Less than a decade ago, Tampa was home to a few corporate firms, but the city “went dead after 5 p.m.,” failing to function as a true live-work-and-play destination. Today, Tampa is experiencing a paradigm shift thanks to key players making catalytic investments.
The city is now brimming with Class A office towers, numerous early-stage companies and an activated waterfront. Tampa Bay Lightning owner Jeff Vinik is largely credited with the turnaround, as he locked in a deal with Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates through Gates’ Cascade Investments company to redevelop parts of downtown.
Vinik’s local investments leading to the creation of Water Street Tampa were among the hot topics discussed during the Tampa Bay Transformed panel event held Sept. 23 at Embarc Collective.
The event, presented by the Entrepreneurs Organization of Tampa Bay, featured stakeholders elevating Tampa’s narrative.
The panelists included Dave Bevirt, EVP of Strategic Property Partners, the commercial real estate firm behind Water Street Tampa; Craig Coffaro, a principal at consultant firm RSM; Lakshmi Shenoy, CEO of startup incubator Embarc Collective; and moderator Bridgette Bello, CEO and publisher of Tampa Bay Business and Wealth.
Here’s what the panelists shared about the state of the market: The responses have been edited for clarity.
The great migration of Tampa Bay
Bevirt: I spent 32 years in D.C. in real estate, and then I was contacted by a headhunter. It was one of those emails that goes into your spam box. On a cold rainy Sunday, I went through my spam and saw an email about an opportunity in Florida. I got a call on Monday, and they said there’s a lot of capital in Tampa. They talked about what Vinik was doing, but I didn’t know who he was. Then they said it [the Water Street Tampa development] was going to be backed with Gates’ money. I connected with James Nozar [former CEO of Strategic Property Partners]. I knew James’ former boss at JBG [a real estate firm in Maryland]. I validated the development plans before flying down. I’ve never been to Tampa in my life. I joke that I beat my in-laws to Florida. Five years ago, the growth was just starting to bubble.
Coffaro: I was in Chicago for 15 years, working with [digital services firm] West Monroe Partners. With our firm, we saw a lot of private equity for us in Florida. The economics, coupled with my wife telling me we needed to move to be closer to family, brought me here.
Shenoy: Before I lived in Chicago, I lived in New York and Boston. I didn’t see that same level of collaboration that is here, and that intrigued me. I came for the work – setting forth to build a community from scratch.
Behind the deal of Gates’ investment, Vinik’s commitment
Bevirt: Cascade is one of the largest owners of agricultural land. The company doesn’t have a huge portfolio of commercial real estate. By virtue of [former Tampa Bay Lightning CEO] Tod Leiweke, Cascade and Vinik were introduced, and the relationship formed. To set the record straight, Vinik exited SPP two months ago. It was a very timely opportunistic exit for Vinik. Now we are wholly owned by Cascade.
Shifts in the market and company exits
Shenoy: We have entered a period in the startup world that’s been a little bit Darwinism – survival of the fittest. We’ve gone into a capital slump, but strong companies are making it through. Companies are showing they can do more with less. In the past 10 years that I’ve been in the startup world, I haven’t seen this volume of merger and acquisition conversations. This is going to be an interesting time to see of the growth, movement of companies and value propositions stick post-pandemic. It was easy during the pandemic because of restrictions, people would go to Florida. Now the world is opening back up, and we need to see how that changes our value.
Coffaro: Individuals want to do an exit, but they do not know who to talk to. It’s not just by private equity, there are other ways of exiting. I’ve talked with people looking to exit and they want to do it the right way and sometimes want to stay involved. The unknown is scary. You have to know your numbers, customers, market proposition and security.
I’m more focused on the cybersecurity side. You can go from the hot thing to nothing all in a matter of one click of a button. If it’s a software product, make sure no one can steal your intellectual property. From there, it’s really about selling yourself. From a cybersecurity angle, look at MGM Grand, they are losing over $8 million a day [due to a hack that might have cost the Las Vegas casino operator $80 million in losses/damages] purely because somebody internally hit a button. For example, if you are in the health care industry and accept credit card payments, make sure you are tokenizing everything and working with a third party. More than anything, do not click on random links that may look legitimate.
Bevirt: It comes down to vision, capital and timing. The capital is here, although there are some economic headwinds right now. Equity is not where we would like it to be, but that will hopefully change in the not-too-distant future. The timing has really evolved as a result of talent. If you look at the statistics for Florida, over the past four or five years, we had 900 to 1,000 people move here – everybody from infants to retirees. Anywhere between 100 to 130 people were moving to Tampa Bay per day. The best defense is the best offense [when it comes to market competitiveness]. I talked with executives in Nashville, Tennessee; Austin, Texas; and Raleigh and Durham, North Carolina. I explained Tampa Bay’s story. The folks I met with five years ago couldn’t care less, but now they’ve woken up. I was in New York last week. Boy, do they know Tampa. It’s the new narrative and understanding we’ve been driving.