Today we move closer to the top of the list selected by our panel of 16 plugged-in observers and find two companies in the process of transferring leadership from one generation to the next, several CEOs and two elected officials -- one, a young rising star; and the other, a veteran with rising clout.
14. Jacob Stuart. The head of the Orlando Regional Chamber of Commerce has long been in the mix of most things business-related. And he proved to be a driving force behind the Project Hometown campaign to lobby elected officials to build the downtown venues. There were times when folks such as Orange County Mayor Rich Crotty said Stuart, 59, was being heavy-handed. But you know what? Stuart got his way, which is probably why he's here.
13. Rasesh Thakkar and Joe Lewis. These two make up the second duo on the list. Lewis is the billionaire behind Isleworth, Lake Nona and the Tavistock Group. Thakkar is his frontman. And, like the Magic guys, our panelists seemed unsure which of the two they should list -- though, as individuals, Thakkar, 46, actually edged out Lewis, 70. Tavistock is in the thick of everything going on in east Orange County, offering help and donations for the area's emerging medical community. Such actions have certainly helped Central Florida -- and probably Tavistock's financial future as well.
12. Clarence Otis. As the chief executive officer of Orange County's only Fortune 500 company, Otis has stepped relatively seamlessly into the role once filled by Darden Restaurants founder Joe Lee. Otis, 51, still isn't out on the front lines showing his own face as much as some others on this list. But you'd be hard-pressed to find a company that has been more consistently philanthropic through the years -- which counts for a lot in a community that's short on big companies.
11. Dean Cannon. It's hard to overstate the influence of this Orlando Republican. He was elected incoming speaker of the Florida House practically before he got to Tallahassee. And since his term as speaker doesn't even start until 2010, this 39-year-old continues to waltz through his political career with most everyone he meets trying to befriend him. The question is: What is he going to do with his clout? This state is littered with the corpses of guys who were big deals in Tallahassee but never ended up with much to show for it . . . other than a cushy job afterward.
10. Al Weiss. This is the first year this Disney bigwig hasn't placed in the top five. And it makes sense. During the past 16 months, Weiss, 53, has given up his locally focused job as president of Walt Disney World and stepped into a higher post running the company's worldwide parks-and-resorts division. Many panelists cast separate votes for both him and his successor, which is why they won separate spots on this ranking. Maybe the company likes having two major players. But if Disney wants to have an individual widely recognized as its go-to exec, it may want to think about how to make that happen.
9. Bill Nelson. Welcome to the top 10, Senator. With Democrats on the rise, so is the clout of this former astronaut and current U.S. senator who finished 18th last year. Nelson, 65, hasn't always been as active on the local scene as most of the other elected officials on this list. But as the senior senator who is also in the majority party, he is certainly the go-to guy -- not just for Central Florida, but the Sunshine State in general -- if you want something done in Washington.
8. Meg Crofton. Walt Disney World's new president stepped out of her predecessor's shadow and quickly made a name for herself by getting involved in the community beyond the gates of Cinderella's Castle. Crofton was front and center when the company gave $10 million to help Florida Hospital operate a world-class pediatric hospital and $12.5 million to the arts center. She has taken leadership positions with groups such as Metro Orlando Economic Development Commission -- and is just generally out, about and approachable. And let's be honest: The person running the region's largest employer will always hold sway.
7. Harris Rosen. To be candid, this guy had a losing year. The 68-year-old hotel magnate took on the downtown venues in high-profile fashion -- and lost. But Rosen has enough money and influence that he simply can't be ignored. Said one panelist: "He can put this town into a spin. Win or lose, this guy has staying power." He also earns respect through his philanthropic actions. Whether he retains this high level of clout may depend upon other tourism execs -- some of whom split ways with Rosen this past year. But ya know what? Rosen still ends this year with the highest ranking of any tourism official on this list. As one panelist said: "He's the Frank Sinatra of hotel magnates -- he does things his way."
6. Jim Pugh. You rarely hear a disparaging word about this guy -- which is particularly impressive, considering he's a developer. Pugh has long been one of the region's most generous philanthropists, giving millions to educational and artistic endeavors. The 70-year-old also gets clout as one of the state's largest Democratic fundraisers and as the leader of the successful push for the most popular of the downtown venues, the performing-arts center.
How this series was prepared
To compile this list, Taking Names columnist Scott Maxwell assembled a panel of 16 plugged-in observers who are in a good position to judge influence in Central Florida. They come from the political, business, nonprofit and educational communities -- and are as diverse in ethnicity, age and gender as they are in their professions.
Their mission was simple: Compile a list of the most powerful people in Central Florida -- those people who know how to get big-scale results through influence, contacts, diligence and fortitude. Each panelist started with a blank slate and was asked to come up with 25 names and rank them in order. The higher the rank, the more points a power player earned. Then, we just added them up. Scott didn't vote at all.
Panelists were prohibited from voting for themselves. Still, a few of them made the list, which we expected from the start. (Who better to judge the influential thank those who can tell us who influences them?)
Sincere thanks to the 16 people below who put a good deal of time and thought into this exercise:
Rita Bornstein, former Rollins College president; Cathy Brown-Butler, Bank of America, senior vice president; Rich Crotty, Orange County Mayor; Bob Dallari, Seminole County commissioner; Buddy Dyer, Orlando mayor; Daryl Flynn, Orange County School Board; Elizabeth Gianini, Burnham Institute vice president of external relations; Patrick Howell, Orange County Log Cabin Republicans president; Henry Maldonado, WKMG-Channel 6 general manager; Shannon McAleavey, Walt Disney World senior vice president; John Morgan, Morgan & Morgan president; David Odahowski, Edyth Bush Charitable Foundation president; Belvin Perry, Orange-Osceola chief judge; Marytza Sanz, Latino Leadership president; Robin Smythe, Central Florida News 13 vice president/general manager; Kathy Waltz, Orlando Sentinel publisher.