Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Bills aim for control in auto fraud, lawsuits

Florida lawmakers made progress today with consumer-friendly and business-friendly bills that are tied to the auto industry.

As reported in today's Bradenton Herald, Rep. Jim Boyd, R-Bradenton, introduced House Bill 1411 that aims to control rampant fraud related to the Personal Injury Protection insurance, also known as PIP coverage or Florida No-Fault.

The bill (linked here) proposes stiffer penalties and revisions to car crash reports as a way to protect consumers from staged auto accidents.

Also today, the Florida Senate passed a bill that will make it tougher for consumers to win
injury lawsuits against auto makers over faulty auto parts in car crashes.

Senate Bill 142, known as the Crashworthiness Doctrine, is expected to limit consumer injury lawsuits against automakers over negligence and liability. The bill also permits a Florida jury to hear a case to determine what led to a car accident and other factors that may have contributed to a crash.

"Business-friendly tort reform is a priority in order to help Florida increase economic growth and job opportunities," said Senate Majority Leader Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando.

The bill will now move to the Florida House of Representatives for consideration.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Cost of local bank closures hits hard

The rise of bank failures nationwide has put a strain on the Deposit Insurance Fund at the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. Banks support the fund financially through the quarterly premiums they pay to the fund, but the 345 closures to date since 2008 has cost the Deposit Insurance Fund more than $76 billion. In 2009, the FDIC projected bank failures would cost the fund $100 billion by 2014.

Here in Manatee and Sarasota counties, eight banks whose headquarters are based in the bi-county area have failed since 2008. Those bank failures resulted in a combined cost  $948.7 million to the Deposit Insurance Fund. In our Sunday story, "The portrait of a failed bank: First Priority hit hard by risky real estate loans," reporter Duane Marsteller and I examined how practices at First Priority led to its demise -- the first in Manatee during this financial crisis.

Here's how those costs break down by bank:

1. First Priority Bank $72 million
2. Freedom Bank $80 million
3. Community National Bank of Sarasota County $24 million
4.First State Bank of Sarasota $116 million
5. Flagship National Bank $59 million
6. Century Bank F.S.B. $344 million
7. Peninsula Bank $194.8 million
8. Horizon Bank $58.9 million

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Region's quality of life helps win over Jackson Lab

 There's one Bradenton resident in particular who was pleased to hear The Jackson Laboratory wants to locate in Sarasota County.

 his book "The Legacy," about the South Florida Museum.
Dr. Thomas Peter Bennett spent the summer of 1957 studying at The Jackson Laboratory in Bar Harbor, Maine. The Bradenton resident was a undergraduate in chemistry at Florida State University at the time and was selected to study at the biomedical research facility as part of a college internship program.

"I spent two summers at Jackson Lab as a student and it was an incredible experience," Bennett said.

Bennett, an FSU graduate, went on to earn his Ph.D in Life Sciences from Rockefeller University. He still has many colleagues at The Jackson Laboratory today and is a member of its discovery program.
He also served as executive director of the South Florida Museum in Bradenton from 1998-2002.

Bennett discussed his time at The Jackson Lab with me a  few weeks ago as officials were touring Sarasota and Hillsborough counties to decide which county would be most suited for a 120,000-square-foot biomedical village.

He saw great potential then for Sarasota County to win out over Hillsborough County. He recalled during his time at The Jackson Lab how much he and colleagues enjoyed the quality of life around Bar Harbor, Maine -- hiking in particular.

"The lifestyle opportunity for many of the scientists who are at The Jackson Lab is endless here," Bennett said. "They enjoy the outdoors that's one of the best attractions in Maine. I think there are many aspects of that they would enjoy in Florida."

Bennett learned the news from a Jackson Lab colleague Wednesday and e-mailed me some simple words on the announcement: "Great news."

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

A sense of pride on Pine Avenue

It's tough to turn down an assignment on Anna Maria Island. On Monday, I spent a couple hours on Pine Avenue to talk with business owners for today's story on the small business district.

Tourists and residents alike were enjoying the beautiful weather while strolling the sidewalks, cycling or sitting on the front porches of the Pine Avenue Restoration developments.

Two longtime Anna Maria residents I met were Tom Tollette and Mike Pescitelli. They were sitting outside the Olive Oil Outpost on Pine Avenue enjoying their morning coffee. They chatted about many things, including the 100-year anniversary of the Anna Maria City Pier and the business district that has been preserved on Pine Avenue.

They imagined what life was like when the pier opened in 1911 and tourists came by steamer from Tampa to the city pier and strolled down Pine Avenue to the Bath House looking to enjoy a day or more at the beach.

"You figure this was the concept for this street 100 years ago," said Pescitelli. "People sitting on porches, having their morning coffee talking about the weather."

Friday, February 25, 2011

How 14 mortgage fraud indictments came down (w/video)

The story: Fourteen people, including two Bradenton residents, were charged today in a large-scale mortgage fraud conspiracy involving more than $47 million in loans and 22 residential properties.

