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Business Observer Friday, Apr. 6, 2018 7 months ago

Paradise gained: Ad agency thriving under new owners

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Replacing a star, especially in an ownership role, isn't for the weak-minded. A globetrotting power couple gives it a go, with strong results so far.
by: Brian Hartz Tampa Bay Editor

The area's marketing and advertising sector lost a giant Feb. 16 when Cedar Hames, founder of St. Petersburg-based Paradise Advertising, died at 72.

Hames founded the company in 2002 and quickly grew it into a major player in the destination marketing industry, acquiring clients such as JW Marriott, Space Florida and the Dali Museum in St. Pete. 

Even prior to battling cancer last year, Hames, looking to retire, sought to find a new steward for Paradise Advertising. He ultimately chose a familiar face from his past: Barbara Karasek, a seasoned adwoman whose globe-trotting career includes stints with the U.S. Olympic Committee, SeaWorld Entertainment, the PGA tour and NASCAR, where she was part of the team that helped extend the racecar circuit’s brand to the silver screen in the form of the popular flick Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby (you’re welcome, America).

“We have a plan in place and it’s still being executed. He’s just not there by our side, shaking hands and introducing us to people.” Barbara Karasek, CEO of Paradise Advertising. 

Karasek, 48, spent her formative years in the Tampa region, moving to town with her family when she was 10. While pursuing a master’s degree in mass communications and media studies at the University of South Florida, she interned for Hames. As her career took her off, she followed the growth of Paradise Advertising from afar but didn’t stay in regular contact with Hames. That changed about 15 years ago, when Karasek moved back to the Tampa Bay area.

“It was a nice opportunity to reconnect with Cedar in the industry,” Karasek says. “We would see each other at conferences, meetings, seminars and speaking engagements.”

The forward-thinking Hames “was very specific about who he wanted to continue his legacy,” says Karasek, who now co-owns Paradise Advertising along with her husband Tony, 54. Tony Karasek is a former professional basketball player who, after retiring from hoops, had a travel-intensive, 20-year career in sales and business development.

“We went through an intense interview process," Barbara Karasek says. "Cultural fit was probably the highest on his priority list.”

The transition, despite Hames' foresight, doesn’t represent a typical succession plan — more like destiny. Over the years, the Karaseks had invested in other people’s companies, but they’d reached a point when they wanted their own business to run. Yet they didn’t want to start from scratch, and they didn’t want to spend so much time apart.

“We were at the stage of our lives where we wanted to exit corporate America and maybe look to do something together and not be on opposite coasts all the time for business travel — how lovely,” Karasek recalls with a laugh. “I said, ‘Hey, I have a concept: Why don’t we put our two skill sets together to benefit one organization?’ So here we are.”

The Karaseks have quickly grown the agency’s roster of clients since formally taking over the business Jan. 30. They’ve added the Ocala/Marion County Visitors and Convention Bureau, the Hilton Daytona Beach Oceanfront Resort and the new St. Pete Pier, and they’ve been hiring to keep up with the additional work: Paradise now employs 32 full-time staffers. It has a secondary office in Naples and satellite employees in Jacksonville and New Smyrna Beach.

Paradise Advertising officials declined to disclose specific revenue figures, but Karasek says the company has experienced year-over-year growth in all but one year since Hames founded it. Karasek is more concerned about physical growth — saying lack of office space is an up-at-night worry.

“If you could help me find a 25,000-square-foot space in downtown St. Pete at an affordable price per square foot, that would be helpful because we're outgrowing our space,” she says. “That is going to be a big challenge.”

In addition to finding more space in St. Pete, Paradise could open another office elsewhere in Florida or even outside the state. Karasek says the company might also grow by acquisition, “possibly in the digital space,” she says. “Digital and web technology is an important piece for us from a growth perspective," she says. "We have our eyes and ears open for opportunities.”

Although ailing, Hames intended to stay on in an advisory capacity at Paradise for a few months. That all changed with the founder’s death in February. But the succession strategy remains unchanged. 

“We have a plan in place and it’s still being executed,” Karasek says. “He’s just not there by our side, shaking hands and introducing us to people.”

Instead, Karasek says, those handshakes have become hugs of sympathy.

(This story was updated to reflect the timing of when Cedar Hames sought new owners for the firm.)

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