For the past four years, I’ve overseen the production of the Florida Trend 500, our annual list of the state’s most influential executives. I’m nearing retirement after 25 years at the magazine, and a colleague suggested I write about the Floridians I consider the most influential over that span.
The first choice is easy. Jeb Bush, Florida’s governor from 1999-2007, improved the state’s financial management, reduced taxes and shrunk the state workforce. He improved racial, gender and ideological diversity in Florida’s courts. He pushed the creation of the Everglades restoration plan and the Florida Forever land preservation program. Bush also had the wisdom to block publicly funded high-speed rail, which kept the state out of the financial quagmire into which California has lurched. That decision opened the door for Brightline, the privately funded rail line that operates on Florida’s east coast and within a few years will give Florida a fast-rail line extending from Miami to Tampa. My children will hit retirement age before anybody rides a similar train in California.
More significant, Bush’s initiative in recruiting life sciences institutions to the state gave Florida a tech profile it lacked and raised the bar for the kind of jobs the state should aspire to create and attract.
Most significant, Bush introduced accountability and an array of choice programs into both the K-12 and higher education systems in the state. The performance of Florida’s schoolchildren — particularly minority kids — testifies to the effectiveness of those policies. I have worked for a state education bureaucracy and can’t overstate just how hard it is to move the needle on improving public education. The media still largely covers educational choice as an irritant to teachers unions rather than the sweeping trend it has become.
Another Floridian who I think has had a huge — and underappreciated — influence over Florida’s evolution in the past two decades is Frank DiBello, the soft-spoken, thoughtful, hugely skilled president and CEO of Space Florida, the state authority tasked with organizing and promoting aerospace-related economic development. For at least a decade after I became editor at FLORIDA TREND, the only story out of the Space Coast on Florida’s east-central coast was an annual lament that the end of the space shuttle program portended imminent economic disaster.
After DiBello — who had founded KPMG’s space industry practice — became CEO, he brought to bear decades of experience in the nuts and bolts of aerospace finance, dealmaking and tech commercialization. During his tenure, Florida has progressed from its traditional role as a sunny launchpad for government rockets to a catalyst for aerospace industry and innovation, encompassing small satellite, rocket engine and business jet manufacturing along with aircraft maintenance facilities and companies involved in developing navigation and control systems. Space Florida has attracted major pieces of the emerging commercial space industry to Florida in the form of SpaceX, Blue Origin and OneWeb Satellites.
Under DiBello, Space Florida has essentially rewritten the gloom-and-doom narrative for the Space Coast and capitalized on Central Florida’s wealth of engineering talent — one of the most concentrated pools of tech talent in the country.
A few other executives also deserve mention for major influence on Florida during my time at TREND:
Kelly Smallridge, the smartest economic developer in the state. Smallridge has led Palm Beach County’s recruitment of a host of financial firms and shrewdly incorporated the county’s schools into its economic development machinery. She’s faced obstacles that men in her field never have to consider, and she’s better at it than all of them.
Syd Kitson, the real estate developer whose integrity brought him to the attention of the owners of the Babcock Ranch property when they were ready to sell. The deal preserved 73,000 acres of environmentally sensitive land — the state’s biggest conservation land acquisition. Of the roughly 20,000 acres that Kitson kept, he’s developing half into a solar-powered town and preserving the rest.
Eric Silagy, who’s led FPL as it became the state’s biggest producer of solar power. FPL has become a giant the media like to kick in the shins, but under Silagy, FPL has maintained some of the cheapest rates and best service ratings in the state and region. Early in his career, Silagy worked to bring electric power to rural areas overseas. That gave him a fundamental understanding of the importance of reliable electric power, and he has brought that awareness to his stewardship of the company. Complain if you wish about FPL playing rough, but a better question is why Florida’s other utilities can’t duplicate FPL’s performance, either financially or on the service side.
Mark Wilson, president and CEO of the Florida Chamber of Commerce, has taken the once sleepy chamber and pushed it into a real leadership position in the state. The chamber has abandoned much pretense to bipartisanship, but it’s the only statewide business group that attempts seriously to benchmark Florida’s economic performance and highlight what the state needs to do to meet challenges. Wilson also has taken stances he didn’t have to, including advocacy for reworking social benefit structures that create disincentives to self-improvement.
Other high-impact leaders come to mind, including Manny Medina and the late Wayne Huizenga. Florida is much the better for all their efforts over the past 25 years.