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Coffee Talk
Business Observer Friday, Mar. 23, 2007 13 years ago

Coffee Talk

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Moe Wishkaei and two of his colleagues worked for a national restaurant chain in the Tampa Bay area, but they dreamed of owning their own business.Late last year, the three men, who had been friends for more than 10 years, took a leap of faith. Wishkaei, Ghyslain Lefebvre and Ted Steiner quit their jobs and bought three Atlanta Bread Co. locations.Optimism, plus a dose of realityDevelopers are traditionally an optimistic lot, and John Simon, CEO of Pineapple Square Properties, is normally as cheery and positive as they come. And for good reason: He's behind a $200 million mixed-use project with the potential to reshape downtown Sarasota with as many as 40 new stores over 130,000 square feet, 275 condos and 525 public parking spots. An unlicensed consumer loan company will cease operations in Florida and offer refunds to consumers after about 10 years in business, according to an agreement that Tampa Investment Services Inc. reached with the Florida Attorney General's Office.Florida's leading small-business advocacy group continues to grow: The National Federation of Independent Business recently hired Bill Herrle as its executive director, one of several leadership positions the group is filling as it strives to add more members while maintaining its pro-small business lobbying presence in Tallahassee.

Coffee Talk

+ Three bakers bring dream to life

Moe Wishkaei and two of his colleagues worked for a national restaurant chain in the Tampa Bay area, but they dreamed of owning their own business.

Late last year, the three men, who had been friends for more than 10 years, took a leap of faith. Wishkaei, Ghyslain Lefebvre and Ted Steiner quit their jobs and bought three Atlanta Bread Co. locations.

Hey, they're offering fresh baked cookies and bread, coffee and free Wi-Fi access. How can they go wrong?

So far, two of the three locations are open for business. The Atlanta Bread Co. store at 179 First Ave., N., St. Petersburg, remained open through the transition and the Citrus Park location in Tampa was renovated and reopened. The remodeling of the Clearwater restaurant at 30200 U.S. 19 N. is almost complete. It's expected to open before month's end.

The men, who are equal partners, will each run a location. They previously worked for the Denny's Corp. They bought their Tampa Bay restaurants directly from the corporate office of Atlanta Bread Co.

Wishkaei, 40, declined to discuss purchase price or expected store volume with Coffee Talk. But he says the three are optimistic about their new venture, which they found through a business broker.

Hey, baking for retail sale isn't for those with thin wallets and anemic checking accounts.

Atlanta Bread Co.'s Web site says anyone interested in owning a franchise should have a net worth of $1 million, with $400,000 in liquid assets.

+ Another hedge fund

buys WCI Communities

The list of hedge-fund owners of WCI Communities keeps growing. Every week brings a new securities filing indicating another hedge fund has taken a large position in the Bonita Springs-based homebuilder.

The latest investor is New York-based hedge fund company Highbridge Capital Management, which disclosed a 7% stake in WCI a few days after billionaire investor Carl Icahn announced plans for a $22-per-share tender offer for the shares he doesn't already own. Icahn, whose wealth Forbes estimates at $13 billion, owns 14.6% of WCI. Highbridge is majority owned by JP Morgan Chase and manages $9 billion.

Other hedge funds that have recently disclosed stakes of WCI shares include Citadel and D.E. Shaw. Also, New York hedge-fund tycoon Steve Cohen's firm, SAC Capital Advisors, says it reviewed Icahn's offer and boosted its holdings of WCI to 9.5% of the total shares outstanding.

Optimism, plus a dose of reality

Developers are traditionally an optimistic lot, and John Simon, CEO of Pineapple Square Properties, is normally as cheery and positive as they come. And for good reason: He's behind a $200 million mixed-use project with the potential to reshape downtown Sarasota with as many as 40 new stores over 130,000 square feet, 275 condos and 525 public parking spots.

The long-anticipated and ambitious project has been in the planning stages for more than year, has completed the bulk of the arduous city approval process and 50 people - mostly local politicos and prominent business folks - turned out for a ceremonial ground-breaking March 21.

Afterwards, Simon likened the event to "waiting for a baby, and now he's born." Whew!

But minutes later, speaking to Coffee Talk about the status of condo sales, Simon showed some kinks in his optimistic bodysuit, saying interest is stronger than sales, the ultimate barometer of any project. "It's going a little slower than we had hoped for," says Simon, "but it's still going."

