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Coffee Talk
Business Observer Thursday, Sep. 25, 2008 10 years ago

Coffee Talk

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+ Analyst claimsHMA selling overdoneDid investors overreact to the recent resignation of Health Management Associates Chief Executive Officer Burke Whitman?+ New home permitshit new all-time lowThe city of North Port, a onetime tiny retirement village in southern Sarasota County, has grown so fast it recently overtook Sarasota as the biggest city in the county in terms of total population.+ Where's the beef?Making the female pitchTampa-based family sports restaurant chain, Beef 'O' Brady's, is feeling the pinch like all restaurants these days. Bailout watch:Everyone wants a pieceGulf Coast real estate investors are watching the government's proposed bailout closely, wondering if that's going to stem foreclosures and home-price declines.+ Engel steps downafter long EDC tenureThe Manatee County Economic Development Council is adding a new twist to its mission to recruit and keep companies.+ Frozen markets thawed -enough to finish dealNot even one of the biggest collapses on Wall Street and in U.S. financial history could stop The Plasencia Group, a Tampa hotel brokerage, from closing a sale recently.+ Million-dollar problemsgo national in JournalSarasota and Bradenton were recently featured prominently in a long Wall Street Journal story. But it wasn't the type of clip the Chamber of Commerce will be framing anytime soon.

Coffee Talk

+ Analyst claims

HMA selling overdone

Did investors overreact to the recent resignation of Health Management Associates Chief Executive Officer Burke Whitman?

Kevin Fischbeck, a Banc of America Securities analyst, argues that the stock-price decline of the Naples-based hospital operator (symbol: HMA) was overdone. The stock has traded below $5 a share since Whitman's resignation Sept. 15, and recently was down 23% for the year to date.

Fischbeck recently upgraded the shares of HMA with a "buy" recommendation and a price target of $6 a share in the year ahead. "Given our conversations with multiple industry contacts, we have a very high opinion of new CEO Gary Newsome and believe that he has the operational background to help make HMA's turnaround a success," Fischbeck writes.

Newsome was HMA's divisional vice president of group operations from 1993 to 1998 before joining HMA rival Community Health System as its president. Newsome is back at HMA and is the company's third chief executive in less than two years.

Fischbeck argues that the company's strong cash flows and debt-reduction plans give investors some protection if the company's prospects worsen. The company has struggled with the growing ranks of uninsured patients that fill its beds.

+ New home permits

hit new all-time low

The city of North Port, a onetime tiny retirement village in southern Sarasota County, has grown so fast it recently overtook Sarasota as the biggest city in the county in terms of total population. The city, which celebrates its 50th anniversary this year, has about 55,000 residents.

But one area where growth has slowed to almost flat line status is in new home permits. Indeed, the city issued an all-time low of just two new home permits in August, a bleak contrast to the 500 permits it was issuing per month for some of 2005 and 2006. And this new low comes off the 19 new home permits the city's building department issued in July and the nine it issued in June, the previous all-time low.

The permit disappearing act mirrors that of other towns for the same reasons: a glut of homes, foreclosed properties, rocky credit markets and increasing taxes on builders. That being said, just who is the brave soul that took out the two permits issued by North Port's building department in August?

That would be Lennar, the battered Miami-based national homebuilder that has seen its revenues fall and its losses climb as the suffering in the nationwide new home market lingers.

Local Lennar officials couldn't be reached for comment, but a glance at the permits shows nothing too spectacular is coming soon to North Port. One home is listed as being worth $361,329, while another home is valued at $334,104.

+ Where's the beef?

Making the female pitch

Tampa-based family sports restaurant chain, Beef 'O' Brady's, is feeling the pinch like all restaurants these days.

So the 23-year-old company, founded in Brandon, is making a special appeal to part of its audience: women.

Beef's has redesigned its menu. You'll still see pictures of kids, the Irish prayer and the familiar Watterson roasted beef sandwich and wings.

But some restaurants have added mixed drinks, like margaritas, and added smoothies and natural fruit drinks. Beef's has also added new food items, such as combination baskets and steak salads, to attract female customers.

Beef's, which sponsors teams and attracts many soccer moms - and maybe some hockey moms - with their children, wants to attract more of them, especially when their husbands and boyfriends want to go out to dinner.

"The guys tell us they want to be able to take their wife more often," Chuck Winship, chief executive officer, told Coffee Talk. "We're more actively listening to our customers. We want to be more friendly to women. It is not a repositioning. It's just a change in format from our past menus."

