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Tampa Bay Tech Leaders: Michael Adams, CEO of Proximity Innovations and CIO of The Year in 2017

Tampa Bay Tech Leaders, An Interview Series: Michael Adams

Michael Adams is an accomplished CEO residing in Tampa. He transformed how MarineMax leveraged technology, where he worked as CIO for almost 3 years, earning him a nomination as 2017 CIO of the Year from the Tampa Bay Business Journal. He has since started his own company, Proximity Innovations.

Proximity Innovations

Michael Adams: Full disclosure, since I haven’t updated my LinkedIn yet: I’m no longer at MarineMax. One of the things we were working on over there was strategy. Because we’re struggling with anything but baby boomers, we were looking to shift our focus to a younger demographic in boating. We decided it would be easier to get this strategy done if we did it outside the company. So, in November, I started a new company called Proximity Innovations. We’re running technology initiatives, primarily around retail, but also around the boating industry. I still talk with the MarineMax guys all the time. I’m meeting the president next week, but I’m also working with multiple other clients now.

CIO of the year

Roxanne Williams: Last year, you were recognized as one of the finalists for Tampa Bay Business Journal’s 2017 CIO of the year. That award is given to leaders who provide significant contributions to the Tampa Bay IT community. What would you say is the biggest accomplishment in your career that landed you this nomination?

Michael: We shifted the organization while I worked there to start thinking about technology as an integral part of doing business. We wanted to build a great customer experience, instead of just seeing tech as a utility. There’s still a long way to go on that front, since it’s a big shift in thinking and implementation of our tools. We really thought of everything from the customer’s perspective first, and then how it fed back into our organization – even for things like accounting. I think that accomplishment got me recognized.

Matt Vaughn: Especially in an industry like marine, where IT is a necessary evil.

Proximity Innovations - Tampa Bay Tech Leaders - Budgeting

Michael: Yes, and I have a good example, because I’ve done all 4 major vehicular industries. I’ve worked in marine, RV, power sports, and automotive. I spoke to an RV dealer yesterday, and he tried to give me an education on the industry. He gave the breakdown between a big RV dealer and a small one, and he told me the IT budget is typically 1/10th of 1%.

Roxanne: A TENTH of 1%?!

Matt: That’s insane.

Tampa’s talent

Roxanne: Wow. Being that Tampa Bay is more and more recognized as a tech hub, have you noticed a positive shift in terms of qualified tech talent in the area?

Michael: I’m gonna give you an answer that’s going to be really unpopular: no. When I worked at MarineMax, I noticed a couple things about this area. I came from Virginia, where I lived for 30 years, and I ran 5 different tech companies from 1996 to 2015. I lived in Virginia Beach, which we always felt was a little bit off the beaten path. However, what I didn’t realize was that we pulled amazing people in that area. We had a couple big cities around us, like Raleigh, that were loaded with talent.

Proximity Innovations - Tampa Bay Tech Leaders - Talent in Tampa

When I came to Tampa, I wanted to get more dynamic, young, forward-thinking technologists into our organization. I unfortunately never found them. I know there are pockets of them of course, I’m not saying they don’t exist at all. But, that talent doesn’t proliferate our market enough – especially not for companies like MarineMax that are not tech companies by default. The same is true as I’m running this company. We are a tech development company, and talent will be the number one reason we either succeed or don’t. And right now, it’s a major challenge.

There’s certainly a lot of good conversation going on, and there’s more of a focus around tech now than 5 years ago. However, we haven’t put the infrastructure in place to really help technology startups be successful. I mean easy access to working capital, and easy access to really good technology talent in a transitory mode. In other words, finding really good leading-edge technologists that can integrate economic passion, work with your organization, and eventually transition into your organization. It takes a really strong infrastructure to do those things.

I went to Synapse a couple months ago, and what struck me as I walked around there was that there was a lot of fluff around being a technology-centered area, but really it was just a big meat market for everybody to sell each other their stuff. No one really said, “Hey, you have a really good, innovative idea. Let’s help you get it to the next level.” And I think it’s gonna take that kind of grassroots work to get to the point where Synapse becomes meaningful. That’s my humble opinion based on what I’ve seen.

