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Coffee Talk
Business Observer Friday, Apr. 13, 2007 13 years ago

Coffee Talk

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Telovations Inc. CEO Rick Schonbrun says the Tampa-based startup is poised to expand now that it has received $6.5 million in venture capital.When Joe Hice, a marketing executive for places as varied as the University of Florida, Segway and Harley Davidson, talks about using the Internet to promote a business, he's not referring to any old Web site. Those days, says Hice, are over. Service has long been a buzzword in residential real estate, but the definition has always been tough to define. One customer's idea of the perfect agent is another's idea of the perfect bust. Scott Sosso, president of Prudential Palms Realty, a 250-plus agent firm covering Sarasota, Manatee and Charlotte counties, is trying to get a more precise definition, starting with having all Prudential agents attend Quality Service Certification training.In June, Enterprise Florida, the statewide economic development arm, is taking an export sales trade mission to Bogota and Medellin, two of the more populous cities in the South American country. The Bank of Tampa and its co-founder and CEO, A. Gerald Divers, were recently profiled in the Review. After 23 years of overseeing and nurturing what some call "Jerry's Bank," Divers is slowly relinquishing control.Internet chat rooms have been buzzing about a Web site that analyzes sales for various residential projects by Bonita Springs-based developer WCI Communities.

Coffee Talk

+ Web calling with a little VC help

Telovations Inc. CEO Rick Schonbrun says the Tampa-based startup is poised to expand now that it has received $6.5 million in venture capital.

Lovett Miller & Co., a Florida-based VC firm with offices in Tampa and Jacksonville, provided funds for the 14-month-old telecommunications company with help from Lane Five Ventures, Dominion Financial Group Inc., Connemara Capital and others, according to an April 10 announcement.

Venture capital was always part of the growth plan for the Internet protocol voice-over company, Schonbrun says, adding, "It was how we wanted to grow the business. Now we'll be expanding aggressively throughout the state."

Telovations, which already serves Hillsborough, Pinellas, Pasco, Manatee, Sarasota and Polk counties, is a one-stop shop for business communication needs. It provides telephone equipment, telephone service and data networking for a flat monthly fee.

"We're all about innovation," Schonbrun says. "We innovate the way growing businesses communicate."

Telovations is growing quickly, he says, because small business customers like the idea of outsourcing telecommunication needs.

"They want to run their business," Schonbrun says. "They don't want to manage their telephone service and Internet service. They're tired of four or five different monthly bills."

They especially like not having to spend money to buy telephone equipment, he says.

Schonbrun and co-founder Mark Swanson have been involved in previous technology startups, including NBX, SecureLogix and Sonexis.

The company partners with leading manufacturers, including Cisco, to provide equipment and network coverage. The startup's typical customer has between 20 and 200 employees at a location, the CEO says.

"But we work with companies of all size," he adds.

+ Building buzz on the Internet

When Joe Hice, a marketing executive for places as varied as the University of Florida, Segway and Harley Davidson, talks about using the Internet to promote a business, he's not referring to any old Web site. Those days, says Hice, are over.

The new trend is to use interactive Web sites such as myspace.com, wikipedia.org, flickr.com and youtube.com - sites that aren't stationary objects of what a business is selling, but instead allow a give and take between potential customers and entrepreneurs.

"Take advantage of the resources out there," Hice told a crowd of public relations and marketing professionals at a seminar held in Sarasota April 5. "If you don't, I guarantee your competitors will."

Hice was one of several marketing gurus to speak at a seminar called "Generate Buzz for Your Business - PR & Technology Tactics That Work," sponsored by the Economic Development Corp. of Sarasota County and the Central West Coast chapter of the Florida Public Relations Association.

Hice, an associate vice president for marketing and public relations at UF, says these new Web sites, through what's commonly known as Web 2.0, aren't just for college kids and office laughs. They can be legitimate business tools.

A few easy suggestions from Hice on how to utilize the sites without spending a fortune include creating or updating a profile on Wikipedia, a free encyclopedia founded by St. Petersburg native Jimmy Wales; put out press releases on industry-related Web sites; set up a blog on a business Web site; create an account on myspace with product or sales information; and put up videos on youtube.

Hice says the cost is not expensive as one might think. At UF for example, he and his staff created gogatornation.com for a total cost of $35,000. The site, says Hice, gets 2,000 hits a day.

+ Perfecting the art of customer service

Service has long been a buzzword in residential real estate, but the definition has always been tough to define. One customer's idea of the perfect agent is another's idea of the perfect bust. Scott Sosso, president of Prudential Palms Realty, a 250-plus agent firm covering Sarasota, Manatee and Charlotte counties, is trying to get a more precise definition, starting with having all Prudential agents attend Quality Service Certification training.

Larry Romito, himself a former Sarasota real estate executive who, like Sosso, has long felt the industry lacks a go-to source to judge customer service, created and runs the training program. Romito's program works by setting up a worksheet that buyers and sellers can use to judge the Realtor or agent. The agent also signs a guarantee of quality service, using the techniques in Romito's training.

The Prudential agents went through the training April 3, and Sosso tells Coffee Talk that, as was expected, some went grudgingly. But the agents are now almost uniformly excited about the process, says Sosso, who adds that this what all good brands do, from Lexus to luxury cruises, in order to improve.

"This is to show that what we say we do," says Sosso, "is actually what we do."

+ A mission to add more business

Gulf Coast entrepreneurs and executives seeking another business line will have a shot at Columbia, the Sunshine State's seventh largest trade partner. In June, Enterprise Florida, the statewide economic development arm, is taking an export sales trade mission to Bogota and Medellin, two of the more populous cities in the South American country.