How it happened: The defendants allegedly falsified documents to nearly 12 local banks and private mortgage lenders to obtain loans.
They allegedly falsified the real seller and buyer in the property transactions, the real purchase price and the buyer actual income, assets and liabilities.

When it occurred: Over a span of 10 years, from October 1997-March 2008.

Local players: Bradenton residents charged in the case include Jeffrey T. Berghorn, 46, who bought and sold homes in Sarasota with two others charged in the scheme and Lisa R. Rotolo, 47, who was a title agent and owner of Diamond Title in Sarasota. She worked alongside another defendant charged in the case.

Here's my first posting from today's breaking news, as U.S. Attorney Robert E. O'Neill and Sarasota County Sheriff Tom Knight announced the charges in Sarasota. Check out a copy of the indictment here, and a more detailed report will publish in Saturday's Bradenton Herald. Below is Paul Videla's video from the announcements:

Monday, February 21, 2011

Sign of the health care times

Blake Medical Center's plans to acquire Bradenton-based Pinnacle Medical Group as reported today is a sign of where the health care industry is heading: mergers.

During a Manatee Chamber of Commerce seminar on health care reform in September, local professionals pinpointed the impact the Obama Administration would have on health care. Mergers among hospitals, physician groups and specialized health care providers were among the biggest forthcoming impacts chamber officials discussed.

As Jonathan Fleece, a board-certified health care attorney at Blalock Walters, explained then and again to me Friday, health care reform is going to make claim reimbursements to the industry more complex.
Claims are currently paid individually to each health care provider involved in a patient's care. Health care reform says bundle those payments and let the businesses in the industry work out who is owed what for patient care services.

Blake Medical Center CEO Daniel Friedrich said health care reform played a part in the merger with Pinnacle and explained the partnership will allow Blake and Pinnacle to focus more on patient care rather than sorting out payment deliveries.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

See Riverwalk renderings at Farmers' Market

The Bradenton Farmers' Market this season has seen growth in vendors and consumers, as reported in today's Bradenton Herald. The market's organizers credit some of that to scheduling events each Saturday that coincide with the market that runs from 9 a.m.-2 p.m.

This Saturday, officials from Downtown Development Authority and Realize Bradenton will share artist renderings of the proposed Riverwalk design, says Johnette Isham, executive director of Realize Bradenton.

Designs proposed for the 1.5-mile stretch of the Riverwalk from just east of the Green Bridge past Manatee Memorial Hospital include building a skate park, a family fun zone, an interactive foundation and open lawn space.

The project has an estimated price tag of $6.2 million and will go before the Bradenton City Council next Wednesday for further discussion.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Bradenton's new tourism leadership getting results

Debbie Meihls has been plenty busy since joining the Bradenton Area Convention and Visitors Bureau, reported here in August.

She hit the ground running when hired as executive manager with a fresh perspective on how to market Anna Maria Island and Manatee County. Much of her approach, derived from her marketing role with the St. Petersburg/Clearwater tourism bureau, is cooperative marketing.

And local tourism officials on Monday said Meihls' strategy is a success as reported in today's Bradenton Herald.

"I have a direct marketing background and marketing has to be results-driven," said David Teitelbaum, a member of the Manatee County Tourist Development Council. "It's a pleasure to see the money we're spending is being spent correctly."

 A recent cooperative marketing project led by Meihls includes the Manatee County edition of "Florida Travel + Life's Affordable Luxury" series.  The 30-minute television spot features Anna Maria Island and cost $85,000. As part of the deal, the Bradenton Area Convention and Visitors Bureua will also get the rights to the B-roll video that includes footage of local beaches, Bridge Street, Village of the Arts and Lakewood Ranch to use in future marketing projects. And, Florida Travel + Life magazine this month has a four-page spread on Manatee County and its tourism ammenities.

"We are so thankful St. Pete let her get away," said Elliott Falcione, executive director of the Bradenton CVB. "She's doing some incredible things."

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Good decisions, family values help local business

Small business owners are working harder than ever to survive these tough times. As the small business feature in Wednesday's Bradenton Herald illustrates, brothers Bob and Rocky Smith have had to do a lot of retooling to keep Universal Window Solutions afloat and competitive.

During my interview with the local business owners Tuesday, Rocky Smith said, "We've worked harder in the last four years than we have in the last 20 years."

Much of today's story focused on the business decisions the Smiths made that allowed Universal Window Solutions to pull through the recession. But it's important to add that family values and relationships have played a big part in the success of Universal Window Solutions, which was incorporated in 1981.

Rocky Smith purchased the business in 1999, and Bob Smith joined the business in 2001.

"We grew up understanding the value of a dollar," Rocky Smith said. "That has truly helped us."

Bob and Rocky's parents, both manufacturing representatives, taught them that value, as well as some good sales and business tactics the brothers have been able to carry into their own business.

