Every January, we recognize the region’s most successful businesses with our annual listing of the top companies in Sarasota and Manatee. Measuring their success is easy: We rank them according to how much they earn. But measuring the success of a businessperson is a little trickier. Earnings tell only a part of the story; and as anyone who’s ever tried to get to know someone by reading his resume knows, achievements and honors don’t paint the entire picture, either. We canvassed five executives and entrepreneurs who have risen to the top of their field to figure out what sets them apart. What we discovered was that they were all completely different, except for one little trait: Every one of them loves going to work every day. And how did they find the calling that’s given them so much happiness? Sometimes in surprisingly unexpected ways. We found a lesson in each of their stories; but see what secrets you find in their success.
LEARN TO LEVERAGE.
As senior market strategist for Prudential Financial, Robert Stovall tells brokers all over the country what to buy and sell. But millions of investors have been following the analyst’s advice since 1979, when he started appearing on "Wall Street Week." Still a regular on that show, Stovall also writes for Forbes and other business publications and teaches at NYU’s Stern Graduate School of Business.
Anything but a numbers-cruncher, Stovall is witty, empathetic-being an intuitive "role player" helps him figure out what consumers will next embrace, he says-and can talk easily about subjects from ethics to literature. He and his wife Inger, who live part-time in Sarasota, raised six children, two of them adopted Cuban refugees, and have endowed scholarships at schools around the country, including at Cardinal Mooney High School in Sarasota.
As a teen-ager, Stovall worked in the brokerage office his father managed. He admired the high-flying, polished sales people-not the analysts, who in those days tended to be failed salespeople or someone’s hopeless relative. Still, after a stint as a medic in World War II, he toyed with the idea of being a doctor. But finance came more easily to him, so he studied that instead. "Now my wife says I’m a money doctor," he says. "People talk to me about their financial problems and symptoms."
A "conceptual thinker and thematic investor," Stovall was influenced by a college professor who stressed concentric thinking. "He would draw big circles on the blackboard and go from the big picture down to the bull’s-eye. That’s how I think about the markets. For example, on Sept. 11, communication was disrupted. That’s the big picture. You go from there to industry sectors, like personal computers and electronics. Then you go to the bull’s-eye: The top companies in those sectors, like Nokia and Radio Shack, will profit."
And with that big-picture perspective, he soon realized that he could leverage his expertise into a multi-faceted career. "I always liked the idea of having several angles," he explains. "My basic skill is knowing about investing, and I’ve managed to make a good living from that and also use it for writing, teaching and the media." Though past the usual retirement age, Stovall says, "I really don’t know what I’d do with myself if I didn’t do this job. You never get bored in this business."
BRING FRESH PERSPECTIVE TO A FAMILY BUSINESS
If there was one thing Scott Brann knew, it was that he would never, ever go into his mother’s business. He had spent too many hectic holidays helping out at her flower shop, so he went into restaurant management instead. But his mother had just bought a fledgling company called Lux-Art, which supplied Sarasota flower shops and stores with plastic flowers and trees for their displays. With just one employee, she needed her son-who despite his distaste for the business had keen competitive instincts and a passion for plants and gardening. "So at 24, I did what I always said I wouldn’t and came on board," Scott says.
Always eager to "grow to the next level," Scott soon saw an opportunity: Artificial plants had improved, and model homes-which Sarasota had lots of in the fast-growing ’80s-were featuring lavish artificial arrangements. The company changed direction and began designing those floral arrangements, and soon sales were jumping by 100 percent a year.
Growth like that delighted the son but worried the mother. "She was from the old school and didn’t want borrow money, either," Scott says. "But finally, in 1989, I persuaded her. We took out a loan and opened a showroom in High Point, North Carolina, the world capital of the furniture industry." Scott promised her they would pay the money back in six months, but instead it took three years. "She never let me forget that!" he recalls ruefully.
But opening the showroom was "the turning point," says Scott. After a shaky first few months, in which they tried "to be everything to everybody," the company found its niche. Silks had improved, and Scott realized that would create demand for better-and more profitable-arrangements. "We focused on high-end arrangements," he says; and soon top national reps were including them in their product lines.
Today Lux-Art Silks International supplies artificial plants and florals to customers from Bloomingdale’s and Macy’s to major furniture stores. It has a showroom in Dallas and ships 40-foot containers full of designs to South America and Saudi Arabia. In 1996, Scott bought the business from his mother, who died last year, immensely proud of what she and her son had accomplished together. "We had some power struggles, but we realized we were always going after the same thing," he says. And every year, he has more zest for the family business. "I work 60-hour weeks, but it’s easy, because I love staying on top of a fast-moving, trend-setting industry."
GO WITH YOUR GIFT
You’ve probably seen Regan Dunnick’s artwork, not only in this magazine but in national ad campaigns and such publications as Business Week, Atlantic Monthly and Newsweek. Co-chair of the illustration department at Ringling School of Art and Design, Regan manages to juggle full-time teaching with a busy, high-profile free-lance career.
Yet he’s also something of an overgrown kid, with a habit of laughing hilariously at his own jokes; and he admits he learned early on that his art-especially his humorous art-could win friends and admiration. He noticed in first grade that his pictures were much better than everyone else’s-"I could do a kick-ass Thanksgiving turkey"-and soon he was entertaining his classmates with drawings and even, in fifth grade, a satirical comic book "heavily influenced by Mad Magazine."
