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Rod Petrey - Floridian of the Year

Rod Petrey
[Photo: Brian Smith]
Both Florida Trend's Floridian of the Year, Rod Petrey, and the organization he heads, the Collins Center for Public Policy, are obscure names for most Floridians. He has run the think tank since 1992, after former Gov. LeRoy Collins, for whom the center is named, called to plead with him to head it. Collins, terminally ill at the time, told Petrey, "You're my friend. You've got to do something to make this work."

Over the years, Petrey has defined the center's mission as becoming a "think tank with muddy boots." In addition to producing data and reports, it organizes and actively manages programs dealing with issues that the state can't or won't address in a timely way.

During his tenure, Petrey and the center have taken on — usually quietly — long-running Florida issues like sustainability, health and criminal justice. Until two years ago, the center funded its work on

$3 million to $4 million a year Petrey raised from foundations and other donors.

What makes Petrey our Floridian of the Year in 2010 is his and the center's muddy boots on two of the year's most difficult issues for Florida: Oil drilling and the wave of foreclosures that has inundated Florida's courts.

In both arenas, Petrey steered courses that served the state, its citizens and businesses well. In a highly politicized year, he took a practical, even-keel approach that kept the center focused on service and out of politics. In the process, he produced a breakout financial year for his organization that should serve it — and Florida — well in the years to come.

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Rod Petrey
[Photo: Brian Smith]
Roderick "Rod" Petrey, a native of Haines City in central Florida, was just 2 when his father was killed in combat in Italy in World War II. As a high school junior, Petrey was elected governor of Boys State and met Collins, Florida's Democratic governor from 1955 to 1961.

After his freshman year at the University of Florida, Petrey went on to Yale, majoring in history, and served in the First Cavalry in Korea, the 101st Airborne and in 1966 as a Green Beret captain in Vietnam before returning to Florida and linking up with Collins, who was running (unsuccessfully) for U.S. Senate.

"The man saved my life," Petrey says. "It was a rough year (in Vietnam). He became a surrogate father to me. I'm in love with LeRoy Collins." At the ceremony when Petrey was admitted to the Bar after graduating from Harvard Law School, Collins was the lawyer who stood up for him.

Initially, Petrey chose business rather than law. He worked for the McKinsey consulting firm until 1977, when he and his wife, Lucy, and their two children moved to Miami, where he later became a partner at Holland and Knight. In 1988, the Legislature created the Collins Center with a $2-million endowment as a legacy for the former governor. Three years later, Collins, ill with the cancer that would kill him later that year, called and asked Petrey to take over the center.

During Petrey's tenure, the center built an expertise in mediation that Petrey leveraged when the real estate bubble burst in 2007 and foreclosure cases began clogging Florida's courts. Making mediation a part of the foreclosure process, he believed, could serve the interests of borrowers, lenders and the courts.

The center offered to administer mediation efforts in foreclosure cases, and the state's 19th Circuit, covering much of the Treasure Coast, including foreclosure-hotbed St. Lucie County, bit first. The circuit launched a program — mandatory for lenders and servicers on homesteaded property, optional for homeowners — in the spring of 2009.

Experience showed that cases that go to mediation fall out of the court system, a much-desired outcome for judges in "the tsunami of foreclosure cases that were being filed," says Circuit Judge Burton Conner.

Based on the center's experience in the Treasure Coast and then in the Miami-Dade and Pensacola circuits, the state Supreme Court in December 2009 ordered mediation statewide. The center picked up three more circuits while other outfits handle mediation in the state's 14 other judicial circuits.

Ask Petrey why the center dived into foreclosure mediation and he answers in terms of cutting court caseloads, the center's history in mediation and the importance of mediation as part of "deliberative democracy." Interestingly, he doesn't say "to keep people in their homes." Petrey says the center's personnel may be inclined that way but "we try really hard to be a neutral party."

