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Florida retailer on how brick & mortar can survive in a digital era and other Tampa Bay business briefs

Margie Manning



Mary van Praag, brand president for Soma, at a USF Women in Leadership & Philanthropy symposium

Despite the ever-growing presence of online and digital shopping, brick and mortar stores are still key for retailers, as long as they provide a real difference for customers.

For Soma, a women’s intimate apparel brand that’s part of Fort Myers-based Chico’s FAS (NYSE: CHS), the difference is the shopping experience.

“Women are still craving experiences. There is a convenience aspect of ordering online, but the physical presence and that connection with other women makes such a difference,” said Mary van Praag, brand president.

A beautiful presentation is part of the experience, she said, “but [a shopper] goes there for the people.”

Soma prides itself on its fit experience, van Praag said. “I say we’re the Ritz Carlton of service in the bra industry, and [a shopper] goes there because she can trust an expert is going to help her.”

Soma also has a large online presence, but that appeals to a difference customer, van Praag said. “I don’t think the physical store will ever go away.”

Van Praag was among the panelists talking about women in the C-suite at USF Women in Leadership & Philanthropy’s fall symposium Friday morning in downtown Tampa.

Business expansion

A defense firm and a manufacturer are seeking financial incentives to expand in Pinellas County. Neither company is identified by name in the agenda for the Oct. 23 Board of County Commissioners meeting.

The manufacturer wants to expand its national corporate headquarters in Oldsmar. The company plans to spend $13.3 million on real estate, renovations and equipment, and to add 33 workers paid at least $46,346 annually, the average wage in Florida. If the project wins approval and it creates those jobs, it would be in line for $165,000 in tax refunds over several years. Pinellas County and the city of Oldsmar each would provide $16,500 for a local match, with the rest from the state of Florida.

The manufacturer also is looking at sites in Minnesota and Tennessee.

The defense company, which does engineering and manufacturing, is in unincorporated Pinellas County and plans to spend $33.5 million on expansion, including renovations and equipment, to accommodate 147 new jobs. The jobs would pay slightly more than the state’s average wage.

The company would be in line for a total tax refund of $735,000, with $147,000 of that from Pinellas County.

The company also is considering sites in Kansas.

Travel alert

St.-Pete Clearwater International Airport

Travelers using St. Pete-Clearwater International Airport won’t be able to use the airport’s ground transportation lot for about a month beginning Monday, Oct. 22.

The lot will be temporarily closed as part of an ongoing airport parking and roadway project.

Airport ground transportation providers will pick up passengers in front of the terminal.

Visitors are encouraged to plan extra travel time to accommodate construction.




Job gains

The unemployment rate in the Tampa-St. Petersburg-Clearwater metro area has dipped below 3 percent.

The jobless rate for the metro area was 2.9 percent in September, compared to 3.6 percent in August, according to the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity. A year ago, in September 2017, the rate was 3.7 percent for the metro area.

The Tampa-St. Pete metro gained 49,800 jobs in September, the DEO said.

The unemployment rate for the entire state was 3.5 percent in September, down 0.2 percent point from August and down 0.4 percentage points from a year earlier. The U.S. unemployment rate was 3.7 percent in September.

The biggest job gains statewide in September were in professional & business services (8,400 job), healthcare (6,500) and leisure & hospitality (5,500), according to Wells Fargo Securities Economics Group.

FairWarning adds data security veteran to board

Guy Churchward, a 30-year veteran of the IT industry, has joined the board of directors of FairWarning, a Clearwater cybersecurity firm.

Churchward most recently was the CEO and president of Data Torrent, a real-time big data ingestion and analytics company. He’s also held executive positions at Dell EMC, LogLogic, NetApp and BEA’s WebLogic Products Group, among others.

Churchward’s industry knowledge and experience in data management, protection and storage brings invaluable insights for FairWarning, CEO Kurt Long said in a statement.

FairWarning received one of the largest growth equity investments among Tampa Bay companies this year, when Mainsail Partners, a private equity firm in San Francisco, invested $60 million in June.

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