A Strategic Choice

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Roundtable photos by Patrick Clinton

Broward County is home to world-class corporate headquarters, thanks, in large part, to a group of business leaders who forge business partnerships at the local, state and international levels to attract companies and talent.

Hotwire Communications, Magic Leap, AutoNation, JM Family Enterprises, Chewy.com, Ultimate Software and Citrix, to name are few, are headquartered in Broward, which is where the smartphone was invented. The county’s infrastructure offers a solid foundation, along with the enviable sunny and warm weather. The tax environment makes doing business in Broward a viable option as more and more companies relocate and set up shop.

Recently, SFBW hosted a roundtable with the Greater Fort Lauderdale Alliance to roll out its special section on corporate headquarters. Editor-in-Chief Kevin Gale led the discussion, which was held at the Alliance’s office.

The panelists:

• Nelson Fernandez, executive vice president-principal of ANF Group

• Gerry Litrento, senior executive vice president of Bank United

Keith Koenig, president of City Furniture

Traci Miller, vice president of Miller Construction

Erick Strati, senior vice president of the Broward and Palm Beach Commercial Banking Group at Wells Fargo

Bob Swindell, CEO and president of the Greater Fort Lauderdale Alliance

Quality of Life

Litrento: I think that you’ve got such a great quality of life here. We have beautiful weather year-round. It’s kind of like Southern California, without a lot of the tax and other issues. The microcosm is that the tri-county area works together very well. The new Virgin Trains USA [formerly Brightline] has helped connect the dots. We’re moving in the right direction on a lot of those issues that affect other communities that are growing. There’s roughly, I believe, 300,000 people a year moving to Florida. I think with the federal tax structure changes and Florida not having state income tax, people in California and New York [and] Chicago are going to continue to migrate to Florida. Our quality of life and our economic scenario is really to die for.

Strati: For me, I think our diverse community is a strength to our quality of life. I’ve been here since 1982, and I’ve seen from an age standpoint that our demographics used to be older and now it has become younger and younger. Broward is a great place to live, work and play. When I think “play,” I think about the arts and sports. We’re a major-league sports community as we’ve got four or five major franchises. So, we’ve got diversity in people, we’ve got great education, and we also have a good work/life balance culture.

Koenig: I think Florida is simply the best place in the world to live. I recently went to a conference in New York and it was 27 degrees. If I were living there, I would want to come to Florida. We have blue skies. With our weather, you can enjoy a beach day, a golf day. The rest of the world’s patio season starts in the summer, for us it starts in October. We have it all.
Workforce and Education

Koenig: We have I think the best furniture team in in the furniture industry. That’s a result of having a vibrant and energetic and young workforce that are smart and talented and driven and we have an enormous amount of diversity. Our team reflects the diversity of South Florida, which is a huge, huge strength that is underestimated.

 We’ve got a great technology team, and every team that’s part of our business is great. We are blessed to have a great workforce, while it’s always challenging getting the best people because they’re always in in demand. But there is a vibrant and wonderful workforce in South Florida, particularly in Broward County. We’re in the middle of everything that is happening with Palm Beach to the north and Miami-Dade to the south, and that benefits us.

Litrento: We have an incredibly competitive labor force. I mean, there’s no shortage of fighting for talent in any industry. The Broward Workshop is focused on this. I know the three economic councils in South Florida are focused on bringing more technological talent and bringing more of that sort of Silicon Valley and Austin, Texas-centric type of behavior to our region. Because, let’s face it, if you’re not in some form of digital transformation and technological transformation, as a company right now, you’re going to get left behind. That’s really the underpinning, I think, for being successful in the next five years.

Strati: I would describe our workforce as an entrepreneurial workforce. I think this is the best small business community in the country. Statistically, when we develop an entrepreneurial workforce and we hire people in our companies, they bring a lot of entrepreneurial spirit and they’re not bureaucratic, making us a better company.

