When Larry Kiker was an executive at IBM, he cajoled an ornery older employee into sharing what eventually became a $100 million idea for the company.
Kiker's secret: “You have to be able to learn to be a skilled listener.”
It's that kind of skill that helped Kiker defeat longtime Lee County Commissioner Ray Judah in a shocking political upset earlier this year. Kiker's pro-business message of lower taxes and more efficient government clearly resonated with voters.
“We've got 47,000 people out of work or underemployed,” says Kiker, 60. Thousands more have given up looking for work, he notes.
In some circles, Lee County has earned a reputation as a difficult place to do business because of burdensome regulations and fees. Meanwhile, a few favored industries get the red-carpet treatment and cash incentives.
Kiker's election now tilts the Lee County commission squarely to the favor of reducing those burdens on existing business to create jobs. For example, Kiker pledged in his campaign to cut the fees that builders must pay by 80% to 100%.
Teaching people how to fish
Kiker is best known most recently as the mayor of Fort Myers Beach and a fishing guide, but perhaps fewer people know that he was a high-level executive with IBM, Data General and Sun Microsystems before that. His most recent stint was running Sun's U.S. customer service operations.
“Most people know him as Captain Larry,” says Paula Kiker, his wife and business partner in Lahaina Realty in Fort Myers Beach.
But about 19 years ago, Kiker wanted out of the corporate world. “I wanted to change my life and became a charter-boat captain,” says Kiker, who now occasionally wears suits, but still without socks. “I took people fishing and diving.”
A redhead, Kiker gave up the fishing business because the danger of skin cancer and got involved in town politics in Fort Myers Beach. Elected to the city council and then mayor, Kiker brought his listening skills to bear.
“Larry's a very soft-spoken individual and has an affable demeanor about him,” says Fort Myers Beach Town Manager Terry Stewart. “He's not afraid to confront the issues, but it's not an aggressive manner.”
Kiker speaks so softly that sometimes it's hard to hear him. “I don't raise my voice, but I stand my ground,” he smiles.
Kiker isn't afraid to make tough decisions, both in politics and business. For example, during the downturn, he had to lay off half of Lahaina Realty's staff of 50 people. “I knew their kids' names, their dogs' names,” he says. “I knew what that felt like, but we had an obligation to the people who stayed.”
Indeed, Lahaina survived. “We prepared for it, we're rebuilding that work force,” Kiker says. How? “It's called elbow grease,” he says.
Paula Kiker says she's never heard him raise his voice in the 18 years they've been married. “His biggest trait is patience, and he's the best listener I've ever met in my entire life,” she says. “He's really just like that.”
Land of enchantment
Kiker grew up in Clovis, N.M., a small town east of Albuquerque near the Texas border. He was a music student. “I was a percussionist,” he says.
Because computers were new in the 1970s, IBM hired musically inclined people because they reasoned musicians possessed logic and numeric aptitude that could transfer well to technology.
That led to Kiker's 20-year career in the computer industry, first with IBM, then with Data General and later with Sun Microsystems. At the peak of his career in technology, Kiker had hundreds of people reporting directly to him, with thousands more behind them in the area of customer service.
Kiker climbed the corporate ladder by taking on difficult assignments. “Give me the worst you've got,” he'd tell his superiors. “When it's fixed I want my next promotion.”
But as aggressive as Kiker was in his own career, he says he was a consensus builder and encouraged dialogue. “People will challenge themselves more than you can challenge them,” he says.
For example, Kiker says he fine-tuned his listening skills at IBM, which promoted an employee-development plan. An employee and a superior would sit down and write out the plan, which would force a discussion that could uncover hidden talents or ideas and even grudges.
“You've got to let people know they can come forward with great ideas,” says Kiker. “You look for positive change and people will gravitate toward that.”
Kiker says he plans to bring a similar approach to county government. “My job is to facilitate change,” he says.
For example, one idea Kiker has is to gather the mayors of the five municipalities in Lee County to tackle various common problems. “Ask them if they care,” he says with a smile. “They have a lot of juice,” he says. “Let them challenge each other.”
Kiker got involved in Fort Myers Beach town politics six years ago because there was miscommunication between town residents and business owners. His calm approach helped resolve issues such as permitting the collection of decomposing algae that washed up on the beach.
“He has a strong will, but he doesn't make people feel like they're being criticized or challenged,” says Stewart. “One of the things he tried to do is have a civil environment. It's a standard that's been set.”
Stewart says you can expect Kiker to take the same approach to county issues. “Larry knows how to ask good questions to get to the core of what's going on,” he says. “He has a very high level of expectations and a low tolerance for BS.”
Businesses can expect to get a fair shake from a commission that until now has been ambivalent, especially when it comes to taxes and regulations. Kiker plans to challenge how the county handles economic development, from financial corporate incentives to subsidies for professional baseball.
That doesn't mean Kiker doesn't favor some forms of environmental regulation. “Yes, he's pro-business, but he's not pro-business to the exclusion of other concerns,” says Stewart.
Kiker says his decade as a fishing guide gave him an appreciation for the natural beauty of the area. But he says a balanced approach is preferable, something voters agreed with him when he was elected. “It's a recognizable change in peoples' attitudes about government,” Kiker says. “I think people are pretty smart, and they do tune in on style.”
Larry Kiker has a county commissioner soul mate in Betsy Benac.
Both were elected to their respective county commission seats Nov. 6: Kiker won the District 3 seat in Lee County, while Benac won a race for an at-large seat in Manatee County. Both politicians, moreover, are Republicans, and both defeated longtime political veterans in the August primary who many saw as leading anti-business voices. Kiker defeated Ray Judah, who held the seat for 24 years, while Benac dispatched Joe McClash, who had been on the commission since 1990.
Benac, finally, just like Kiker, comes to the commission with a business background. Benac's career, in fact, has been a mix of public and private work. She spent 11 years in the Manatee County Planning Department, from 1983 to 1994, when she was assistant planning director. She then worked for engineering firm WilsonMiller for 16 years, through 2010, when she took a position with Benderson Development. Benac was a senior project planner for Benderson, a prominent Manatee County-based developer.
A Saginaw, Mich., native, Benac moved to the Sarasota-Bradenton area in 1982. Benac defeated a write-in candidate in the general election, when she earned roughly 95% of the vote.
“It was difficult to get here, and it was especially hard being new,” Benac said after her victory, according to the East County Observer, sister paper of the Business Review. “But, with my experience in business, I think people really embraced my message of economic development.”
- Mark Gordon