By: Eric Wright
Our nation’s history hinges on the principle that a united national entity has the greatest hope and potential. It required a unique vision, along with concessions and considerations, driving towards the realization that a union has and always will be greater than the sum of its now-50 parts.
It was a grand idea, and ideas, particularly big ideas, may be spurred on by visionary thinkers and early adopters, but they gain momentum when the time is right. It is at that strategic juncture when demand dictates if innovation is not accepted, opportunity, and perhaps the preferred future most are working towards, will be lost. Central Florida’s economic destiny recently took a step, better yet, a quantum leap, towards the “what’s next” in the region’s economic future with the merger of the Orlando Economic Development Commission (EDC) and the Central Florida Partnership (CFP).
The new entity, the Orlando Economic Partnership, is led by Timothy (Tim) Giuliani, who just happens to be the same age Jacob Stuart, the retiring CEO of the Central Florida Partnership, was when he took the helm of the Greater Orlando Chamber of Commerce 33 years ago at age 35. It is staggering to think what this community might look like should Giuliani stay on as long as Stuart; we would be halfway through the century, the year 2050.
Looking back, most would say it was the power of a good idea that finally began to germinate in key stakeholders and thought leaders and propelled them to meet, discuss and debate the merger. “The opportunities and the challenges that face our region are simply too complex to tackle without a true partnership organization that combines the community development and economic development missions,” Stuart observed.
Alex Martins of the Orlando Magic, Ken Potrock of Disney, Lars Houmann of Adventist Health System, Rasesh Thakkar of Tavistock, Tom Sittema of CNL and several others, including the co-chairs of the new organization, Sean DeMartino and Robert Utsey, began to socialize the idea of a new civic architecture. However, the idea was not new; it is the model being deployed around the country as regional economies, which defy city limits, county lines and even state borders, become the dominant norm.
MOMENTUM FOR MERGER
In retrospect, many point to the best practices missions the EDC led to Austin, TX and Phoenix in 2012 and 2015 as a tipping point. During both tours, the idea of a merger was the subject of much discussion, as were branding and a new downtown campus.
“We’ve been talking about a merger for 10 years,” said Robert Utsey, senior vice president of business development for Skanska, “but the timing just wasn’t right. However, the leadership from both former organizations felt dividing our resources and duplicating efforts was ineffective between two organizations. It was Tom Sittema, who was then EDC chair, who convened the Joint Alignment Committee to meet once or twice a month at their conference facility, the Da Vinci Center at CNL, to work through the issues.”
Utsey stressed that the CFP includes a chamber that is over 100 years old and Leadership Orlando, which is one of the most successful organizations in the country for exposing and networking leaders to the assets in the region. They sponsored the major initiatives that convened regional leaders to look at growth and quality-of-life issues like transportation, talent pipeline, international business and sustainability.
“The EDC was focused on its mission of recruiting, growing and retaining high-wage jobs,” he explained. “The campaign, ‘Orlando. You Don’t Know the Half of It,’ has been a spectacular success in helping Orlando make it to the short list for business location decisions more often. The participation we have in hosting recruitment visits, as well as our efforts in meeting with site selectors has been at an all-time high. And both organizations have been very strong public/private partnerships, with all the key stakeholders in favor of the direction we’ve pursued.”
Of course, a vision of this magnitude is only as good as the team assembled to realize it, and the team is only as good as the leader responsible for ensuring the desired outcomes are realized. Hence, a major part of the work the Joint Alignment Committee concentrated on was finding the right person to take the helm of the new entity.
RIGHT PERSON, RIGHT TIME
Organizations like both former entities are political by nature, so to get universal agreement on who should lead this significant new entity, most would think, would be challenging. However, as the search committee combed through the hundreds of candidates and began to interview the most viable, the consensus centered on a young, yet experienced, leader with background in both the chamber and economic developmental worlds — Tim Giuliani.
“Tim was in his dream job in Raleigh, North Carolina, in the Research Triangle, and had been there less than two years,” Utsey explained.
Like most professional journeys, rarely are they a straight line, but for Giuliani, his background could not have positioned him better for the new role. A Floridian who grew up in St. Augustine, returning to Central Florida was in some ways like coming home.
Giuliani’s first foray onto the public stage was an early indicator of his ability to galvanize support and clarify messaging. He was one of the key players in the “Truth Campaign,” the youth tobacco prevention initiative. As a high school student, he served as state chair in an effort that mobilized some 15,000 students statewide. “Then Gov. Lawton Chiles called a youth summit and said essentially, ‘This is a youth problem, we need a youth solution,’” he recalled. “Because of the campaign, we saw tobacco use among junior high-aged students drop 50 percent. It was one of the most effective efforts in the country and is still used to study marketing and advocacy strategies.”
He went on to study public affairs at Florida State University, and after graduation he returned to St. Augustine with his wife Sarah, where he started his career in the chambers of commerce arena. Soon a position opened in Gainesville for him to be involved in its chamber and for he and his wife to pursue advanced degrees. His success there opened doors at the state chamber, where Mark Wilson became the new president, and, in turn, became a mentor to Giuliani for the next five years. It was a crucial period in the chamber’s trajectory, when the Florida Chamber Foundation created the Six Pillars Framework, which identified key factors that would drive Florida’s future economy and, according to Giuliani, “allow the state to plan for the next six million residents better than they planned for the previous six million. Who would disagree with that?”
HONING KEY SKILLS AND RETURNING TO KEY PASSIONS
Quickly advancing at the state level, he was invited back to Gainesville to take over the chamber. It was an opportunity to return to his passion, “to build communities and not just focus on policy,” another major factor that would later attract him to Orlando. There he faced the challenge of working with the older guard of the area’s historic business base, while working to drive towards a new innovation economy emerging out of the University of Florida and Santa Fe College. Giuliani became adept at bringing a fresh approach to the challenges of a chamber that also included an EDC and a new, more diverse and visionary approach.
For almost a quarter century, the Research Triangle was the epicenter of innovation in the southeast. Giuliani was asked to lead the largest community and economic development organization in the region, the Raleigh Chamber. Navigating and mobilizing efforts to stem the impact of some of the state’s legislative decisions, while also working on referendums that funded much needed infrastructure efforts, sharpened his skills and expanded his reputation.
“When I got the call about this opportunity and heard about the merger, along with the impact this new organization was having on the region, my interest was primed,” said Giuliani. “I thought this was an opportunity to get back to why I did this in the first place. I wanted to make our local economy stronger and thereby make a better state. It was the opportunity to lead a regional organization and one that’s on the right path, but also has a long way to go.”
“We’re a case study in Central Florida for diversifying the economy to include a strong agriculture and tourism base, but to also include technology and innovation, which is incredibly symbiotic. This will create broader-based prosperity. We’re one of the top job producers in the country, and most of those jobs are outside agriculture and tourism. Also, we’re now on the short list of considerations for relocation, thanks in large part to the ‘Orlando. You don’t know the half of it,’ campaign.” As he smiles, one wonders if Giuliani is imagining what 2050 might look like.
“We’re a case study in Central Florida for diversifying the economy to include a strong agriculture and tourism base, but to also include technology and innovation, which is incredibly symbiotic.”
– TIM GIULIANI