Beef's serves beer and wine. It is testing hard liquor in different restaurants, but not all of its locations have a full liquor license, because of landlord or zoning restrictions or costs. So it is testing beverages such as Bloody Mary's with fermented alcohol, not distilled alcohol.

"A lot of women want more choices," Winship says.

Beef's even came up with a name for this campaign. It is called, "Eliminating the no vote."

"Consumers are rejecting us for reasons," he says. "Offering a wider selection of foods and beverages we believe is the answer."

Hooters started offering mixed drinks about two years ago. Although Hooters targets some different customers, and operates differently, Beef's was watching.

Despite the economy, year-to-date total system sales at Beef's are up. It also opened 30 restaurants this year. "But it is a tough environment," Winship says. "We're fortunate that wing costs are lower."

What really hurts are Florida operations.

"Florida just went through a boom from 2004 to 2006, and there was much more growth in (restaurant) seats than customers," Winship says. "We've seen Steak & Ale, Shells and Bennigan's in bankruptcy court. More rumors are going around. We've seen some companies struggling."

But Beefs is also seeing some restaurants benefit as competitors fall away. "We're starting to see some stores win," Winship says. "There are more closures. It's affecting some businesses uniquely."

+ Bailout watch:

Everyone wants a piece

Gulf Coast real estate investors are watching the government's proposed bailout closely, wondering if that's going to stem foreclosures and home-price declines.

Bankers are watching too, hoping that they can offload bad real-estate loans onto taxpayers. Community banks in particular are loaded down with residential construction and land-development loans that aren't paying off. Wouldn't it be nice to get rid of those albatrosses?

The idea is to create a more orderly process in which people can determine the value of assets, says Gary Jackson, director of the economic research institute at Florida Gulf Coast University in Fort Myers. The problem, Jackson says, is "people don't know what these assets are worth."

Longer term, the Wall Street fright is likely to impact consumer confidence. "The big fear is inflation," Jackson says, as the government pumps more money into the financial system. In addition, employers are likely to hold off hiring to make sure any recovery is solid. "They've been burned; they're going to wait," he says.

+ Engel steps down

after long EDC tenure

The Manatee County Economic Development Council is adding a new twist to its mission to recruit and keep companies. The agency, run through the Manatee Chamber of Commerce, is now looking to recruit a new leader.

Nancy Engel, a onetime public relations official who was the group's founding executive director in 1983, recently announced her retirement from that position. Engel has long been the face of economic development in Greater Bradenton, helping bring companies such as Sysco, Hoveround and GE Security to Manatee County.

When Engel started the EDC, the group had an annual budget of about $100,000. That staff has since grown to about 10 people and that budget has since grown more than seven times its original size.

"What gets all the hype is the new companies that come in," Engel tells Coffee Talk, "but from the very beginning, we've had a big focus on existing companies."

Engel's retirement will be a phased process that could take as long as two years, mostly because the EDC is on the cusp of launching a new strategic plan. Engel says she hopes a replacement will be named and able to start by early next year, to lead that process. A nationwide search for a new director, run by Manatee Chamber President Bob Bartz, has already begun.

Meanwhile, Engel has agreed to stay on to lead the council's retention/workforce development activities so the new executive director could focus on the strategic plan. Playing with her five grandchildren, traveling with her family and honing her photography skills are going to have to wait a little longer.

A native of a small town in southern Indiana, Engel moved to the Gulf Coast more than 30 years ago to be closer to some family. She cites her work with regional agencies and organizations as her biggest accomplishment with the Manatee County EDC; when she first got here, competition was fierce among the various organizations in Greater Tampa Bay.

Says Engel: "We got past all the rivalries that were here."

+ Frozen markets thawed -

enough to finish deal

Not even one of the biggest collapses on Wall Street and in U.S. financial history could stop The Plasencia Group, a Tampa hotel brokerage, from closing a sale recently.

And in New York, the financial capital and epicenter of the credit freeze.

At a time when the financial markets are at their worst point since the terrorist attacks of 9/11, Plasencia finished of one of its most significant single-asset transactions.

The company served as an advisor to Green Island Associates on the sale of the historic Sagamore Resort in Bolton Landing, N.Y. Sagbolt, LLC bought the resort for more than $88 million.

Chief Executive Lou Plascenia called the sale "an extremely challenging transaction" because of the uncertainty in the financial markets.

Built in 1883, the 70-acre resort on Lake George in the Adirondack Mountains includes a hotel, condominiums, an 18-hole Donald Ross golf course, conference facilities, a marina, sailing school, spa and multiple food and beverage outlets. The resort underwent $75 million in renovations in 1983 following its acquisition by Green Island, and then another $20 million in upgrades beginning in 2002.

