Fla.’s economic point man is already on the job

02/18/2015

Fla.’s economic point man is already on the job

NAPLES, Fla. – Technically, Bill Johnson hasn't started his job as Florida's point man for economic development.

Physically and vocally, it's another story.

Although he won't replace Gray Swoope as the state's secretary of commerce and president and CEO of Enterprise Florida Inc. until March 1, Johnson's plan of action to grow jobs in the state is already unfolding, which doesn't come as a surprise to those who know him best.

"He hits the ground running," said Bill Talbert, president and CEO of the Greater Miami Convention & Visitors Bureau.

He has known Johnson -- Miami-Dade's longtime port chief and the current head of the county's water and sewer department -- for more than three decades. The two met when Johnson started working at the county, then known as Metro Dade, as an intern about 35 years ago.

"He's a top professional, and Enterprise Florida is lucky to get him," Talbert said.

Longtime state Sen. Gwen Margolis, who has lived in Miami-Dade County since 1960 and was a county commissioner for eight years, described Johnson as energetic and organized, and as an outstanding public servant. She said she knows of no one better to replace Swoope.

"He certainly understands how to motivate people and how to get people to Florida," she said. "He can just do a terrific job. He does a terrific job at anything he does."

Johnson, 60, is no stranger to Enterprise Florida, having gone on many of its trade missions himself as the former head of Miami's seaport, a job he held for eight years.

For his new assignment, Johnson's calendar, he said, is quickly filling up with meetings, events and trips. His email and voice mail are already overflowing with messages.

"I've gotten thousands of missed calls. I can't even return them all," he said.

He'll join Gov. Rick Scott on a trip to Philadelphia at the end of February, to try to lure job creators and business leaders away from there to Florida. He's using his vacation time from the county so he can do both jobs, as he helps his replacement in Miami-Dade transition into his former role.

In his new post, Johnson said his first order of business will be to listen. He plans stakeholder forums to meet with the leaders of local Chambers of Commerce, local economic development agencies, and local seaports and airports to get ideas on how to improve and strengthen Enterprise Florida, the state's public-private economic development arm. He said he's already strategizing with others on how to pull off the brainstorming sessions.

The meetings will help Johnson determine how Enterprise Florida's business plan and outreach programs can be tweaked to make the agency better. He has no criticisms of Swoope, who resigned after four years at the post, adding that he's done a phenomenal job carrying out the taxpayer-funded agency's mission to diversify the economy and create high-paying jobs.

"My job is to take it to the next level," Johnson said. "My job is to be open and to listen in a constructive way to ideas and suggestions."

In Miami-Dade, Johnson has become known as a turnaround guy of troubled departments and projects. He took over the Port of Miami in 2006, steering it away from operating losses and leading an aggressive expansion to position it for larger ships and cargo growth, which also resulted in record debt.

Over his years as an administrator with the county, Johnson was what he would describe as a "troubleshooter" for such projects as the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts and the AmericanAirlines Arena.

As the county's water and sewer director, Johnson oversees one of the largest public utilities in the U.S., with a $700 million annual operating budget and 2,500 employees. Miami-Dade's Mayor Carlos Gimenez tapped him for the job in March, to reengineer the way the department does business and to make it more efficient. The department has a $13.5 billion capital improvement program underway.

"We have had a lot of great success in the short period I've been here," Johnson said. "Working with our private partners we have been able to make a number of improvements, a number of meaningful reforms, and most importantly change the clutter of the organization, and make it easier to access for our customers."

When he came to Miami out of graduate school from Tennessee it was for a one-year internship.

"I never planned on being in public service," he said. "It just happened."

While his ties to Miami-Dade are strong, he said it won't get any special treatment in his new role. All areas of the state, from big cities to small rural towns, will get "the attention they rightfully deserve," he said.

He plans to do a lot of listening to businesses in the state, big and small, to see how Enterprise Florida and the government can help them grow in the state. He said he wants to make sure existing businesses in the state "feel the love," and want to stay here.

"To do my job, I don't need to be sitting behind a desk," he said. "I need to be out around the state and in the nation selling Florida. That is my job."

In the coming months, he expects to spend a lot of his time in Tallahassee during the upcoming Legislative session, lobbying for the governor's jobs agenda.

"I will be a fixture in Tallahassee, with the Florida Legislature," he said. "We need to make sure we are working with our state legislators and they understand the importance and the vital role that EFI plays in selling the state of Florida, both internationally and within the state of Florida, then throughout the nation."

He said he also will work closely with schools, colleges and universities to make sure they are churning out the kind of workers needed to grow businesses in the state, and with Visit Florida, the state's tourism marketing arm.

"I like hard work," he said. "I work pretty much seven days a week. I like my work, and I like to enjoy the people I work with."

He was approaching mandatory retirement from Miami-Dade in June, so he was prepared for change. He welcomes change, he said, and he's used to it.

"I don't even unbox myself," he said. "I'm ready to go."

Copyright © 2015 the Naples Daily News (Naples, Fla.), Laura Layden. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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