Vice President of Human Resources for FCCI Insurance Lisa Krouse. Photo by Wyatt Kostygan.



Life stems from the land. Huey says a significant challenge for any type of economic development efforts remains fulfilling the real estate needs of any type of company interested in doing business in the region. Whether trying to find undeveloped earth or empty offices and warehouses, scarcity and cost make it hard at times to find a physical place for a business to operate. “We feel it most acutely in the area of business park facilities,” Huey says. “Those kind of facilities are full, especially when you’re looking for more modern, more recently developed facilities to meet current market demand.” But John Harshman, a commercial real estate agent and owner of Harshman & Company, says it’s all a matter of where you look. When it comes to Class A office space, Downtown Sarasota has plenty. He notes the recent vacating of the Sarasota Herald-Tribune building downtown means a fresh influx of office space. Sarasota Memorial Health Care System just nabbed that space, and will bring in a number of professional services there, which in term will open a substantial amount of medical office space on the main Tamiami Trail hospital campus. Consider it the sunken ship that turned into a new habitat for thriving sealife.

And while there may be limits as far as office parks, there’s a good supply of industrial space, Harshman says, especially if businesses look toward the Lakewood Ranch area and north Manatee, places a little distant from the traditional downtown business centers but where rents are lower and there’s access to interstates and ports. 

By Harshman’s telling, the Great Recession 10 years ago created an enormous vacancy rate in the span of less than a year. Office space largely has been absorbed since then, but it’s taken longer to fill in all the mid-range industrial space. “The prices for industrial are not keeping up with space,” he says. “There’s still product out there available for purchase.”

At least that’s Harshman’s experience. Ian Black, president of Ian Black Real Estate, finds the best industrial space fills up as soon as it goes on the market. That speaks in a sense to Huey’s concern that new employers demanding modern amenities instead of no-frills warehouses have a harder time finding all they want in Southwest Florida’s existing structures. “Our builders can’t move quickly enough to stay ahead of lease schedules,” Black says. In that sense, the land remains unforgiving. As for office space, many of the big employers like to buy—and there always seem to be some—10,000-square-foot spaces available in Downtown Sarasota or Bradenton, Black says. Harshman agrees, noting that with how many business owners arrive in Sarasota with some wealth in hand, the ability to purchase means titles change hands instead of rental contracts much of the time.

Harshman says, to some degree, the space available in the region simply has natural limits. “There’s always going to be that 200,000-square-foot user that we can’t service,” he says. “Those companies won’t look in markets like Sarasota. But generally speaking, for the smaller or medium-sized businesses looking for space, there’s a good supply.”


Adapting in the Wild


More than real estate, Black worries about the region’s recent history with incentives funds. No creature wants to build its home on scorched earth. “That’s a sore topic,” he says. “Certainly the whole issue of incentives is under fire.” And indeed, the region has enjoyed ups and suffered downs. Even individual companies felt the good and bad of tax deals. At Sarasota Medical Supplies, a local company selling manufacturing wound care and ostomy products, a locally-funded incentives program in Sarasota County gave reason to open shop and brand the business with the community name.

Walter Leise, company president, launched the business in 2010 and started manufacturing goods two years later back when they had an exclusive deal to create products for another business in Largo. County officials approved a tax deal for Sarasota Medical Supplies on the promise the business could create at least 60 new jobs in the region within a couple years. But then the Largo deal fell apart and clawback provisions kicked in. Sarasota Medical Supplies had to pay back the incentives.

Call it a Darwinian test that only the strongest concept could survive. For Sarasota Medical, this was the moment to adapt or to die. It chose the former. “We started from ground zero and developed new products,” Leise says. “Now we’ve got about 20 customers, and we’ve been growing 30 to 50 percent every year for the past four years.”  While the company is not yet at 60 employees, there are more than 20 people now working at the Sarasota company, and the expansion rate and comeback story helped the firm win a spot last year on GrowFL’s Companies to Watch. Leise says Sarasota proves a good place for a medical supply company because it’s a solid target marketplace, and there are plenty of other medical companies already doing work on the Gulf Coast. So incentives drew the business here but the ecosystem led the company to thrive even when those dollars disappeared.

Of course, it’s an incentive deal never granted that leaves Black worried about the region’s reputation. Two years ago, Sarasota County commissioners elected not to offer a negotiated incentive package for North American Roofing Company, after local roofers and commercial builders objected to using tax dollars to lure the competition. North American simply took a different deal in nearby Hillsborough County. “We had the opportunity to bring a significant corporate headquarters here,” Black says, “and we blew it.”

But that particular occasion served as the one and only incentives package ever negotiated and then withdrawn in Sarasota County. Both Sarasota and Manatee counties have separate incentives programs available to lure users to the region. “The tools at the county haven’t changed,” says Huey. “We feel like our toolbox is very solid, and we feel good about what we can represent for companies.”

Of course, there have been shifts at the state level. Cooper reminds that Florida long kept a spot in the top tier of business-friendly states thanks largely to an absence of state income tax and the lowest corporate tax rate in the South. Black felt relieved when Republican Ron DeSantis won the recent gubernatorial election in Florida, if only because the Democratic candidate proposed hiking the corporate tax substantially and DeSantis promised to keep it low.

The future of state incentives, though, remains a subject of controversy and curiosity. While state incentives proved a favorite tool of economic development for outgoing governor Rick Scott, it proved an extremely controversial policy in the past two years and a source of friction between the governor and House of Representatives. In the House, full funding for Enterprise Florida’s incentives program appears to be a non-starter. Huey says, that for the last two years, that’s kept Florida effectively out of the mix in attracting some of the major, national-headline deals in the corporate recruitment world.