"Our parents would be on the phone with clients and you'd be eavesdropping not really knowing you're eavesdropping," Bob Smith recalled. "It helped us see there's a lot of skill in understanding the sales process. It's not easy -- it's a very difficult process."

Friday, January 14, 2011

Boating plan goes after niche market

Tim Norwood (provided photo)
Tim Norwood is going after a very specific market with his proposed boat factory, as featured in today's Bradenton Herald Business section.

The concept he is working on for Row Norwood is whitehall row boats and crew boats. According to those in the marine industry, these types of recreational boats are ideal in a down economy.

The boats require less maintenance, no fuel, and are what first-time boaters usually start with, says Gordon Connell, director of association services at the Marine Industries Association of South Florida.

"The number of people doing real basic, entry-level rowing and paddle boating has become quite popular," Connell says. "There will continue to be a slice or segment in the industry for these type of boats."

But with any type of business, niche marketing can come with some downfalls.

"You have a greater dependency on one particular market and therefore there's more risk," says Joe Pfeiffer, volunteer business counselor for Manasota SCORE, a resource partner of the U.S. Small Business Administration. "Everything is so defined."

On the other hand, Pfeiffer says market segmentation allows entrepreneurs to build closer relationships with their client base and better reach them through advertising. And Pfeiffer, who is also a business consultant in the Bradenton-Sarasota area, sees more established businesses going this route because -- you guessed it -- of the economy.

"Businesses have done everything they can to cut costs, so now they're really focused on trying to expand sales," Pfeiffer said. "They're finding a better niche market may be an opportunity for that."

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Building business with a passion

Dell Hyland is a perfect example of those who build a business based on a passion for something, as reported in my 1A business story today.

The U.S. Marine veteran and 17-year veteran of the security industry is proposing a multi-use training facility for fire, police, emergency rescue and private security agencies.

Hyland is still working on building his startup, Wide World Security, in the region. And, while the proposed training center that could cost upwards of $150 million is a major undertaking, Hyland is determined.

"It was always my intent to grow with the community, to provide a better service of security and make it a safer place to live and raise a family," said Hyland, a 10-year resident of Lakewood Ranch.

After the Marines, Hyland's security career has involved event staff for concerts, executive protection and celebrity protection. After the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 and after participating in the relief efforts after Hurricane Katrina, Hyland felt compelled to turn his passion into something bigger.

Wide World Security is Hyland's vision for what he hopes will improve security nationwide. And it's a vision that could bring 100 jobs to this area.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Cold snaps make for scarce, costly produce

On a grocery run after work Tuesday evening, I circled the produce section several times looking for strawberries, thinking I was not looking carefully enough. Another customer, too, wondered where the red berries were and asked the produce clerk: "No more strawberries?"

The clerk politely informed us that strawberries -- what there are of them -- have been selling out by early afternoon during these recent winter weeks. As the Bradenton Herald reports Saturday with news partner Miami Herald, the cold snap is causing some vegetables and fruit to be more costly these days.

Though strawberries weren't hit as hard as other Florida crops, other crops were not as fortunate. Florida tomatoes were among some of the hardest hit in Florida. Many growers lost all of their tomato crop and prices for tomatoes increased about 25 to 40 percent across the board.

"As soon as (farmers) knew they were going to lose those crops, tomato prices shot up," said George Caldwell, director of purchasing at Global Organics Specialty Source, a Manatee County-based organic supply company.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Flashing red light means hot job news

Pierce Manufacturing in Bradenton
will create 150 jobs this year.
(File photo by Tiffany Tompkins-Condie)
 The red message light lit up on my phone shortly after 10 a.m. today as I finished an interview.

I dialed into my voicemail and there was a message from Eric Basinger. The executive director of the Manatee Economic Development Council wanted to give me a heads-up on a news release his staff was writing up.

He didn't give any further information, but I figured a big announcement about jobs was on its way.

Indeed there was. The Bradenton-based Pierce Manufacturing will be hiring an estimated 150 people this year as its operations will be expanded to build ambulances.

The local business currently builds fire trucks, and its parent company Oshkosh Corp. is moving Medtech Ambulances to Bradenton. It's also moving Oshkosh Specialty Vehicles to its Clearwater plant Frontline Communications, which makes mobile command vehicles. That move will create 50 jobs in Pinellas County.

While the150 jobs doesn't come close to the 18,267 people who are out of work in Manatee County, it's a substantial gain for the area.

Oshkosh, a Fortune 350 company, has manufacturing operations in 11 states and Australia, Belgium, Canada and France, and chose Bradenton among all those options to move the majority. And those 150 jobs coming to Bradenton will combine for an annual payroll of $5.8 million in the first year.

That's $5.8 million that can be injected back into the region's economy.

"Overall, it's a major statement on any community when a Fortune 500 or 350 company says we've got all these business units around the world and we're choosing to move it to your community," Basinger said.

-- Grace Gagliano