That’s a percolating theme to the economy in the region for 2019.
The root of the anxiety stems from a dangerous question: from housing to health care, is the economy on the verge of a slowdown after at least five years of robust recession recovery?
While few prognosticators would answer definitively yes to that question — no one likes a party pooper — some threatening signs loom. “I think there’s always some anxiety about when the other shoe is going to drop,” says Trenam Law Managing Shareholder Marie Tomassi, though she quickly adds, she’s “not hearing a lot of that” in and around Tampa — right now.
Tomassi is one 15 executives and business owners the Business Observer interviewed for its annual economic forecast issue.
At least three-fourths of the group points to one factor, counterintuitively to some extent, that’s already gumming up the works in the economy: a lack of good people to hire to do the work that’s out there now. That goes from the well-documented construction labor shortage to hospitals, retail and hospitality.
“Everybody’s looking at pay structures, flexibility,” says Kyle Parks, president of B2 Communications in St. Petersburg, which has clients in real estate and hospitality, among other sectors. “They’re asking, ‘How do I do more than just post a job on Indeed.com or LinkedIn?’ The big storyline going into 2019 is labor.”
Kevin DiLallo, CEO of Manatee Healthcare System in Bradenton, which runs Manatee Memorial Hospital in Bradenton, echoes many other executives when he says “staff means everything to us. We want to make sure we get the right people on board.”
Ditto for Alison Wester, a partner with accounting firm Mauldin & Jenkins’ Bradenton office. “Our biggest challenges and threats are finding and retaining good people,” says Wester. “There are a lot of opportunities for professionals in Florida.”
One strategy the firm, based in Atlanta, has found success in is giving young employees a louder voice, in an advisory forum. That forum has led to new benefits, such as increased compensation for employees who spend multiple nights out of town on business a year.
Outside the multi-faceted labor shortage issue, some executives are edgy in thinking about the future for specific, and recent, happenings largely out of their control.
Consider Zac Kearns with the Kearns Restaurant Group in Fort Myers. It opened its ninth Fort Myers area restaurant, and its second Boathouse location, over the summer — right before prolonged red tide crushed businesses. “It was one of our tougher summers,” Kearns says.
Back in Bradenton, Bealls, with its Florida-centric department store unit, was reeling from 2017’s Hurricane Irma in 2018 because its fiscal year is August to July. “The month of September last year was certainly one to forget,” Bealls CEO says Steve Knopik.
All that said, Knopik, Kearns, Wester and many others remain steely optimistic about 2019. Knopik, for one, says in general, all the “economic indicators point to a good year for retailing.”
In addition to data-based optimism, Knopik, a leader in statewide and national retail organizations who started his business career in 1977 with KPMG, has the wisdom to overcome any economy uh-ohs. “We believe that you’ve got to really learn to play through, as they say in golf,” Knopik says. “Play through your troubles.”