Driving capital here

Matt: So that’s one of the trickier things. We need money here. How do you drive capital to Tampa from the investment standpoint, not just from the few local giants that can only do so much?

Michael: I think there needs to be a true integration type of model set up in the area that provides access to capital for younger tech startups to bring that kind of talent in here. In 2 ways: one from a cash standpoint, and one from a resource standpoint. Firstly, access to good subsidized tech talent. Secondly, the right infrastructure in order to help a company get off the ground with the right development environment. Thirdly, the right technologies to grow the business from an admin perspective.

If you put those things together, plug the right people in, and provide those individuals with a very clear, “Here’s what we need from you to do this,” that would help a lot.

Right now, I’m out there every day talking to people about what we’re doing. The answers I’ve gotten are:

a) your company is only 6 months old, we can’t talk to you
b) we’ll be happy to factor your receivables
c) come back to us with your extensive business plan and financial projections and we’ll put you through a few months of questions to get you some capital.

That doesn’t work for a young entrepreneur who’s trying to get their business off the ground.

There are a lot of people out there who are developing great business plans, and building great projections. They have all the time in the world, because they’re not dealing with the customer. For a company like ours, which has multiple customers with major projects, we have less time to jump through hoops to get access to capital. That’s the challenge: for the companies that are out there being successful and getting some traction in the marketplace, the barriers to entry are too high to get access to capital. Again, it doesn’t have to be cash – it could be subsidized talent and infrastructure so that organizations can get off the ground.

Tech in Tampa

Roxanne: Outside of capital, what do you hope to see in the next few years in Tampa Bay when it comes to technology?

Michael: For our leaders who do have the wherewithal to work effectively on attracting technology talent to the area. Maybe even with the idea of those individuals helping young organizations get off the ground. Maybe doing projects for some companies, like a MarineMax. We desperately needed access to good talent and we just couldn’t get to it.

Proximity Innovations - Tampa Bay Tech Leaders - Talent

In order to do all that, you have to create areas that are exciting and fun for younger talent. My son graduated from Harvey Mudd college this past May. Harvey Mudd is one of the premier science and tech colleges in the world. The talent that graduates from there ends up going to companies like Google. He’s working for me right now, but I guarantee you there’s nothing that will keep him in this area. He’s working for me until he figures out what he wants to do, and then he’ll be out of here.

It’s just not an area that caters to young, smart, innovative individuals. As a matter of fact, I got some work in the Channelside area – my son is out there today – and it’s dead. There’s nothing exciting about working down there. It’s not a robust, happening area, and that’s allegedly the place all this incubation is gonna take place.

Roxanne: I will say, my partner is one of the bright minds in tech here in Tampa (AWS Certified, Senior DevOps Engineer), and he ended up taking a job in New York and works remotely, because money is a problem here. He can’t get paid the same amount as he would in other places that are also tech hubs.

Michael: That’s a really great point, and that is a danger we face. Especially in today’s day and age, where people can work remotely effectively. For the talent we do have here, we just don’t have the industry to compete for real capital in the area. If we could get a couple of good technology companies in the area, we could raise the pay here. But if we keep depending on companies like Raymond James and Jabil, who are not inherently tech companies, it’s never gonna happen. IT is not their primary function, so the whole goal of companies like that is to minimize IT spend. The company I’m running right now, tech is what we do, so it’s critical that we have good, highly-paid talent.

Roxanne: Yep, and the difference is shocking, too. We’re not talking a small amount. If my partner wanted to take a job in Tampa again, he’s be taking a $20k paycut.

Michael: I believe it. I interviewed a lady that just moved down here from Baltimore. I talked to her about a Project Management role. In Baltimore, she made $120k. She’s a good PM, but she’s definitely not a superstar PM. My mind would be blown if she got a job in this area making $120k. The only place I’ve seen that’s done a decent job in this area is actually Bank of the Ozarks. They’ve done a really great job with that center in St. Petersburg. That’s the kind of thing we need a bunch of in the area.

Shoutout

Matt: That leads well into my next question. Who is a person that you recognize as innovative, from an individual standpoint?

