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Coffee Talk
Business Observer Friday, Feb. 2, 2007 12 years ago

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Fort Myers Ramada may be torn down soonWant only the best for your beloved sportster? Well, if it's good enough for Britain's royal family, maybe it's good enough for the rich and famous on Florida's Gulf Coast.Andy Smythe, who became certified as an Auto Glym professional in England, thinks so.That's how he markets his two-year-old auto detailing business, Splash and Dashing. Now Smythe's mobile services aren't for the financialy faint-hearted.Coffee Talk is regularly amused by what counts as a value these days when it comes to higher education. Proof is in Kiplinger's Personal Finance magazine's 2007 Best Values in Public College's list: The top 10 schools - two of which are in Florida - will all run more than $100,000 for four years.December existing-home sales continue declineBJ's Restaurant & Brewery CFO Gregory S. Levin says the California-based casual dining chain chose the Tampa Bay area for its first Florida location because it's such a great market for restaurants.University of Tampa business professor Joe McCann says family businesses are the backbone of the U.S. economy, contributing 65% of the nation's GDP annually.That's why it's only fitting for the college to recognize outstanding Florida family businesses each year.

Coffee Talk

+ Fort Myers Ramada may be torn down soon

Coffee Talk hears that the former Ramada Inn hotel along the waterfront in downtown Fort Myers is close to being demolished.

The hulking pink building has been an eyesore for years and downtown boosters are eager to see it torn down. It sits on some of the most prime waterfront land near Harbourside Event Center on Edwards Drive.

In a speech to business owners recently, Fort Myers Mayor Jim Humphrey hinted that the building would be torn down soon, but he says the complexity of the deal has slowed the process.

+ Looking for a royal shine?

Want only the best for your beloved sportster? Well, if it's good enough for Britain's royal family, maybe it's good enough for the rich and famous on Florida's Gulf Coast.

Andy Smythe, who became certified as an Auto Glym professional in England, thinks so.

That's how he markets his two-year-old auto detailing business, Splash and Dashing. Now Smythe's mobile services aren't for the financialy faint-hearted. He claims some waxes he uses are quite expensive. For instance, he says, he pays $7,000 for a 22-ounce container of Zymol Royale, and he applies the wax liberally.

Smythe, who calls himself a British auto body expert, travels all over the state, as far south as Miami and east to West Palm Beach, to work on vehicles, some of which are collectibles and worth millions of dollars.

The service carries its own purified soft water, power generating facilities, canopies and the "finest detailing tools and products available," he says.

Smythe is so passionate about his work, he has authored a book, "Detailers Secrets," which is sold on his Web site, royaldetailer.com.

But, alas, if you have a regular old car, Smythe also offers more affordable services. Of course, you'll have to settle for a regular old wax, not the Zymol Royale.

Look for the British flag on Smythe's trailer.

+ Value is in the wallet of the beholder

Coffee Talk is regularly amused by what counts as a value these days when it comes to higher education. Proof is in Kiplinger's Personal Finance magazine's 2007 Best Values in Public College's list: The top 10 schools - two of which are in Florida - will all run more than $100,000 for four years.

Still, kudos to the University of Florida and Sarasota-based New College of Florida for being one of best values of a costly endeavor. UF came in second on the list, one spot behind the University of North Carolina. One of the best features for the school is its Florida's Bright Futures program, the magazine states, which pays 100% of tuition for state residents who meet the academic requirements. Plus, GatorNation students - and their parents - pay of the lowest in-state tuition rates in the country.

Meanwhile, New College, which ranked sixth, made the top 10 list for the fourth straight year. The Kiplinger's article on the rankings feature pictures of the New College campus, as well as an interview with a student, a native of Connecticut who chose the school over Brown University.

The student says he chose New College because of the school's well known policy of allowing considerable freedom in designing courses of study, but the article points out he gets perks like that at a bargain: His New College experience will run $27,000 a year, while four years at Brown can run as much as $44,000 a year. Florida residents get even more of a bargain, paying about $11,000 in total costs for the 2006-2007 school year.

The Kiplinger's list is complied by analyzing statistics from more than 500 schools, looking at data such as SAT scores, student-to-faculty rates and admission and retention rates, as well as analyzing the costs and financial aid packages for each school. Here's the full top 10:

1. University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

2. University of Florida

3. College of William and Mary (Va.)

4. University of Virginia

5. Binghamton University (SUNY)

6. New College of Florida

7. SUNY Geneseo

8. University of California, San Diego

9. University of Washington

10. University of Georgia

December existing-home sales continue decline

The decline of single-family homes and condominiums continued in December, though the data showed a few glimmers of hope. The median sales price of a single-family existing home in the Tampa Bay region rose 3% while the number of single-family home sales in Punta Gorda jumped 19% in December versus the same month last year. In Fort Myers-Cape Coral, sales of existing condos rose 27%.

