This is the last issue of SARASOTA Magazine that will include our annual ranking of the region’s largest companies; and though I usually choke up at farewells, I’m celebrating, because the story is leaving us for a better home-our new magazine, Sarasota-Manatee Business, edited by long-time staffer Susan Burns. The new magazine, which debuts this month, contains an expanded version of the "Top Companies" listing (pie charts, tables and other business-style bells and whistles), and next year, it will be the only place the story will appear.
This year’s list includes 145 Sarasota and Manatee companies and represents months of research by editor Pat Haire. It’s come a long way since the first "Top Companies" list in 1989, which I researched myself, blithely assuming it would take a week or two, and never suspecting that CEOS might refuse to reveal their annual revenues, especially to an English major who kept forgetting the difference between gross and net figures. Eight weeks and several hundred interviews later, I’d found 70 companies with sales of $10 million or more and learned a few things about business, too.
Most important, I discovered that the business world was brimming with personalities, struggles and triumphs as gripping as any novel. As Regardie’s magazine, which covered business in Washington, D.C., in the booming ’80s, used to preach, business makes for rousing reading because it’s about "money, power, and greed!" Business success is also about fresh approaches and discoveries, especially in our region, which has become a national hotspot for entrepreneurs and start-up small businesses. In fact, about 83 percent of businesses here have 50 or fewer employees and 95 percent have fewer than 100. Many are telecommuters and high-tech companies taking advantage of the Internet and air travel to live here and do business around the globe.
They come for the qualities that made Employment Review Magazine name Sarasota "The Best Place to Live and Work in Florida" and the third-best in the country: sunny skies, beautiful beaches, top-rated schools, an easygoing atmosphere and cultural and intellectual energy. With 700,000 people in Manatee and Sarasota and 1,000 newcomers arriving every month, we now have the nation’s third-fastest growing job market and an economy that’s managed to expand even during national downturns. And we haven’t seen anything yet, say many experts, including developer Pat Neal, whose luxury developments are setting new sales records as the first of the retiring baby boomers head our way.
In the first issue of the new magazine, in a story about the Sarasota-Bradenton Airport, a Denver-based aviation consultant echoes that forecast. Despite all our worries about the airport’s falling revenues and passengers, he insists, in a few years it will take off, as growth brings more people-and more traffic on the road to Tampa.
Rather than being absorbed by Tampa Bay and becoming part of a vast megalopolis, as some have predicted, the signs now are that Sarasota will continue to maintain its unique identity. While Tampa has many large corporations and a population so solidly middle-American that national companies often test-market new products there, we’re both smaller and more upscale. As sources from our own readers’ surveys to Money Magazine’s "Best Small City in America" rating in 2000 indicate, Sarasota is privileged, quality-conscious and creative. And-as I realized watching the crowds that stopped by our booth at the recent Reading Festival-we’re also finally becoming more diverse, with people of every color, age and ethnicity joining the conservative retirees that once made up the bulk of our population. And if some of these are the traits that tend to turn too many civic decisions here into impassioned battles, they’re also exactly the qualities that analysts say attract and retain the smart, imaginative people who build-and staff-today’s most dynamic businesses.
A small business can thrive in such an atmosphere, especially one that serves our sophisticated, affluent residents and visitors. That’s been true for our company, which has grown from one Sarasota magazine 25 years ago to more than a dozen titles in Sarasota, Naples, Jacksonville and Orlando. And it’s also been true for many of the people and businesses we’ve featured on our pages over the years.
There are challenges as well as opportunities in our marketplace, of course, as battles over development, noise ordinances and environmental issues demonstrate. New businesses need to realize that locals–including small business owners and the CEOs who relocate major companies here after falling in love with the place on vacation-may vigorously oppose growth that threatens our beauty and character. And as we grow larger, we’re starting to attract chains and mega-companies, powerful competitors for homegrown businesses.
Our new magazine will provide a resource and voice to help local businesses overcome these and other challenges and will highlight what’s unique about the region’s entrepreneurs and their visions. So far, the signs are that the market is ready for the message, with advertising sales for the first issue more than doubling our projections. We hope you’ll pick up a copy or subscribe; even if you’re not in business yourself, we promise to tell the tales in a way that brings business alive and adds to the ever-expanding story of our region.