Two years into the program, Conner says the program is "a work in progress." A high percentage of homeowners can't be reached or don't respond to efforts to get them to try mediation. But the 8% of homeowners who reach some agreement or settlement prior to mediation — from turning over the keys to reducing loan terms — is a significant number given the volume of cases, Conner says. What ultimately happens to those 8% is something the center is now studying. "All in all, I have to say the program is considered a success," Conner says.

It's been a success for the center. It takes in $750 per case, pays out a total of $425 to a mediator and to a credit counselor for the borrower and retains the rest to cover the expense of 60 call-center workers, who strive to get homeowners to try mediation, and administrators. Collins makes a small amount of money on each case.

Petrey has used the money to fund more work and hire marketing, development and communications staff. The additional resources proved timely when then-Florida Sen. President Jeff Atwater (now the state's CFO), called for a report on the potential impact of lifting the offshore oil-drilling ban. The report, which emerged the month before the Deepwater Horizon accident in the Gulf, lowered the temperature in the debate and drew praise from all sides for its fairness.

Story continues on next page

Business
Mark Wilson
Wilbur Ross Jr.
Lola Gonzalez
John Textor
Robert Clements
Thomas Gaffney
Hugh Green
R.J. Scaringe
Foreclosure Fighters
Julian MacQueen

Politics
Mel Martinez & The Dominoes

Military
Florida's Fallen Soldiers

Education
Frank Brogan
Maryellen Elia

Science/Innovation
Win Phillips & David Day
Ian MacDonald & William Hogarth

Environment
Extreme Temperatures

CRITTERS
Mystery Monkey

Sports
Tampa Bay Rays' Top Brass
Pat Riley

Volunteer/Non-Profit
Barth Green

Arts/Entertainment
New World Symphony
Pitbull
Pamela Tuscany

Dubious Achievers
Scott Rothstein
David Brooks

Jim Greer
Wayne McLeod
Lewis Freeman
Pawl Hawks
Lee Farkas

Meanwhile in 2010, the center pursued other projects, including a development program for Lake Okeechobee's poor communities, even-handed evaluations of proposed amendments to the state constitution, and a redevelopment project in Overtown in Miami-Dade.

Ahead, Collins has begun working with an national mortgage player to mediate cases before they fall into foreclosure. It's received a $1-million donation for a project on Florida's future. Petrey also expects the center to do more on education and delve into immigration.

The center also has built a new financial infrastructure. Under Parker Thomson, the Miami attorney who heads the Collins board, the board is being restructured as a fundraising operation, bringing in a diverse group of young leaders. The effort has already paid dividends. Until two years ago, the center was operating on $3 million to $4 million a year. It now has a $10-million annual budget. "We know the foreclosure income isn't going to continue forever," Petrey says.

Also on the to-do list is finding a successor for Petrey, now 69, although he expects to stay in charge a few more years. "We're now poised for even better things in the future," Petrey says. "Building on (LeRoy) Collins' legacy is something I very much want to do before I move into the sunset."

Business
Mark Wilson
Wilbur Ross Jr.
Lola Gonzalez
John Textor
Robert Clements
Thomas Gaffney
Hugh Green
R.J. Scaringe
Foreclosure Fighters
Julian MacQueen

Politics
Mel Martinez & The Dominoes

Military
Florida's Fallen Soldiers

Education
Frank Brogan
Maryellen Elia

Science/Innovation
Win Phillips & David Day
Ian MacDonald & William Hogarth

Environment
Extreme Temperatures

CRITTERS
Mystery Monkey

Sports
Tampa Bay Rays' Top Brass
Pat Riley

Volunteer/Non-Profit
Barth Green

Arts/Entertainment
New World Symphony
Pitbull
Pamela Tuscany

Dubious Achievers
Scott Rothstein
David Brooks

Jim Greer
Wayne McLeod
Lewis Freeman
Pawl Hawks
Lee Farkas