While he's clearly not raising a white flag, his comments were far different than December, when Simon told he told the Review – as well as condo buyers in a business update letter - that the project was doing great, and the rumors that the dried up condo market would derail it were false.

Simon still showed off some of his bright side at the ceremony, where William and Charles Isaac, the brothers who run the development company behind the project, joined him. For example, while sales are not where he'd like them to be, Simon did say "we are astounding the broker community with the interest" in the project.

He added that the project is real, and really will get done.

+ Finance company shuts doors

An unlicensed consumer loan company will cease operations in Florida and offer refunds to consumers after about 10 years in business, according to an agreement that Tampa Investment Services Inc. reached with the Florida Attorney General's Office.

The state agency had been investigating the company, which did business as Urgent Office and Cyber Cash, for unfair and deceptive lending practices.

The company had several storefronts in Hillsborough County, where it offered consumers a lease for temporary office services, including word processing, copying and Internet access. It paid consumers upfront cash rebates for signing contracts that charged as much as 300% interest.

Attorney General Bill McCollum calls it a cautionary tale for consumers.

Urgent Office's sole shareholder is Trina L. Thomas. She has agreed to place $100,000 in an escrow account for customer refunds and to pay more than $45,000 to state agencies for costs of the investigation.

Consumers who signed contracts after Nov. 6, 2006 are eligible for refunds.

+ Familiar name returns to pro-business group

Florida's leading small-business advocacy group continues to grow: The National Federation of Independent Business recently hired Bill Herrle as its executive director, one of several leadership positions the group is filling as it strives to add more members while maintaining its pro-small business lobbying presence in Tallahassee.

This is Herrle's second go-around with the NFIB, having served as the state director from 1999-2001; he left the organization to work as a lobbyist for the Florida Retail Federation.

Herrle, who started with the NFIB March 5, will combine lobbying Sunshine State legislators with working with the group's new and old members. "It's great to be back home with small-and independent-business owners," Herrle says. "When we're pointed in the same direction, small-business owners have tremendous clout in the Capitol."

The NFIB's previous executive director, Allen Douglas, now serves as its legislative director.

+ U.S. economic recession odds double

David Jones, the chairman of Investors' Security Trust in Fort Myers and former chairman and chief economist for New York bond firm Aubrey Lanston, says the chance of a U.S. economic recession now stands at 40%.

In a letter to clients, Jones says the housing slump is likely to be deeper and longer as lenders tighten their mortgage requirements. Other worrisome signs include a decline in business investments, a drop in durable-goods orders and falling shipments of non-defense capital goods excluding aircraft. Offsetting that are the favorable job market, strong consumer spending and growth in personal income.

"Looking further ahead, the sudden increase in global financial market volatility and investor risk-consciousness increases the odds of a U.S. recession from 20% to 40%," Jones writes. "In this regard, it is worthwhile to recognize that the aging U.S. economic expansion is currently in its sixth year and that the average duration of the 10 economic expansions since World War II is 57 months."

+ Death, taxes and newsletters

Just about every publication has some type of e-newsletter these days.

Now add the IRS to the list. The agency just about everyone loves to hate recently launched e-News for Small Business. It'll plop into your inbox every Wednesday, full of tips and compliance reminders, as well as IRS press releases and special announcements.

On the latter, don't strain your eyes waiting for a release that touts a simplified tax code.

Naturally, the sign-up system the IRS says is a cinch, actually involves a complication: To get on the list, just use this not-so-easy to follow connection: http://www.irs.gov/businesses/small/content/0,,id=154826,00.html

Ah, the government, here to help.

+ TV ad company: Say cheese Smile! You're on camera.

A Tampa Bay area television ad company that says it focuses on "delivering more bang for the buck for the entrepreneur on a budget," has received more recognition, this time from the Communicator Awards.

Cheap-TV-Spots.com, which touts itself as the world's first international, Internet-based TV ad agency, received an award of distinction for its ad promoting a Los Angeles stage play, "What the Rabbi Saw."

Company spokesman Don Kaus says Cheap TV Spots has won 45 television industry awards for its custom made, fast-turnaround ads.

The Web site says Cheap TV Spots, founded in 2001, is part of Academy Leader Inc. It makes TV ads for as little as $1,999.

"Only our price is cheap," states the Web site.

In 2006, Cheap TV Spots says it won the Crystal Vision Silver Award, Pegasus Award of Excellence, Summit Creative Awards Silver, among others.

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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