+ Air-taxi service grounded

in the midst of growth flight

So much for statewide expansion.

It was just this past May that Boca Raton-based DayJet, a self-described no-frills air-taxi service, announced it was going to bring its exclusive "per-set, on-demand" service to the Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport.

That's where it said its clients, mostly high-level executives and high-net worth entrepreneurs, would be able to pay for only the seats they needed for each flight, not the entire plane - a twist on the standard private jet business model. The expansion to Sarasota-Bradenton followed recent similar splashy debuts.

But DayJet's plans have been grounded. The company canceled all its flights and let go of the bulk of its employees Sept. 19, a move it blamed on a combination of the global financial crisis and technical and mechanical problems with the Albuquerque, N.M.-based airplane designer and manufacturer that was supplying DayJet's planes.

"Regrettably, without access to growth capital, we have no choice but to discontinue operations," Ed Iacobucci Iacobucci, the company founder, said in a statement.

+ Million-dollar problems

go national in Journal

Sarasota and Bradenton were recently featured prominently in a long Wall Street Journal story. But it wasn't the type of clip the Chamber of Commerce will be framing anytime soon.

Instead, the region served as the backdrop for a Sept. 19 cover story in the paper's Weekend Journal section on how the home foreclosure crisis is starting to push its way into the multimillion-dollar home market. According to foreclosure research firm RealtyTrac, for example, the number of homes nationwide worth at least $1 million that were under foreclosure proceedings the first eight months of 2008 was up 83%, from 4,214 during the same period in 2007 to 7,698 this year.

Two stories of million-dollar woe to back up the statistics come courtesy of local homeowners. One subject says he's facing possible foreclosure on the Sarasota waterfront home he paid $2.5 million for in 2003. He's got the house on the market for $3.4 million, with little activity. And, the story reports, since he recently lost his $250,000 a year job as a finance executive with an auto sales chain, he can no longer afford the $10,500 mortgage payments.

The article ends with a telling anecdote that could fill in the blanks for just about any story describing the real estate market collapse. In this case, the subject is a Lakewood Ranch investor/speculator who teamed up with some partners to buy a $2.1 million house in the east Manatee County development in 2005 with the hopes of rehabbing it and then selling it for close to double in a year or so.

The partners walked away from the deal after a year. The remaining owner couldn't sell the house and he stopped making payments on it in August. Now, according to the story, the mortgage holder, Countrywide Financial, is trying to sell the house for $1.4 million.

ECONOMIC SNAPSHOT

GULF COAST UNEMPLOYMENT

What the data shows: The unemployment rates for Gulf Coast areas in August exceeded the state and national averages (The rates in our chart are not seasonally adjusted.)

What it means: Contraction in the construction and real estate industries is still adding to the ranks of the unemployed. The sharpest percentage-point increase was in Cape Coral-Fort Myers, where the unemployment rate rose to 9%. Statewide, nearly half of the jobs lost were in construction and about one-third occurred among professional and business services.

Forecast: While this is the traditional slow season for employment in Florida, Gulf Coast areas will continue to see higher-than-usual unemployment rates this year. While this bodes well for firms that are hiring, a relatively high unemployment rate will hurt spending. The unemployment rates will likely continue to rise until seasonal tourism-related businesses start hiring in the late fall.

AUGUST UNEMPLOYMENT RAT

Area Unemployment rate Annual pt. chg.

Bradenton-Sarasota-Venice 7.3% 2.7

Cape Coral-Fort Myers 9% 3.7

Naples-Marco Island 8.4% 2.7

Punta Gorda 9.2% 3.4

Tampa-St. Petersburg-Clearwater 6.9% 2.4

Florida 6.8% 2.4

United States 6.1% 1.5

Source: Florida Agency for Workforce Innovation

Doctor, banker, photographer, and all-around winner

Add photography to Howard Sheridan's biography.

Sheridan is one of the founders of Radiation Therapy Services, the Fort Myers-based radiation treatment company that was recently sold to a New York private equity firm for $1.1 billion. The retired physician is also the founding director of Edison National Bank and chairman of its holding company, Edison Bancshares.

But it turns out Sheridan is an accomplished photographer, too. One photograph of two bison in Yellowstone National Park is featured in the September issue of National Geographic magazine. The photo was chosen from among more than 24,000 entries in National Geographic's 2007 International Photography Contest.

National Geographic is well known for featuring some of the best photography in the world. Sheridan specializes in wildlife and environmental photography.

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