Michael: Michael Lawley. He definitely has the right thinking, and I love working with him. It’s interesting, but because of his thinking, I think that he struggles in this area. He has a résumé a mile long – he’s done amazing things – but can’t find the right fit or group in the area to take advantage of what he’s doing.

Roxanne: I’m really interested in knowing this: can you tell us about the culture at MarineMax?

Michael: It was a great organization. The guy who founded it, Bill McGill, is still the CEO. He’s the most innovative 75 year old you’ll ever meet. Really sharp. His son is President and basically runs the company now. The CFO has worked there since the start too, and he’s a really neat guy. They know the industry really well, they focus on the customer, and the environment is very positive. It’s a great place. I think there are shifts that need to take place for them to embrace technology and Bill’s vision more, but that’s a cultural issue from the perspective that they’re a dealer through and through. In order to compete in the future, they’ll need to shift to being a consumer-driven boating organization. There’s a big difference there.

Advice for students

Matt: One of the things I noticed in the marketplace is students coming out of college that are unable to find a career in Tampa. For somebody getting out of college who wants to stay local, what’s the best advice you have for them?

Michael: It’s great to be very smart, but there’s this whole function of being effective in an organization that has nothing to do with your intelligence and expertise. Be honest in your dealings, operate out of integrity, move into selflessness, and maintain a work ethic that takes you outside of yourself. That doesn’t mean they need to have a poor work/life balance. On the contrary, it’s that they know how to work effectively. If you do those things, everything else will work out for you.

Uber for boats?

Matt: I’m curious to get your thoughts. This is outside of technology, and more from the industry side. Back when I did a lot of work around the red carpet space, I partnered with a few people developing apps like uber for boats, and now there’s Anchor here. What are your thoughts on groups like that?

Michael: A lot of those concepts are along the lines of what we’re thinking about for what we’re calling the H2O Experience. There are two big challenges here.

Tampa Bay Tech Leaders, An Interview Series: Michael Adams

One of the big challenges is that this is a $36 billion industry. To put that into perspective, the automotive industry is $3.7 trillion. So marine is a very tiny industry, and the majority of the revenue is generated by boaters who are 60 and older. In order for us to survive, we need to figure out how to talk to Gen Xers and Millennials and figure out how to get them into boating. One of the ways to do that is to shift from buying boats, and instead, paying for time on the water. That’s where apps like Anchor fit.

One of the challenges those companies are going to face is that the industry is small, and each of them fighting for a slice of a very small pie. We have to talk to everybody who enjoys time on the water. For example, there are 8 million boat owners in the United States. However, last year, there were 120 million people who went boating, whether that be on friends’ boats, boat excursions, etc. Then, there are another 120 million people that did something around the water that didn’t involve us. So there are 240 million people that we can talk to that we’re not currently talking to. And that’s the point behind the H2O experience. We can transition people into boating-as-a-service, as opposed to buying boats. We would do that by integrating the market with players like Anchor.

The second big piece of this is solving the capital problem in the industry. The capital system in our industry is very broken. We need to solve that part of the equation so that the market can be creative in how it solves the issue of getting people on the water.

Matt: It’s from top-down in my experience with most of them too. It doesn’t matter if you’re a tiny boat manufacturer that’s newer, or a Northrop & Johnson. When I worked with the luxury brands on red carpet projects, they were selling $80 million boats and didn’t have an advertising budget because they were so strapped. No one’s buying, and they didn’t have a high enough margin.

Michael: Absolutely. You’re right. It’s funny because people look at our industry and see those $80 million boats and they think, “Oh my God, there’s so much money in this industry,” and there’s not. The main reason, again, is because it’s such a small industry and there are 1200 boat manufacturers.

About Proximity Innovations:

The H2O Experience provides retail technology that integrates the consumer experience with the expert experience in real-time, providing the intelligence to the expert to have an effective conversation with the consumer to move the transaction along. The core of this is the integration of tools and data back into the operations of the business, which is where we’ve always seen it break down. Learn more about Proximity Innovations here.

To connect with Michael, find him on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/michaeladamsprox/

Roxanne Williams is the Marketing Director at Full Stack Talent, a technology staffing agency in Tampa, FL. Find her LinkedIn here.

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