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Quiet giant

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  • | 10:00 a.m. November 7, 2014
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What if a publicly traded technology company with more than $800 million in annual revenues moved its top executives and corporate headquarters from New York City to your town?

And what if few people knew about it?

If you think that sounds far-fetched, consider this: In 2012, Naples landed the corporate headquarters of ACI Worldwide, a software-development company that provides the backbone of payment processing to the world's major banks and global retailers. ACI has 4,200 employees in 35 offices around the world and posted $865 million in revenues in 2013.

The company made no formal announcement that it was relocating to Naples in summer 2012. “We came in very quietly,” acknowledges Philip Heasley, the CEO of ACI, which also has a software-development team in Clearwater.

That's in sharp contrast to the relocation of other large companies to Southwest Florida. Most recently, when car-rental giant Hertz moved its headquarters to the region from New Jersey, the company held a press conference with Florida Gov. Rick Scott and an entourage of local politicians and economic development officials.

But ACI's move to Naples is a big deal, too. In economic development circles, they call it the big elephant hunt. Such a company is the trophy prize in the quest for high-quality jobs. After all, just the top five executives at ACI earned nearly $10 million last year.

In another unusual step, ACI didn't request any subsidies to relocate its headquarters. Collier County economic development groups report they haven't had any contact with the company recently.
But ACI is now the third-largest company by revenues in Naples, behind Arthrex and Manhattan Construction Group, according to the Business Observer's Gulf Coast 500 annual ranking of the top companies in the region. ACI ranks as the 28th largest company on the Gulf Coast from Tampa to Naples.

While ACI has about 4,200 employees, it came to Naples with just a handful of senior executives. A year ago, it had just 15 employees in Naples. Now there are 50, and Heasley says there's room for 100 people in offices near Pine Ridge Road and Interstate 75 in Naples. “It's very natural we're going to continue to grow,” Heasley says.

Life is better in Naples
Heasley says one of the main reasons the company relocated its headquarters to Naples is that it's a better place than New York City to recruit and retain top executives.

For example, Heasley successfully recruited a chief product officer who lived in Cape Town, South Africa, to Naples because he didn't want to move to a U.S. megalopolis. Consultants at executive-search firm Spencer Stuart confirmed that the odds of recruiting top executives to Naples are 30% better than in New York City, where the cost of living has spiraled, Heasley says.

While Naples isn't a technology or corporate hub, Heasley says that could change because of the presence of Florida Gulf Coast University in nearby Fort Myers and a positive business climate that includes lower taxes and good quality of life. “There are natural incentives to be here,” he says.

Heasley has helped pioneer new locations as a banking executive. He served as chairman and CEO of First USA Bank from 2000 to 2003 and prior to that was vice chairman, president and chief operating officer at U.S. Bancorp. Before joining U.S. Bancorp he was president and chief operating officer of Diners Club.

For example, Heasley located banking operations in Austin, Texas, before it became the technology hub it is today. “There was a university and lots of land,” he says. He did the same in Denver. “I remember when Denver was nothing,” he says. Now, he says, “The place is a magnet.”

When Heasley joined ACI in March 2005, the company was headquartered in Omaha, Nebraska. Heasley says even its own customers didn't want to visit. “It's a very difficult place to manage a global enterprise from,” he says.

So Heasley moved the headquarters of the company to New York City, putting it closer to its domestic bank customers and more accessible to its international customers. But New York City had a major weakness: “What we found was it was a difficult place to recruit,” he says.

In addition to lifestyle concerns, ACI had to pay much higher salaries to its executives to live in New York. “It wasn't economically feasible,” Heasley says.

Before settling on Naples, Heasley says the company considered moving its headquarters to the Atlanta area, where it has an existing facility in nearby Norcross, Ga. But the traffic congestion there also makes it a tough lifestyle choice, he says.

No incentives needed
Heasley says ACI didn't seek out state or local financial incentives to move to Naples because the cost of doing business in New York City was so high on everything from office space rent to taxes that moving to Naples created an immediate economic benefit. “Economically we got a good deal here,” Heasley says.

Heasley says the only tax break the company receives in Florida is the offset of its contribution to Habitat for Humanity charity against sales taxes. Besides, Heasley is wary of government incentives. He recalls something his daughter told him recently: “Any time you get something free, you are the product,” he says.

Heasley's interest in establishing offices in Florida started when Jeb Bush was governor from 1999 to 2007, making the state more attractive to employers with priorities such as lower taxes and better education. “Jeb Bush built in Florida a magnet that caused people to want to be here,” he says.

And Heasley says he considers the Southeast to be where the country's growth lies, much like California decades ago.

Heasley has watched Florida mature over the years. He has served as a director of Jacksonville-based Fidelity National Financial, his parents lived in Delray Beach and he's owned a home in Key Largo.
“I came to appreciate the Florida [business] climate,” Heasley says.

“I had been a partial resident here since 2001,” says Heasley, an avid fisherman and boater who owns a waterfront home in the Port Royal neighborhood of Naples.

What's more, ACI has scheduled annual meetings of the company's managers at the Ritz-Carlton Golf Resort for the last eight years, he says. Wall Street analysts like to visit with the company too, preferring to meet on Tuesdays or Thursdays so they can extend their stays to include the weekend.

Still, there are some challenges to growing the Naples operation beyond filling the executive ranks. Finding qualified technical staff for software development would be tough in Naples, though that's true anywhere in the U.S., Heasley notes. “We have a shortage of highly educated people,” he says.

Heasley advocates loosening visa restrictions for skilled workers in technology to come work in the U.S. “It would have a huge positive impact on the economy of this country,” he says.

Executive Summary
Company. ACI Worldwide Industry. Technology Key. A good business climate is enough to attract corporate headquarters to Florida.


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