"I was the ultimate slacker," Regan admits. "Art was so easy for me that I didn’t need to work at it. I knew that if all else failed, I could rely on my art." After graduating from Ringling, he decided to be a fine art painter and started dashing off illustrations just to supplement his income. Then the Palm Beach Post gave him a job-but fired him when he did a Mother’s Day illustration of a black woman with a child. "They wanted me to change it to a white woman and I wouldn’t," he explains.
After that, 23 and with a new wife and a baby on the way, he worked as a bartender in Miami and free-lanced during the day. "The turning point came one morning at 4 a.m.," Regan says. "I was stocking the coolers with cases of beer. I was exhausted, filthy and wet; and I thought, ‘You’ve got to make a living at illustration so you don’t have to do this anymore!’"
He moved to Houston, a major design market, and when he was established enough to live anywhere, moved back to Sarasota and started teaching at Ringling. "I like being around kids and knowing what’s in," he says. "Being up on popular culture is the key to my success." It also helps him relate to art directors, he explains, who tend to be in their ’20s. And his love for what’s new leads him to keep changing his style, another factor in his longevity: "In this business, it’s the kiss of death to zero in on one thing-you have to change your look and approach constantly."
NEVER UNDERESTIMATE A LADY WHO LUNCHES
Back in the ’70s, Barbara Strauss used to sneak into Sarasota clubs to hear bands like the Allman Brothers. The little girl with the big brown eyes and a personality as friendly-and fearless-as a puppy looked even younger than her 15 years, and the musicians started calling her their baby sister. Barbara still looks like a kid, but she’s becoming something of a living legend for 11 straight years of success in promoting the Sarasota Bluesfest and other concerts and events. She gets a kick out of that, because she never figured she’d end up in the music-or any other-business.
"When I moved back to Sarasota, I was a 32-year-old spoiled kid who went to the gym and hung out with my friends," Barbara says. Then she met Twinkle, a young Sarasota singer, and offered, just for the fun of it, to babysit for her two-year-old daughter. That led to a trip out to California, where Twinkle was cutting her first record. Barbara knew nothing about the industry, but when she saw how poorly the experts were handling things, her innate business instincts surfaced, and soon she was doing everything from running the singer’s road trips to handling publicity.
When she was back in Sarasota a few years later, a promoter asked Barbara to invest in a local blues festival. "He turned out to be shady, and I realized that I’d better learn how to be a concert promoter or my friends and I were going to lose our money," she says. Panicked, she started calling up the friends she’d made on the road, and they walked her through everything. "When it was over, I thought, ‘That was the most heinous thing I’ve ever done! I’m never doing that again!’" Barbara says with a laugh.
But she did, expanding the line-up and her reputation as a rock-solid promoter every year. Strauss says the secret of her success is "only picking shows I have passion for." She also gives much credit to the fans-and her musician friends, including Gregg Allman, who offered to come to the second festival as a favor. (He later admitted he figured nobody would be there and almost went into shock when he pulled up and saw 8,000 fans.) And though other promoters can’t believe she only charges $15 for an all-day show, the privileged little lady who once spent her days partying says firmly, "I know how to budget and how to wheel and deal. I can tell you how much I paid for porta-potties 10 years ago, and I’m so organized it’s nauseating."
WHEN THE TEACHER APPEARS, LISTEN
Randy Silverstine’s patients enjoy the rarest of medical luxuries-and it isn’t house calls, but something much more precious. When the Sarasota internist with the nasal drawl and self-deprecating sense of humor steps into the examining room, he somehow conveys that absolutely nothing matters as much as hearing every single thing that patient has to say until they arrive at the real heart of the problem-and the person.
"The best thing about what I do is having conversations with patients," agrees Randy, who loves to tell the joke on himself about the afternoon when a woman in her 80s went on so long that he nodded off and woke up to hear her still talking. As she finally rose to leave, she clasped his hand and said, "I’ve never had a doctor listen to me the way you do!" Normally, however, Randy is wide awake and fully engaged in the "problem-solving process" he loves so much about medicine. "People are different with their doctors," he says. "They drop their pretenses and make a real effort to be honest. And there’s no such thing as a nosy doctor-you can talk about anything and everything with them."
Yet Silverstine, whose father was a pediatrician and who wanted to be a doctor since he was a kid, almost didn’t make it to medical school. He earned dismal grades during his freshman year of college and returned home "totally and absolutely defeated." One day, with nothing to do, he wandered down the street and started leafing through a pile of books at a garage sale. One caught his eye: "10 Steps Toward Achieving Success in College." He read it that afternoon and decided he would religiously follow every single rule, from "For every hour in class, spend an hour that evening studying," to "Always be prepared for an exam two days ahead." For the rest of his educational career, he never earned less than an A on an exam or class.
Randy has taken an unconventional approach to his practice as well. A sculptor who also designs and builds furniture, he sees medicine as a creative endeavor that’s best practiced independently, with no economic benefit accruing to the doctor because of affiliations with labs or hospitals. He was part of a hospital-owned group for a while, but three years ago, decided to go out on his own. "I was told I would never survive," he says, "but I’m as busy as I can be and I’m doing as well as I’ve ever done." And though he’ll never out-earn more financially oriented doctors, that doesn’t matter to him. "I think of medicine as more of an art than a science and not a business at all," he explains. "I don’t believe in standardized care. I believe doctors should see every patient and problem as a brand-new day."