The fear remains, as other Southern states offer robust incentives, whether Florida will be marked for its sudden tax dollar drought. Will corporations still venture into the Sunshine State if they must weather the environment without help? As for DeSantis’ stand, an economic platform he released during the campaign included no mention of tax incentives as an economic development tool, though it did mention the use of higher education resources to spur high-tech innovation in Florida.

Regardless of where the new governor falls on the use of public incentives, Huey feels optimistic Sarasota has friends in Tallahassee, with the region’s two state Senators both holding key positions in the Florida Legislature. State Sen. Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, this year serves as Senate President, and new State Sen. Joe Gruters, R-Sarasota, in November was named chairman of the Commerce and Tourism Committee, the most important post in the chamber when it comes to economic development and business issues. “As one of the biggest supporters of Visit Florida and Enterprise Florida in the House, this is very important to me,” says Gruters, who fought leadership in his own party about the appropriate use of incentives, when Speaker Richard Corcoran wanted to completely end the program.

Cooper for his part suggests the use of incentives in some kid of economic development competition with other communities could ultimately be a zero-sum gain. “I make the comparison that if you go an entertainment district and one business says they have $2 drafts, then the other says they have $1.75 drafts, then one says $1.50,” he says. “No one really knows what’s getting people in the door any more.”

Maybe it’s best, he suggests, to find out who survives without the incentives, to learn who can live on this land alone. Certainly, when Sarasota first offered business incentives at the dawn of the recession, it made sense, but the community has some well-documented struggles with certain businesses failing to follow through on job creation. It’s important now that any tax breaks or other incentives being offered have accountability and purpose. But the best draw, Cooper says, may be a more intangible motivator—a great quality of life.


A Rich Environment 

When Motorworks Brewing opened up in Bradenton in 2013, the company supported about eight full-time employees and a handful of servers at a taproom. As of late 2018, the business employed 42 people, who all play their part in keeping the microbrewery successful. “It’s cool to step back and see what we’ve been able to do,” says Barry Elwonger, director of sales and marketing for Motorworks since its founding. Along the way, the business has gone from serving four homemade concoctions to put on tap in its own store to now brewing about 30 beers at any given time. A total of 300 unique flavors came from Motorworks taps since the company’s debut. But more important in the big picture, the business helped make Bradenton into a destination.

“We’ve met people from around the world who come here and say they made the trip for us,” Elwonger says. Credit the place-making power of craft beverages. Of course, there’s plenty else to toast for visitors in Sarasota. Sunsets and sandbars. Recreation and luxury. In that sense, the comfort of the region provides the greatest natural resource. Ultimately, it’s an ecosystem where everyone wants to live.

“What we really offer that’s not like anywhere else is a quality of life,” Cooper says. “From an economic perspective, that creates opportunities for hiring and retention.”

Indeed, much of the investment in new businesses in the region comes from wealthy CEOs and retired professionals who come here for the beach lifestyle and stay to build their wealth some more. Huey says many people who already own second homes in the Sarasota area end up relocating the corporate headquarters here, whether for tax purposes or just because it’s easy to convince an administrative staff to make the Sarasota area their home year-round. A solid school system makes many executives happy to build their own nests here. And many who move here with no professional plans end up launching companies here in the end. “Part of the reason our home base is in Sarasota was personal for me. The idea for the startup was born here,” says Denver Stutler, Jr., CEO for U.S. Submergent Technologies. “The City of Sarasota has a lot of great energy and smart people with an interesting dichotomy of retirees and young families all in one area. There is a great education system in place here, and Sarasota has proven to have the resources we need to help us be successful.”

The business, another Companies to Watch winner this year, actually finds a way to profit from making the environment here more pristine. USST removes sand grit and residuals from submerged infrastructure, which this waterfront community has in droves. Stutler sees every reason to stay in the area, not just because there are clients here but so the business can thrive in an already-flourishing ecosystem. “Our Florida base of operations serves as a business model for future branch growth,” Stutler says. “Florida has a growing population with increasing demand on an already aging infrastructure, a perfect fit for our services. We clean infrastructure that gets used every day, and no one notices. The problem we solve is not unique to Florida, but Florida has been open to our new technology and solution, and we may not have been as successful if we had begun in another market.”

But while that attracts the wealthy business owners, what of the working class people on the payroll? Cooper says that speaks to perhaps the region’s greatest economic challenge, a lack of housing stock. As of late 2018, housing costs in Sarasota ran approximately $186 per square foot on average. “You just don’t see a lot of stuff on the market that’s able to be supported by a $32,000-a-year income,” Cooper says. 

In fact, Housing and Urban Development standards suggest it takes a household income of $64,000 a year to support owning a $250,000 home. But the Realtor Association of Sarasota and Manatee reports the median price for single-family homes in Sarasota County as of October stood around $270,000, and in Manatee County that climbed to $298,000.

It raises the question, no matter the attractive resources here, will they inevitably become too scarce?

Sarasota City Commissioner Hagen Brody says he fears for all the commitment to redevelopment of blighted areas in the region, there remain too many obstacles to developers interested in building attainable housing. “It’s a very tough but very important conversation we need to have,” he says. Brody would like to see changes in traffic requirements and waivers of fees for developers who want to price homes at attainable rates for working class individuals.

But officials in the business and government world see some successes within the Sarasota city limits. A redevelopment district in the Rosemary District that allowed higher density development on concentrated properties spurred the construction of apartments like those at CitySide, and created a chance for workers to live in the city where they get their paychecks. Cooper sees reason for such density bonuses elsewhere in the county, and points to the Rosemary as an example of a way to have high concentration of people without compromising the quality of life in the region. It shows the true test for the ecosystem may be in whether it can continue to support the luscious tropical life for all comers. But a careful balance of inhabitants’ needs can allow the population to flourish.