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Jacob Stuart | Orlando Economic Partnership

2017 Business Leader of the Year

A Life of Moving Ideas to Results

Although he has spent his career consulting with political, academic, economic development and business leaders at the highest levels, Jacob Stuart usually begins his day quite purposefully, picking up his coffee at 7-11 or Wawa. For Stuart, it is not just his morning Joe; it is a daily opportunity to reconnect with the construction and healthcare workers, mechanics and tradesmen that build and maintain our vibrant economy. Though his “uniform,” as he calls it, is a coat, crisp white shirt and tie, for him it is just a uniform … not better, just different than theirs.

When they inquire what he does, his standard reply is, “I’m in sales.” Some just smile and nod, others ask what he peddles? His answer invariably is, “Ideas.”

In fact, one of Stuart’s most effective initiatives was the Central Florida Partnership (CFP), which recently merged into the Orlando Economic Partnership, bringing together leaders from the public, private and independent sectors to work on challenges such as transportation, homelessness, water quality and healthcare, among others. The organization’s slogan, “Ideas to Results,” may seem ambitious or perhaps audacious, but that is Stuart. For him, ideas are powerful, catalytic things.

Now, as command is transferred to a younger, but equally capable generation, we survey a career that has spanned over three decades as the president of the Greater Orlando Chamber of Commerce, or Orlando Inc., and the CFP. During that time, Stuart literally changed the paradigm of what a chamber is, while always being adamant about maintaining what a chamber traditionally has been.

This incredibly influential organization, with more than 100 years of history in Orlando, was the birthplace of both the former Metro Orlando Economic Development Commission and what is now Visit Orlando. LEAD Orlando, one of the most heralded leadership development programs in the country, and MyRegion.org, which develops strategic plans and critical research for far into the future, also fell under the CFP umbrella.

Planting Seeds

“I suppose I would just like to be remembered as a Johnny Appleseed, sowing ideas that can enrich our communities,” Stuart commented. Then, reflecting further, he quoted the reformer Martin Luther, “Even if I knew that tomorrow the world would go to pieces, I would still plant my apple tree.”

That farsighted and infectious optimism, along with a business-like pragmatism, is what Stuart is known for. The harvest that has sprung from his efforts has not always changed everyone’s perspectives, but it has changed the tenor and the level of participation, across this region, in these vital conversations.

Dr. John Hitt, another iconic leader who will soon turn over the helm, has taken the University of Central Florida into the national conversation about higher education and, once again, college football, branding UCF as the “Partnership University.” In so doing, he planted a philosophical DNA into the fabric of this community. But if Dr. Hitt is the father of partnership in the area, Stuart is certainly the uncle who has helped raise it. Hitt said about him, “Jacob Stuart likes to say, ‘We don’t do partnership because it’s easier, but because it’s better,’ and he’s right.”

Though Stuart certainly is one among the many apostles of partnership in the area, he seems to own the patent or at least the local franchise on the importance of regionalism. “We’ve always known intuitively that working regionally was a good idea,” he observed. “It’s a documented principle that regional economies are, in fact, the drivers of national prosperity, much like ancient city-states. The top 100 largest U.S. metro regions generate 75 percent of the nation’s GDP. The U.S. economy’s performance is driven largely by that of its major metropolitan economies.”

It is this reality coupled with the significance of partnerships that has driven Stuart and driven his initiatives.

“I suppose I would just like to be remembered as a Johnny Appleseed, sowing ideas that can enrich our communities.”

– Jacob Stuart

Call it his mantra or his theme song, but Stuart likes to remind leaders in every sector about the interconnected nature of the entire region. “Politically we have city limits, county lines and state borders, but economies are blind to these constructs,” he said. “People living in Seminole County may locate their business in Orange County, and as you drive along Interstate 4, unless you see the signs, you don’t know when you’re leaving one municipality and entering another.”

Perhaps the other descriptor for Stuart, along with “partnership” and “regionalism,” is “convener.” The Central Florida Partnership has drawn thought leaders and influencers together from seven counties: Brevard, Lake, Orange, Osceola, Polk, Seminole and Volusia. Consider the economic clout of the Central Florida region: the Gross Regional Product (GRP) is $131.9 billion with $115.3 billion in exports. When combined to form the “Super Region” that includes Tampa Bay, the figure swells to a GRP of $268 billion with $196.8 billion in exports, which is greater than most states and a number of nations.

Roots and Wings

Harvey Massey described growing up in rural Louisiana as “giving him roots and giving him wings.” The same can be said of Stuart, who was raised and has spent his career in Orlando.

The son of a successful and civically engaged merchant, a professional description Stuart takes special pride in, his father became the first of many crucial mentors in his career.

“My father used a term that is as significant to me now as it was then, though it’s no longer part of our popular vernacular,” he said. “If I was back in the break room, he would come to me and say, ‘What are you doing back here? There are customers you need to wait on.’ Waiting on people, prioritizing the client above my own interests was something he taught me with countless life lessons. Like ensuring if I make a rule, asking if that rule benefits the house or the customer.”

At the family dinner table, Stuart’s father would mention introducing the governor at an event, which to him was incredible. Realizing his father not only introduced, but actually knew people who were steering the future of the state, created a sense of wonder and an awareness of the place and the power a united business community had in advancing a region. When he was asked to guide the chamber at the same age as the new president of the Orlando Economic Partnership, Tim Giuliani, he accepted the role, anticipating a two to three-year commitment. More than 30 years later, he has redefined the role of a chamber and economic development leader.     

As Guiliani noted, “Jacob Stuart has dedicated his professional career to building community and the economy of Central Florida. His impact extends from important transportation projects like SunRail to community assets like the venues in downtown Orlando. However, his greatest impact is building a regional community of civic leaders who will continue to keep the Orlando region moving forward together.”

The questions leaders across Central Florida now must ask are: Can the public, private and independent sectors continue to think regionally and act cooperatively? Will the trifecta of partnership and collaboration through purposeful dialogue ensure the area continues to experience the kind of economic, cultural, life-style and social progress that has been made in the last 30 years?

If it does, which all thoughtful Central Floridians hope for, it will happen because the seeds Jacob Stuart planted have taken root and taken wing

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About the author

i4 Business

i4 Business magazine has become one of the most trusted voices for and about the Central Florida business community. Each month through our print and digital platforms, we provide access to meet, to learn from and to learn about some of the incredible entrepreneurs and business leaders who are shaping our region.

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