Michael Adams is an accomplished CEO residing in Tampa. He transformed how technology was leveraged at MarineMax, 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. Roxanne Williams, Marketing Director, and Matt Vaughn, Director of Talent Services, at Full Stack Talent were lucky enough to speak with him on July 19th.
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, and 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.
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 over their careers. What would you say is the biggest accomplishment in your career that landed you this nomination?
Michael: We shifted the organization while I was there to start thinking about technology as an integral part of doing business and building a great customer experience, instead of just seeing tech as a utility. There’s still a long way to go on that front, but it was a big shift in the 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 was the biggest accomplishment that might’ve gotten me recognition.
Matt Vaughn: Especially in an industry like marine where IT is not a dirty word, but a necessary evil where they’ll hire an IT generalist, but not put a focus on it.
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 was talking to an RV dealer yesterday and he was trying to give me an education on the industry, and he was giving me 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.
Roxanne: Wow. So, 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: So I’m gonna give you an answer that’s going to be really unpopular: no. When I was at MarineMax, and even now, I noticed a couple things about this area. I came from Virginia, where I was for 30 years, and I ran 5 different tech companies up there from 1996 to 2015. I was in Virginia Beach, which we always felt was a little bit off the beaten path, but what I didn’t realize (in retrospect, you should always be grateful for what you have) was that we were able to pull amazing people in that area because we had a couple big cities around us, like Raleigh, that were loaded with talent.
When I came to Tampa, I wanted to get more dynamic, young, forward-thinking technologists into our organization, and I 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.
I think what the real issue in this area is, there’s certainly a lot of good conversation going on and there’s more of a focus around tech than there was 5 years ago, but we really haven’t put the infrastructure in place to really help technology startups be successful. What I mean by that is, 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 two things, and what I observed in this area is there’s a lot of talk about it.
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 what it was, was just a big meat market for everybody to sell each other their stuff. There was no one really going “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 in order to get to the point where Synapse is really meaningful. That’s my humble opinion based on what I’ve seen.
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. In other words, access to good subsidized tech talent, the right infrastructure in order to help a company get off the ground with the right development environment, and the right technologies to grow the business from an admin perspective.
If you put those things together and plug the right people in and provide those individuals with a very clear “here’s what we need from you to do this” so it’s very defined and easy for an entrepreneur to fill that information out and either get accepted or not accepted, that would help a lot.
Right now, I’m out there every day talking to people about what we’re doing, and the answers I’ve gotten are either a) you’ve been in business for 6 months, we can’t talk to you, or b) we’ll be happy to factor your receivables, or 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, building great projections, and the reason is 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 a bunch of 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. And again, it doesn’t have to be cash – it could be subsidized talent and infrastructure so that these organizations can get off the ground.
Roxanne: Outside of capital, what do you hope to see in the next few years in Tampa Bay when it comes to technology?
Michael: One thing that’d be interesting would be, for some of our leaders who do have the wherewithal, to really work effectively on attracting technology talent to the area with the idea of those individuals helping young organizations in the area 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.
In order to do all that, you have to create areas that are exciting and fun for that 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’s gonna 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, really 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, and it’s just not there.
Roxanne: You know, 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 the money is the 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 so that we can get ahead of that. If we could get a couple of really good technology companies in the area, then 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. There was a lady I interviewed that just moved down here from Baltimore. I was talking to her about a Project Management role. In Baltimore, she was making $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 as a PM. The only place I’ve seen that’s done a decent job in this area is actually a bank. 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.
Matt: That was actually going to be my next question – what’s a company in the area that is doing things new, and doing things right. So I’m gonna ask you, who is a person that you recognize as doing things well, and differently, from an individual standpoint?
Michael: Michael Lawley – he’s definitely got the right thinking, and I love working with him. It’s interesting, but because of his thinking, I think that he, too, 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: what was the company culture at MarineMax like?
Michael: It was a great organization. The guy who founded it, Bill McGill, is still the CEO – really neat, most innovative 75 year old you’ll ever meet. Really sharp. His son is President and basically runs the company now. The CFO has been there since the start too, about my age, 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, and I think in order to compete in the future, they’ll need to shift to being a consumer-driven boating organization, and there’s a big difference there.
Matt: One of the things I noticed in the marketplace that other recruiters have to deal with as well is seeing students coming out of college that are bright are unable to find a career in Tampa. So for somebody getting out of college, for a talented IT young mind that wants to stay locally, what’s the best advice you can think of 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, and that’s bringing into a workplace the core values that you hear about all the time: 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.
Matt: I’m curious to get your thoughts – this is outside of technology, and more from the industry side – back when I was doing a lot of work around the red carpet space, I was partnering with a few people that were starting to do apps like uber for boats, and now there’s Anchor here locally. 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.
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 continue 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 – and 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, but 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, and 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 little boat manufacturer that’s newer or a Northrop & Johnson. When I was working 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.
To connect with Michael, find him on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/michaeladamsprox/
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