2015 Entrepreneur of the Year
The Harvard professor and economist Theodore Levitt once commented, “Creativity is thinking up new things. Innovation is doing new things.” In the whole of the Southeast, it is doubtful you will find a more dramatic mosaic depicting the union of creativity and innovation than the community in east Orlando known as Lake Nona, home to Medical City and so much more. Like a picture made up of thousands of pixels, from concept, to realization, to its ongoing evolution, the development is the work of countless people from every discipline and every walk of life.
Even one of the development’s primary visionaries and facilitators, Rasesh Thakkar, points to the talent, sacrifice and genius of others for making the community an example of a cultural, architectural, technological and social hub of innovation.
Out of Africa
Thakkar, born and raised in Kenya, came to this area as a part of his father’s dream of opening his own accounting firm. His father’s research in the 80’s led him to consider Charlotte, Phoenix and Orlando as some of the highest growth areas, with the belief that like someone’s doctor or lawyer, people stay with their accountants unless they move or there is a problem. He chose Orlando. “I have my dad to thank for that fortuitous decision,” Thakkar said smiling.
Tavistock Group (which went by a different name at that time) was a golden entrepreneurial opportunity. Joe Lewis, the owner of the international private investment organization which today has over 200 holdings in eleven countries, made an offer which captured his imagination in his mid-twenties. According to Thakkar the opportunities and the imaginative endeavors have never let up. He met Lewis through his son Charlie, whom Thakkar met while playing indoor soccer on the same team.
His inaugural venture involved buying and selling the portfolios of bank loans during the S&L crisis. “Joe wanted me to run the company; he made the financial investment and offered me a partnership in the business. It was a dream come true. I always had an entrepreneurial inclination, probably because my dad constantly had me working with one of his mates in a business when I was growing up; business always fascinated me.”
An Entrepreneurial Culture
“In most of our companies, the managing director or CEO is given an opportunity to co-invest and share in the profits. Joe believes that it causes interests to be aligned, so immediately you are an owner or partner with him,” he explained. “Your success is Joe’s success and vice versa.”
“The common culture of the organization is very entrepreneurial, though that is somewhat of a cliché these days. It is a very creative group, from Joe on down, with an extreme focus on detail and quality.” This can be seen not only in Lake Nona, but Isleworth in Windermere or Albany in the Bahamas or any one of Tavistock’s restaurant chains. Lewis’ basic philosophy according to Thakkar is, “We always do what we say we are going to do. It is simple, but it is how we operate.”
The primary key to their organization’s continued growth and success is the priority they put on communication, Thakkar believes. “Whether in your business or your personal life, crisp and clear communication is foundational. We focus on it, that and the sense of mission and pace all the Tavistock executives share.” He adds, “But most importantly we are a pretty egoless culture. There isn’t a big emphasis on titles or hierarchies. These principles I’ve described are more or less a way of life, driven by Joe’s personality, and we naturally attract similar people into leadership.”
In a pattern that is somewhat typical of Thakkar, he is more comfortable talking about others, including his boss, than himself. “What drew me here and what has held me here is that I get to work with one of the true geniuses of the world. Lewis is a visionary, who is incredibly well resourced, so his and our dreams can actually come true. That is what has kept life so interesting. During my time with Tavistock, I have been fortunate to have lived in London, Buenos Aires and the United States, because Joe is truly a citizen of the world,” Thakkar shared.
The Crown Jewel, Lake Nona
Like the branding campaign “Orlando. You don’t know the half of it.” Thakkar is surprised by people’s ignorance of what makes up Orlando’s economy and the fact that it is such a rich lifestyle location, as he travels around the world. When recruiting companies to the area, he said their biggest hurdle is acquainting people with the half they don’t know. As he reflects on Orlando’s meteoric growth his biggest surprise about the area is not just the growth of technology and life science businesses, but the growth and influence of UCF.
“No one could have predicted that future nor what an integral part the university plays in the growth and development of the region,” he observed. “Any city would consider itself so fortunate to have a brain factory like that.”
Lake Nona was the blank canvas where all the creativity, experience and resources of Tavistock could be unleashed. “Where else are you going to find 11 square miles of land, located next to one of the world’s greatest airports? Since all roads lead to MCO, they also lead to Lake Nona. We are in a tax haven, the state of Florida, with a wonderful climate, in one of the fastest growing cities in America for the last two or three decades that is recognized throughout the world for being family friendly.
“You simply can’t find land like that – that’s when it hit us and we felt a tremendous sense of responsibility and Joe said, ‘Let’s do something special here, not just more of the same.’ That’s how the dream was born. We looked at the life science sector and believed Lake Nona could in fact be a transformative jobs factory. When we asked, ‘What can change the region?’ That is what we realized and embarked on this marathon, or should I say ultra-marathon,” Thakkar stated.