Here's a breakdown of existing-home sales and median prices for Southwest Florida, according to the Florida Association of Realtors. Data was not available for the Naples area.

Single-family existing homes

Dec. 2005 Dec. 2006

Dec. 2005 Dec. 2006 % Median Median %

Area Sales Sales Change sales price sales price Change

Fort Myers-

Cape Coral 1,084 598 ?45 $322,300 $262,500 ?19%

Punta Gorda 204 243 19% $216,200 $209,100 ?3%

Sarasota-

Bradenton 671 626 ?7% $344,300 $284,700 ?17%

Tampa-

St. Petersburg-

Clearwater 4,119 2,438 ?41% $223,200 $230,800 3%

Existing condominiums

Dec. 2005 Dec. 2006

Dec. 2005 Dec. 2006 % Median Median %

Area Sales Sales Change sales price sales price Change

Fort Myers-

Cape Coral 127 161 27% $306,500 $256,300 ?16%

Punta Gorda 60 42 ?30% $140,000 $172,500 23%

Sarasota-

Bradenton 417 212 ?49% $388,800 $233,900 ?40%

Tampa-

St. Petersburg-

Clearwater 1,052 731 ?31% $180,800 $183,200 1%

+ BJ's move to Tampa Bay may make winning combo

BJ's Restaurant & Brewery CFO Gregory S. Levin says the California-based casual dining chain chose the Tampa Bay area for its first Florida location because it's such a great market for restaurants.

BJ's first Florida restaurant is scheduled to open in Pinellas Park in March, followed by two more in Tampa's Westchase area and Orlando later this year.

The area was chosen for its demographics, high densities and co-tenants, Levin says.

The chain, which now has 55 locations, offers deep-dish pizza, sandwiches, salads and other items, plus hand-crafted beer from its own microbreweries.

With more than 100 items on the menu, Levin says the chain is more upscale than Applebee's or Chili's, but not as upscale as the Cheesecake Factory.

"We look at ourselves as casual plus," he says, "though we have a price-point closer to the mass."

The restaurant fits squarely in the bar and grill segment, Levin says, pointing out that it's not a sports bar, even though it has a large block of plasma screen televisions.

BJ's, a publicly held company, plans to open 13 locations this year. Its goal growth is between 20% and 25% in 2007. The chain reported revenue of $65.9 million in the fourth quarter ended Jan. 2, up 34% from the same period in 2006.

+ Who had the last say at this power chow?

Coffee Talk has heard of power lunches, but this dinner is way up there when it comes to the breaking of bread by powers that be. How would you like to share a meal with Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales, a self-proclaimed objectivist who calls St. Petersburg home, Microsoft founder Bill Gates, British Prime Minister Tony Blair and rock musician and activist Bonno?

It seems that Wales, named one of Time's 100 most influential people in America, was hopping a jet last week for Switzerland to share dinner with the three other men.

Wales was the first of three speakers at the Jan. 25 University of Tampa's business network symposium. He didn't have time to stick around to hear local entrepreneurs Eric Newman of J.C. Newman Cigar Co. and Robert Moreyra, managing principal of Atlantic American Partners, because he was headed out of the country for a little dinner engagement.

+ Gevity gets new offices, same Street

Less then a month into 2007, Gevity Inc., the Lakewood Ranch-based company that serves as a human resources department for small and mid-sized businesses, is making good on its New Year resolution: To open offices in several new markets, at the rate of at least one a month.

The latest market to get a new Gevity office will be Ontario, Calif., in the state's Inland Empire region outside Los Angles. Gevity, which also advises businesses on how to improve management structures and techniques, is already considered to be the largest professional employer organization in Florida, as well as one of the largest in the country.

One thing the growth strategy hasn't been able to accomplish, at least not yet, is the wowing of Wall Street. Shares of the company, traded on the Nasdaq exchange under the symbol GVHR, have been trading in the low $20 range so far in 2007, not far from its 52-week low of $19.81 a share.

What's more, two analyst firms recently downgraded the stock: SunTrust Robinson Humphrey dropped it to neutral from buy Jan. 12, while Lehman Brothers moved it to equal-weight from overweight Jan. 5.