The trade mission will focus on Florida-based manufacturers, distributors and service companies in areas such as medical equipment, computer hardware and software services, and construction and mining equipment. The mission, scheduled for June 3 to June 9, is limited to 25 Florida companies and spots are on a first-come, first-serve basis; the sign-up deadline is May 4.

Call Manny Mencia or Luis Cuervo at (305) 808-3672 or (305) 808-3388 for more information.

+ 'Jerry's Bank' lines up successor

The Bank of Tampa and its co-founder and CEO, A. Gerald Divers, were recently profiled in the Review. After 23 years of overseeing and nurturing what some call "Jerry's Bank," Divers is slowly relinquishing control.

The 71-year-old banker says he's giving younger managers at the $816.6 million asset bank more responsibility so the transition is seamless.

While Divers couldn't say who has been chosen to replace him when he retires within the next few years, Coffee Talk hears that Bill West, the No. 2 person at Bank of Tampa, one of Florida's largest independent banks, will succeed him. West is now the bank's senior vice president.

+ Internet site analyzes WCI sales

Internet chat rooms have been buzzing about a Web site that analyzes sales for various residential projects by Bonita Springs-based developer WCI Communities.

The site, www.wci-cancellations.com, says it uses information from the company, property deeds and the multiple-listings service to compile the latest sales and cancellations in various WCI projects. It also offers analysis of the company's operations as well as updates on the company's financial health, sometimes on a daily basis.

It's not clear who maintains the site and WCI says it has nothing to do with it. The author of the site declined to reveal his identity in an email exchange, but says he maintains the site as a hobby.

+ Time for a Tampa Bay reality check

How will the Tampa Bay area look in 50 years?

That's the focus of Reality Check Tampa Bay, an exercise to discuss, analyze and develop economic growth scenarios for the seven-county area through 2050.

The May 18 event at the Tampa Convention Center will bring together 300 leaders charged with creating a long-term vision for the region.

The exercise, which begins at 8 a.m., is sponsored by a partnership of the Urban Land Institute Tampa Bay District Council, Tampa Bay Partnership Regional Research & Education Foundation/Vision21, Southwest Florida Water Management District, Tampa Bay Regional Planning Council and Tampa Bay Estuary Program.

Participants will review demographic and economic data to discuss, negotiate and plot future residential and job growth, regional land use, transportation systems and natural resources.

Trained facilitators will lead the participants in 10-member groups as they place Lego building blocks on detailed maps to show where new homes and jobs should go.

In the afternoon, the results will be presented to the public.

Reality Check was created by ULI Los Angeles.

CHARLOTTE COUNTY

Editor's note: The chart with this story in last week's Coffee Talk incorrectly identified the change percentages. We are re-running the entire chart for clarification.

The latest taxable-sales data confirms anecdotes from many commercial builders: Charlotte County is experiencing a commercial construction boom.

Building investment surged 60% in the Punta Gorda metropolitan statistical area (MSA) in January versus the same month a year ago, according to data from the Florida Office of Economic and Demographic Research. However, business investment such as office equipment fell 3% in the same area, though that might pick up as buildings are completed.

The same isn't true in other Gulf Coast areas. In Naples, building investment fell 19%. In Sarasota it fell 16% and in Fort Myers it dropped 15%. In the Tampa area, building investment fell 13%. Business investment declined the most in Sarasota (?16%) and Fort Myers (?12%).

In another sign of the residential real estate downturn, taxable sales of consumer durables fell in every area along the Gulf Coast in January versus the same month in 2006. Consumer durables include appliances, furniture, home electronics, aircraft, boats, hardware and items from decorating stores.

However, sales of consumer nondurables held up well, indicating consumers haven't cut back completely. These items include food, clothing, drugs, antiques, books and florists, among others.

Here's how the taxable sales break down by MSA (figures are in $ millions):

Consumer Tourism Consumer Building Business

MSA Total Autos durables & Rec. nondur. investment investment

Fort Myers 1,073 183 93 208 295 112 182

%Change ?2% ?3% ?7% 0% 12% ?15% ?12%

Naples 644 82 64 158 186 54 100

%Change ?2% 1% ?6% ?10% 7% ?19% 7%

Punta Gorda 232 31 22 34 65 54 27

%Change 8% ?4% ?10% 0% 2% 60% ?3%

Sarasota 986 170 87 191 289 79 170

%Change ?3% ?2% ?5% ?1% 7% ?16% ?11%

Tampa 3,519 671 248 638 1,024 245 692

%Change 0% 0% ?2% 2% 7% ?13% ?3%

40UNDER40

The Review is putting together what's become a summer rite of passage for many Gulf Coast business leaders: The annual '40 under 40' issue.

This will be the eighth year of the popular issue, which recognizes the rising and already-there stars of the Gulf Coast business community. It's open to entrepreneurs, executives and professionals in any field or industry.

And, just like in past issues, the job title isn't as important as what makes the nominee tick. We are seeking people who make things happen, or plan to do so real soon. People who demonstrate a knack for leading, executing and succeeding at their company and in their industry. Standouts.

The rules are simple. First, the nominee must be under 40 years old. Also, the nominee must be willing to answer a short survey put together by Review staff. Finally, the nominee must work and live in the Review's coverage area, which includes Lee and Collier counties; Charlotte, Manatee and Sarasota counties; and Hillsborough, Pasco and Pinellas counties.

Send nominations to Jean Gruss at [email protected]. Include a telephone number and an e-mail for the nominee, as well as contact information for the nominator. You can also nominate yourself. Call Jean at (239) 415-4422 for additional information.

We look forward to hearing from you.

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