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Coffee Talk
Business Observer Friday, Feb. 23, 2007 12 years ago

Coffee Talk

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Six weeks into an ambitious - and expensive - advertising campaign designed to get fence-sitters to plunk over down payments and actually buy homes, the Sarasota Association of Realtors is seeing some positive results. Or are last three months of statistical increases in sales and offers, not to mention the reduction in inventory, just a cyclical fact in a market that eventually would bounce back anyway?What a year for Network Liquidators. Revenue grew 80%. The company opened a London office. The chief financial officer left. Another executive was promoted. The company acquired another and it obtained $12.86 million in capital.And to top it all, the company, founded in 2001, is moving for the fifth time in five years.In a deal that exudes good timing, Michigan-based Burton-Katzman Development Co. bought Sarasota Commercial Management Inc., a property management and real estate firm with about 25 properties under leases totaling 500,000 square feet. Neither side disclosed the sale price for the deal, announced Feb. 15. At 24, Ryan Sampson, who works with land broker Bill Eshenbaugh, known as Tampa's Dirt Dog, might just be the youngest person ever to become an Accredited Land Consultant.Then again, he might not be.Politicians, lobbyists and parents of Florida State University college students can cheer new nonstop air service to Tallahassee from Naples.

+ Advertising campaign works (maybe)

Six weeks into an ambitious - and expensive - advertising campaign designed to get fence-sitters to plunk over down payments and actually buy homes, the Sarasota Association of Realtors is seeing some positive results.

Or are last three months of statistical increases in sales and offers, not to mention the reduction in inventory, just a cyclical fact in a market that eventually would bounce back anyway?

Either way, executives with SAR are ecstatic over recent reports showing more sales, especially in some areas that were hit particularly hard with the downturn. And anecdotally, the association is hearing success stories from some of its 4,000-plus members, president Joe Hembree tells Coffee Talk.

"I don't know if we will statistically be able to show how it's been working," Hembree says of the campaign, called Time 2 Buy, "but we certainly are hearing positive results from our people."

The campaign, created by Sarasota-based advertising firm Baskerville/Swirles/Ward, isn't cheap. Hembree declined to put an exact price tag on it, only to say the yearlong campaign is in the six figures - and "not on the lower end."

It includes four billboards, at a cost of $3,000 a month each for six months, as well as TV and radio ads that were scheduled to debut the week of Feb. 19. The association is also buying ads in local newspapers and magazines and is passing out Time 2 Buy pins and bumper stickers.

The association and the advertising firm came up with the campaign to combat what it says was the barrage of negative news regarding real estate. The message to potential buyers is that since the fundamentals of living in Sarasota are still strong, the lower prices present a perfect buying opportunity.

Hembree admits it's difficult to gauge how successful the campaign actually has been, in a chicken-egg-sort of way. Either way, he's satisfied that more people are buying.

Fast growth

Whew. What a year for Network Liquidators.

Revenue grew 80%. The company opened a London office. The chief financial officer left. Another executive was promoted. The company acquired another and it obtained $12.86 million in capital.

And to top it all, the company, founded in 2001, is moving for the fifth time in five years.

"We've changed a lot in the last 12 to 14 months - all for the good," says founder/CEO Barry Shevlin. (The company was profiled in the Aug. 25, 2006 edition of the Review.)

The Oldsmar company, which re-sells used computer hardware, had 2006 revenue of $18 million, up $8 million from the previous year.

To help manage the fast-paced growth, Shevlin promoted Tom Calcaterra, who oversaw PODS Inc.'s $100 million IPO, to president earlier this month.

"He has been a huge part of everything we've been able to accomplish over the last year," Shevlin says of Calcaterra, who joined the company last February.

Calcaterra takes over responsibility for financial and accounting operations at Network Liquidators, while Shevlin continues to oversee sales and operations.

Network Liquidators also moved its corporate office to Tampa Road after acquiring 1 Nation Technology, a leading distributor of new and used telecommunication systems. Shevlin expects the office and warehouse, with a total of 40,000 square feet, to be sufficient for a while.

Network Liquidators recently obtained $12.86 million to pay for its acquisition of Nation 1, as well as the company's continued operations. Shevlin declined to disclose Nation 1's purchase price.

David Key will continue to run Nation 1, now as a division of Network Liquidators. But Matt McDonald, who was chief financial officer, is no longer with Network Liquidators.

The company was 95th on Inc 500's list of fastest-growing private companies in 2006. Wonder where it'll rank this year?

With all the growth, the biggest challenge hasn't been finding capital to pay the bills, Shevlin says. Rather, it's about "managing people's expectations."

"There's always pushback with change," he says.

BY THE NUMBERS

Network Liquidators

Year Revenue* Chg. %

2002 $1 million

2003 $4 million 300%

2004 $7 million 75%

2005 $10 million 42.8%

2006 $18 million 80%

2007 $45 million**

Source: Network Liquidators. *Figures are rounded off. **Projected for this year.

+ Michigan firm grows Gulf Coast presence

In a deal that exudes good timing, Michigan-based Burton-Katzman Development Co. bought Sarasota Commercial Management Inc., a property management and real estate firm with about 25 properties under leases totaling 500,000 square feet. Neither side disclosed the sale price for the deal, announced Feb. 15.

"I had decided to sell my business," Sarasota Commercial owner Mindy Parker tells Coffee Talk, citing some personal life changes, "at the same time Burton-Katzman had been looking" to increase its Florida presence.