+ Family businesses recognized

University of Tampa business professor Joe McCann says family businesses are the backbone of the U.S. economy, contributing 65% of the nation's GDP annually.

That's why it's only fitting for the college to recognize outstanding Florida family businesses each year. Three companies were to be honored Feb. 2 with the university's Florida Family Business of the Year awards. They are Oviedo's A. Duda & Sons Inc., Tampa's J.C. Newman Cigar Co. and St. Petersburg Beach's Sirata Resort.

Gene's Anatomy

Resuscitating the business of medicine, one office at a time

About 10 years ago, as his cardiology practice was collapsing, Dr. Gene Myers had an epiphany at the Miami International Airport.

Myers had about four times as many employees, 43, as he could handle at his three-office practice, Gene E. Myers Cardiac & Vascular Consultants. He had recently gone several straight weeks where he barely made payroll.

But the business was ultimately saved, resuscitated in part by Myers' ingenuity, along with a cast of characters that includes a Hertz checkout clerk and the owners of a popular Sarasota seafood restaurant.

The story starts at the airport in 1997, where Myers was returning a car he rented from Hertz. He watched the clerk punch a few buttons on a hand-held box and then seconds later, watched his receipt come scrolling out of the little box. Myers thought a tool like that would be enormously helpful with his practice, which had to hire several employees just for filing and record-keeping purposes, a costly endeavor.

Soon after his Hertz experience, Myers had a conversation with Bill and Gloria McCloskey, the owners of the Philippi Creek Restaurant & Oyster Bar, a popular Sarasota restaurant. Upon hearing about the doctor's issues with billing and record-keeping, the McCloskeys encouraged Myers to build something similar to their automated restaurant system, which helped the business eliminate paper and other manual record-keeping hassles.

By 1999, Myers and a partner had invented a Web-based record-keeping device they called AutoMedicWorks, and in 2003, after several years of testing, the doctor began marketing and selling it to Gulf Coast area doctors. The device looks like a PDA and serves as a catch-all medical record keeper. What's more, doctors utilizing the system are able to free up valuable office space from storing paper records.

So far, about 25 Gulf Coast-area doctors have bought AutoMedicWorks. And Myers himself has used AutoMedicWorks to save his practice, scaling back to a much more manageable - and profitable - 13 employees.

Myers seeks a bigger audience for the product, though, and late last month, the company he founded to market and sell the device, also named AutoMedicWorks, merged with Long Island, N.Y.-based Sonix Medical Technologies, a larger medical services firm. Bill Johnson, AutoMedicWorks' vice president of marketing, says Sonix has a bigger sales staff, and will be able to distribute and market the product on a national scale.

As part of the deal, Myers will receive a minority ownership in Sonix. He says the company could go public within 18 to 24 months.

"Our goal was to let the physician nation benefit from automation, just like we had," Myers says. "Doctors offices should be profit centers, not cost centers."

Myers and Sonix executives are also pinning their hopes on a physician community that has become more business-savvy as the cost of providing medical services goes up and the amount of insurance reimbursement goes down. For example, a Sarasota Memorial Hospital surgeon says he could have retired off the money he's lost due to the industry's failure to improve on its inefficient and outdated payment and record-keeping systems.

That surgeon, Dr. Joseph Schiro, is even more acutely aware of his bottom-line, as he recently opened a new practice, the Vein Center of Sarasota. After using the system for the past few months, Schiro calls the savings "mind-boggling."

-Mark Gordon

+ Coast Bank mortgage problems linger

The doors are still open, money still comes and goes, happy-go-lucky TV commercials still run on local stations, but business is far from normal at Bradenton-based Coast Bank.

Feb. 2 marks two weeks since the bank's parent company, Coast Financial Holdings Inc., filed SEC documents stating 482 home borrowers of mortgages totaling $110 million might not be able to repay their debts, as a homebuilder not named in the report wasn't able to complete construction of the houses.

Since the initial filing, the bank has released several additional statements explaining their side of the situation; the latest filing indicated that an on-site investigation revealed 154 homes were about 90% completed, while 216 loans "are on lots where there has been no construction activity."

In the meantime, the stock has dropped significantly, at one point more than 50% off recent highs before the crisis; the bank has hired attorneys to investigate a possible sale or merger; and the future of the bank has been a trendy water-cooler topic in other bank executives' offices.

Yet another ominous sign: Some customers jilted in the process have hired their own attorneys, so lawsuits could be the next crisis.

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