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Business Observer Friday, Dec. 7, 2018 1 year ago

Pitch man: Stadium push puts exec's leadership skills to the test

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Will the Tampa Bay Rays move across the bay to Ybor City? It could depend on the acumen of nonprofit CEO Jason Woody.
by: Brian Hartz Tampa Bay Editor

Jason Woody is at the tip of the spear when it comes to the Tampa Bay Rays’ quest to build a new ballpark in Tampa’s historic Ybor City neighborhood.

In that spot Woody, 49, vice chairman of the Tampa Bay Rays 100, a group of local leaders taking the team’s pitch to businesses and community groups, faces a daunting task: rallying support for the ballpark, an $892 million project whose financing remains a mystery mere weeks away from a make-or-break deadline imposed by St. Petersburg city officials. 

The stadium proposal was thrown into further doubt in early October, when the Rays announced it had agreed to acquire the Tampa Bay Rowdies soccer club from St. Petersburg businessman Bill Edwards for an undisclosed sum. The Rowdies play home games at Al Lang Field in downtown St. Petersburg, so the deal fueled speculation that maybe the Rays won't move across the bay after all. 

'People respect someone who will always make a decision, even though once in a while they don’t get it right, rather than someone who is indecisive.' Jason Woody, Tampa Bay Rays 100

But where other people questioned the motives behind the Rays' move, Woody, president and CEO of the nonprofit Lions Eye Institute for Transplant & Research when he’s not out and about talking up the stadium plans, saw only good intentions.

“The Rays know how important the Rowdies are to St. Pete,” he says. “They’ve made it public that they are coming to Ybor City, but they’re putting something back [in St. Pete]. In a business sense, yes, the team is moving across the bay, but it will still be entrenched in St. Pete. What the Rays did is the right thing.”

That’s a key point. As many leaders will attest, doing the right thing isn’t always the popular thing, and sometimes it can take years for a decision to make sense. 

The cloudy future of the Rays represents a stern test of leadership on many fronts. But in choosing Woody, a lifelong resident of the Tampa Bay area and indefatigable cheerleader for the region, the team could not have asked for a better ally in the business community, say several people who know him well. 

Ron Christaldi, an attorney with Tampa law firm Shumaker, Loop & Kendrick, has known Jason Woody for about 15 years, for example. Christaldi works closely with Woody as outside general counsel to Lions Eye and co-chairman of the Tampa Bay Rays 100.

Woody, Christaldi says, is a textbook example of a servant leader.

“A lot of what Jason is called upon to do causes him to be in a peer group of individuals who are leaders of industry who have more resources and wealth than he does,” Christaldi says. “And so for him to contribute what he does, personally, proportionate to, say, a leader of an organization in the for-profit sector … he stands shoulder to shoulder with those folks.”

Keep Cool 

Epitomizing the advice doled out in Rudyard Kipling’s famous poem “If,” Woody knows how to remain level-headed in a crisis, while still being able to take decisive, well-informed action. He’s been with Lions Eye, one of the world’s foremost providers of ocular transplant services, since 1990. He began his career as a nurse in trauma centers and operating rooms.

“What I learned early on is you have to make a decision,” he says. “It may not be right, but you don't have a chance to stop and suffer ‘analysis paralysis.’ People respect someone who will always make a decision, even though once in a while they don’t get it right, rather than someone who is indecisive.

Jason Woody in his Little League baseball heyday. The Tampa native now leads an advocacy group that's drumming up support for a new Tampa Bay Rays stadium in Ybor City. Courtesy photo.

“Being a nurse in an OR, I never knew exactly what was going to happen. Most surgeries were routine, but then something could go wrong at any given time, so you have to be prepared to make a decision.”

With the Rays’ Ybor City ballpark proposal, Woody seeks to be as forthcoming and honest as possible, while still touting the benefits of the project. “We don’t have all the answers [about the ballpark], and I tell people, ‘You know, this might not work.’ But I think they appreciate that transparency," he says. "It’s refreshing.”

Woody’s intimate knowledge of the Tampa Bay area and its history also helps him keep cool amid doubts and pushback about a new stadium for the Rays.

“I’m fourth generation from Tampa,” he says, “and I remember how a lot of people were upset about Raymond James Stadium. It was listed as a community stadium in the tax referendum that was passed … but the money went to the Glazers; it didn’t really come back to the community. I’m not faulting the Glazers — they’re businesspeople — for how it worked out, but I think the general public felt they were misled on that tax, and that perception is now kind of transferring over to the new Rays ballpark.”

