By Nicole Martinez
From left to right: Bob Swindell, president and CEO of Greater Fort Lauderdale Alliance; Vinnie Viola, chairman and owner of the NHL’s Florida Panthers and chairman emeritus of Virtu Financial; and Mike Jackson, longtime chief executive officer of AutoNation, speaking at the ULI Fort Lauderdale Forum.
At a panel discussion during ULI’s Fort Lauderdale Emerges conference in February, Mike Jackson, longtime chief executive officer of AutoNation, was joined by Vinnie Viola, chairman and owner of the NHL’s Florida Panthers and chairman emeritus of Virtu Financial, to discuss Fort Lauderdale’s place among America’s most important business communities.
With moderator Bob Swindell, president and CEO of the Greater Fort Lauderdale Alliance, the pair discussed the appeal and consistent challenges facing Fort Lauderdale’s ascension as a major business hub.
“Why am I in Fort Lauderdale? One word: Wayne,” said Jackson, referring to Wayne Huizenga, the late owner of the Panthers and NFL’s Miami Dolphins, and founder of several companies, including AutoNation and Waste Management. Jackson said the idea of moving to Florida did not exactly appeal to a “stuck-up New Yorker,” who at the time was running U.S. operations for Mercedes-Benz. In the end, he gave in and has since been named executive chairman of AutoNation.
“I couldn’t let the chance of working with Wayne go by,” Jackson said. “He was simply one of the greatest entrepreneurs of all time. So I said buckle up and let’s give it a try. And I have to say, asking me to move to Fort Lauderdale is one of the great things he did for me.”
Since his arrival in 1996, Fort Lauderdale has made strides in transforming itself into a business hub. What the city lacks in size of its industries, it makes up for with favorable tax laws, a pro-business climate, and year-round good weather. Still, as Fort Lauderdale enters its next stage of transformation, driven primarily by the real estate, yachting, and tourism, industry titans consider whether Fort Lauderdale’s drawbacks are enough to hinder further growth.
Above all else, Viola and Jackson agree that Fort Lauderdale offers an unrivaled quality of life. “People care for each other, embrace diversity, and have a sense of entrepreneurship and economic vitality here,” said Jackson.
Viola, who officially resettled in the area just 17 months ago, had always envisioned that he would retire in the city, but quickly found that one need not slow down his or her career in order to enjoy Fort Lauderdale’s sunny disposition. “This is such a cool place to live. I was born and raised in Brooklyn, and I describe Fort Lauderdale as the Brooklyn of Florida,” he said.
Both men point to Florida’s pro-business agenda, noting that rival states like California and even New York pale in comparison to the business mind-set offered by local governments.
“While Texas is probably the most pro-business state, I feel that Florida is right there, and perhaps even a better balance between regulatory and business environments,” Jackson said. “And with new regulatory changes afoot in blue states, I think we’re going to see a mass migration to Florida.”
Viola agreed, noting that Florida offers a “different dynamic when it comes to public/private initiatives.” He cited the recent collapse of the Amazon HQ2 site selection process in New York City as an example of something unimaginable locally. “There’s a sentiment of expectation or entitlement between the political class and the real economy in New York, and you wind up having a company not being welcome in a place that would be a bounty in every measure. That wouldn’t happen here,” he said.
With technological changes afoot, particularly in Jackson’s field, the AutoNation CEO was asked to consider how advances such as driverless cars or electric vehicles might affect his business.
“In the auto industry, there will be more change in 10 years than there has been in the last 50,” he said. “Major manufacturers are spending $300 billion on the electrification of vehicles, with a remarkable number of markets demanding it. Autonomous vehicles will not only drive themselves, but eventually connect and interact with one another.”
To keep up with the changing tides, AutoNation has invested in its own autonomous vehicle outfit while also bringing on a new leader who forged his career in the auto tech services industry.
“Our new CEO, Carl Liebert, is coming to us from USAA, which provides insurance financing for all veterans and families. It’s a digital platform with 13 million members interacting primarily on their mobile devices,” he said. “Loyalty and interaction on the platform is immeasurable, and we want to make a big push to see our company go digital.”
While Jackson said he had no trouble luring a tech CEO to Florida, he cautions that attracting top talent remains a critical issue in Fort Lauderdale, largely due to its education system.
“In every recruitment of a manager or executive that has children, where they will go to school is an issue,” he said. “Talent is willing to be flexible, but where their children get educated is not negotiable, and that’s a deep concern. We’re usually able to get through it, but that’s what you hear from them.”
Viola, on the other hand, pointed out that finding top talent is also challenging because of a less-than-robust university system. “When I speak to senior leaders at Magic Leap [a virtual reality company], I asked them to mention three academic disciplines they can’t find here—optical engineering, deep learning, and even lowest-level software development. They’ve had to move 400 employees down to Florida to make up for the lack of talent locally,” he said.
Viola is tackling the problem head-on. “We’re working with Florida Atlantic University and their computer science department to make a very concerted effort around recruiting top professors in specialty sciences,” he said.
Another challenge facing Fort Lauderdale’s industry growth is geographic—how its location affects its ability to attract companies from Europe and Asia. “European companies will go as far [south] as Atlanta, but prefer to be in New York, and Asian companies want to be on the West Coast,” said Jackson. “The plane ride adds several hours to their journey, and they need to be able to arrive quickly.”
Still, Jackson and Viola remain optimistic.
“We have a lot going for us. We should win more headquarters,” Jackson said.
“This place sells itself,” said Viola. “Companies thrive because of the benefits and the social order. There’s less traffic than New York. It’s just easier.”
As for growing to rank as a rival to major business hubs, it’s all about perspective, Viola said. “I think we need to think of South Florida as a metropolis and leverage the idea that when you move to Fort Lauderdale, you’re also getting Miami and Palm Beach.”