Fernandez: Going back to such a wonderful place to live, I think our international setting here in South Florida is tremendous. We have, in our company, folks that have come from probably four or five different countries that have come to study here, that have stayed here to work for us. Not only are we pulling folks from the rest of the country, we’re pulling them from international places. They feel comfortable coming here because they know that it’s a very diverse place to live with everything that it has to offer. It’s an easy choice. The university systems are fantastic. We have one of the biggest private universities nationally right in our backyard with Nova Southeastern University. Our state schools are great. Our elementary and secondary schools seem to have gotten back on track. I heard the other day we have the best debate program in our school system in the country, which teaches critical-thinking skills.

Swindell: I’ve been in my role as CEO of the Broward Alliance since 2009. I’ve worked with previous superintendents, and you need to have a leader who can create a culture within a large environment like Broward County Public Schools, which is the sixth-largest school system in the country. Recently, we hosted a Marine Industries Day for STEM teachers and principals at Broward College. If you’re tactile and work with your hands, there are some great-paying jobs in South Florida. And students just aren’t aware of it, and you don’t have to go on the four-year college track. You can learn the trade in a shorter amount of time. For instance, in aviation, there are jobs in making small component parts for aircrafts. Broward College has all these certification programs in airframe avionics, power-plant repair and maintenance. Those opportunities really stemmed from our superintendent, Bob Runcie, and his career technical team. We’re lacking people in the trades, and those careers are good-paying jobs. And with our sophisticated debate program, it’s no surprise why the students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas responded to the tragedy at their school the way they do. They were so articulate in speaking their minds. They started a movement.

Koenig: I don’t think we can underestimate the improvements in our Broward County public school system under Runcie’s leadership. Broward College has become nothing but one of the best in the country. I can tell you, many of our associates are graduates of Florida Atlantic University, Florida International University and Nova Southeastern University. That’s why the workforce pool is exceedingly competent. 

Miller: The construction workforce has been a very tight labor market, and it has to do with a couple of things. Primarily, it has to do with the fact that when we had the recession, construction, of course, came to a halt. And a lot of those people had to find other jobs, and then they never came back to construction. We’ve also had a shortage, and I think we’re starting to see a turnaround, but things like shop class got cut out of public schools, so kids’ opportunities to learn about the trades have changed. Who pays a buck and a quarter for a plumber just to show up at their house? There’s money in plumbing, and we need plumbers. I think we’ve swung to one side too much, in saying everyone should go to four-year college. Instead, they have the option to get a certification in a shorter amount of time. We’ve been working with groups such as Junior Achievement of South Florida [and] Boys and Girls Club to host career industry days, where kids learn about actual careers in the trades. We need electricians. We need laborers. Those jobs are well-paying, which can help support a family.

Litrento: The gap is really going to accelerate as a part of digital transformation, and in STEM—science, technology, engineering and math—we’re behind, and we will have a huge labor shortage in the next five to 10 years. Countries like Singapore, China and other Asian countries are educating a tremendous student body in STEM and whatnot. So, that’s one focus that we need to catch up on.

Infrastructure and Logistics

Koenig: I just flew out of LaGuardia into Fort Lauderdale Hollywood International Airport. Our flight arrived early, and I got my bags in a second, ran out and got my car and got home. There’s plenty of parking, and there’s a great valet system if you’re running late.

 Litrento: The service out of FLL is very affordable. Speaking to the wisdom of our community leaders, for many years, they’ve recognized keeping costs affordable, which enabled air carriers to make money and pass on those savings to people. When we talk to companies, and they look at their travel budgets, and they’ve provided us with this data, one company said, “You know, we calculated that we can save 20 percent on our travel costs by using FLL, because you’ve got low-cost carriers like Jet Blue [and] Southwest.”

Strati: Within a 5-mile radius, you have a major airport, a major seaport, rail and highways. We’re uniquely positioned, and I don’t know of any other places along the U.S. southeastern seaboard that have all four of those within a 5-mile radius. 

Fernandez: Port Everglades is making a tremendous effort to make improvements. Now, with the expansion, we will be able to handle larger vessels that are coming into the port. As Eric mentioned, the proximity to the highway system helps. We are able to take a cargo box and put it on the highway. 

Swindell: These terminals are part of our public-private partnership. Celebrity Cruises worked with Port Everglades, building that terminal out. The Royal Caribbean terminal can accommodate 5,000 passengers because of its multiple points of entry, which are very efficient.  ♦

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