Mike Griffin, senior managing director of commercial real estate firm Savills Studley’s Tampa office, is also a member of the Tampa Bay Rays 100 and has known Woody for about five years. During that time, he’s gotten a first-hand look at Woody’s leadership skills and how his listening skills and breadth of knowledge have won over skeptics — or at least gotten them to pay attention.

“He’s someone who first and foremost wants to bring people together and facilitate a discussion,” Griffin says. “I think that’s what we need more of in our leaders today, instead of just pushing an agenda.”

Explaining how Woody handles criticism, Griffin adds, “Jason is the kind of guy who is well prepared before he does anything. When you’re dealing in conjecture, it’s difficult to defend anything, but he deals in facts and he’s well read. And whenever there’s a time when someone disagrees with him, he listens. Sometimes you’ll learn something from the opposition. When you’re not trying to cram something down everyone’s throat, you’ll find there’s a legitimate business case or reason for nearly everything. That’s his approach.”

Steady Hand

Under Woody’s steadfast leadership over nearly three decades, Lions Eye Institute has achieved remarkable success — mirroring his steadfast leadership style. In 2017, for example, it had gross receipts of more than $26 million and total assets of more than $24 million, according to IRS data posted on nonprofit site GuideStar.com.

Christaldi marvels at how much Lions Eye has grown under Woody’s stewardship and vision, which has resulted in a series of strategic partnerships and acquisitions worldwide, as well as significant advancements in eye-transplant research.

“He’s never rested on his laurels,” Christaldi says. “In the 15 years I’ve been working with Lions Eye, it’s gone from a west-central Florida organization to something that now operates in 82 countries. It took a lot of hard work and a lot of support to get done, but Jason is someone who is never looking at the ground under his feet — he’s looking at the horizon.”

Griffin adds that the institute’s status as one of the world’s leading sources of eye transplant research and services can be traced to Woody’s interpersonal skills — and the way he engages with staff and keeps a finger on the pulse of the organization.

“He’s not the type of leader who needs to be tapped on the shoulder,” Griffin says, citing the fact that Woody steadily rose up the ranks of the institute, rather than coming in as CEO. “He’s had many other important roles at Lions Eye, and I think that really resonates, as a leader, when you’ve been in the shoes of the people around you. He’s the kind of guy who’s not going to ask you do something if it’s something he hasn’t already done before or is willing to do himself. That gives a leader a lot of credibility, whether it’s in business or the civic arena.”

Transparency is a critical component of Woody’s approach to leadership. He says change, even negative change, is going to happen no matter what, and so it doesn’t do any good to sugarcoat bad news. People are smart and will see through flimsy assertions that “everything is going to be OK,” Woody says.

“A key trait of leadership is the ability to move people toward you,” he adds, “so you can create necessary change at a speed and level of sacrifice they can tolerate. With good communication, you can get them to where they need to be. Change is going to happen, so just be upfront about it.”

Political football 

Woody makes no secret of his desire to seek public office in the not-too-distant future. Although his current contract, signed in 2016, expires in 2021, he says he intends to spend the rest of his business career with Lions Eye before retiring from the organization and transitioning to politics. 

“I don’t know the exact timeline, but I don’t want to be the CEO who stayed too long,” he says. “I don’t want to be the fighter who went into one fight too many. When it’s time for me to step down, I want to be a Muhammad Ali, not a Mike Tyson.”

A good leader, Woody believes, is one who is able to steer an organization effectively in the present while also being mindful of how he or she will leave it. That means setting other people up for success after you’ve moved on to other things. “However many years from now," he says, "I would like to see the new CEO in his role doing so much more than I could ever do for the organization."

Woody isn’t sure what political role he would vie for, though he mentions Hillsborough County commissioner as a possibility. He identifies as a Republican but expresses profound disappointment in both parties — blaming the nation’s political dysfunction on “self-interest groups” and career politicians. “There needs to be some change,” he says. “If I had a choice, we would have no political parties. If you look at my voting record, you would know that I vote for the best person.”

If he were to run, Woody could most likely count on the vote and support of Griffin, who says Woody’s solid track record as a job creator and leader who’s accountable to a board and budget make him well-suited for public service. 

“I don’t know all of his politics, but I will say that we need better candidates. When you have folks in the business community like Jason stepping up, that’s always a good thing,” Griffin says. “If he decides to run, just like everything else he does in his life, he’ll be well prepared, and I think he would be effective. He’s a super guy. He’s the real deal. We need more leaders like Jason.”

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