Burton-Katzman already has a large presence in Michigan, as it oversees more than four million square feet of commercial, industrial and retail space there. The suburban Detroit-based company already has some projects in the Gulf Coast, too, including working to gain Sarasota city approval to build condos, hotel rooms and office space on land on downtown's Palm Avenue.

Burton-Katzman is partnering on that project, as it has with several others in the area, with Dr. Mark Kaufman, who is Parker's father. Having a good relationship with Dr. Kaufman made a deal with Parker a cinch, Burton-Katzman's Steve Taglione says. "We think it's in a good place now," Taglione tells Coffee Talk, "and we think we can take it to new heights."

Parker declined to talk about Sarasota Commercial's revenue growth since she took over the business from her family in 2000. But the firm's growth mirrors that of the area's commercial real estate market: Big. It managed four properties in 2000, a number that's grown more than six times as big in 2007.

Parker recently turned 40 and survived a bout with cancer, and she sites those challenges as her reasons for selling the business. Taglione says he and another principle with the firm, Bob Katzman, will be running the business as it gets going; it will be renamed Abbey Management, a subsidiary of Burton-Katzman.

+ Like father, like son

At 24, Ryan Sampson, who works with land broker Bill Eshenbaugh, known as Tampa's Dirt Dog, might just be the youngest person ever to become an Accredited Land Consultant.

Then again, he might not be.

The Realtors Land Institute, based in Chicago, doesn't track the ages of those who obtain the ACL designation. But the group told Sampson they think he's the youngest. In fact, he took the required six two-day classes and tests before his 24th birthday on Feb. 9.

Sampson, who graduated last year from Florida State University, has worked for Eshenbaugh since last summer. In that time, he has closed deals of more than $50 million.

One of those deals, for $39 million, involved the sale of residential property from one builder to another.

Sampson has the Dirt Dog to thank, as well his father, a rather well known figure in the Tampa Bay area.

Yep, his father is Russ Sampson, a vice president at Colliers Arnold and a director of the National Association of Industrial & Office Properties.

Eshenbaugh Land Co., based at Rocky Point, brokers land for apartments, retail and industrial use in the Tampa Bay MSA.

Sampson says business is brisk, excluding single-family residential property. Pasco has slowed considerably as of late, he says, because developers are worried about the huge impact fees proposed for the county.

+ New air service

Politicians, lobbyists and parents of Florida State University college students can cheer new nonstop air service to Tallahassee from Naples.

Until now, traveling to the state capital from Southwest Florida hasn't been easy because there were no regularly scheduled nonstop flights from either Naples or Southwest Florida International Airport in Fort Myers.

A small carrier in Naples called ExecAir recently started offering a daily nonstop flight to Tallahassee four days a week from the Naples Municipal Airport using a nine-passenger Cessna Caravan. The cost is $810 round-trip, but ExecAir President John Swasey says he expects prices to come down as the number of passengers increases.

To reserve a seat, call 239-290-5668. For more information, visit www.naplesair.net.

+ Chico's CFO still in charge

Charlie Kleman's resignation as chief financial officer of Fort Myers-based women's retailer Chico's FAS has some investors scratching their heads as to who could possibly replace him.

After all, equity analysts and portfolio managers polled by Institutional Investor magazine last year said Kleman was the country's best CFO in the retailing/specialty stores industry.

Kleman sounded just as energetic about the company's prospects while speaking at the Citigroup Retail Conference in Orlando on Feb. 12, just four days after he announced his resignation.

Known for his candor, Kleman said of his resignation: "This company has ambitions that, frankly, could benefit from executive skills that I'm not necessarily in a position to bring to the table." Kleman won't be leaving, however. Once a successor CFO has been hired, Kleman will chair Chico's charitable organization and will be involved in investor relations. "It might be more fun without the title, that's what I think," Kleman told analysts at the Citigroup conference.

Michael Smith, Chico's vice president of investor and community relations, couldn't resist ribbing Kleman at the conference. "His hair may go back to blond from gray," Smith told analysts.

Still, investors wonder whether that's the last shoe to drop at Chico's. "I don't know whether to be spooked by Kleman's parting comments or impressed with the candor. Is the upcoming work really that hard, or are the folks at Chico's just far too earnest for those of us jaded by years of mealy mouthed corporate excuses?" wondered one investor on the Motley Fool investing blog.

Chico's stock has been stuck in the low $20 range since it started reporting negative comparable-store sales last year. The stock's 52-week high was $49. Worrisome: Sales at Florida stores are down 20%.

In search of excellence

The Review is seeking the best and brightest Gulf Coast entrepreneurs for the newspaper's 10th annual Entrepreneur Award.

And for the second consecutive year, the Review will be recognizing the best from its entire coverage area: Tampa Bay south to Naples.

If you know of a worthy candidate, please send us his or her name. We're looking for entrepreneurs whose company's results over the past three years show exceptional performance and growth. Nominees should be visionaries and leaders who have overcome obstacles or demonstrated extraordinary characteristics that have led their companies to exceptional achievements. The entrepreneurs must be owners or part-owners of their companies, and their companies must be based on the Gulf Coast.

Last year's overall winner was Ian MacKechnie, the president and founder of Tampa-based financial services firm Amscot Financial. The Tampa region winner was Mark Swanson, founder of four Bay-area businesses; the Sarasota-Manatee region winner was John Williams, president of Gould & Lamb Healthcare Consultants; and the Fort Myers-Naples winner was Brian Stock, owner of Stock Development.

To nominate an entrepreneur, send his or her name to Mark Gordon at [email protected] or call (941) 362-4848. Please include the person's name, company and a brief description of what distinguishes the candidate.

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