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COVER STORY | Vol. 7, No. 35, August 30, 2007
(The Ultimate Challenge)

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The Ultimate Challenge

by Duwayne Escobedo

Studer ready to shape Pensacola area into a high performer

As a special education teacher he helped change lives. As a healthcare executive he helped change hospitals.

Now, Quint Studer says he is committed to helping change a community.

He is armed with a list of six areas he recommends the Pensacola area focus on, if it really wants to become a top-flight city. He suggests an objective annual report card be created to gauge the area's progress and for it to be shared openly throughout the community.

Studer wants to start today.

Who, the hell is Quint Studer anyway?

Studer laughs at the question. His answer: He tells a story about a poll taken about two weeks before Pensacola voters went to the polls to decide the fate of the $70 million public-private development of the Community Maritime Park on the city's empty 30-acre, bay-front site in downtown. One of the poll's questions asked city voters was what their opinion was of Studer, as well as other community representatives.

"Forty-nine percent said, Who's that?'" the self-effacing Studer says. "They had no idea who that guy even was."

For those who've never heard of this guy, here's a thumbnail sketch. Studer is a 56-year-old who is CEO and founder of the local healthcare consulting company Studer Group. The firm advocates a proven program to help healthcare companies and their employees become high performing or successful.

Studer is owner with his wife, Rishy, of the Pensacola Pelicans, an independent minor league baseball club.

And, yeah, Studer is that guy who joined the late U.S. Navy Vice Adm. Jack Fetterman and University of West Florida President John Cavanaugh to create and to push through the Vince Whibbs Sr. Community Maritime Park, which 55.7 percent of Pensacola voters supported in the primary election on Sept. 5, 2006.

Almost one year later since that vote, Studer is back.

"You can't just do one deal and go missing in action," he says. "I feel the last year, I've been missing in action. I'm ready to get back on the field again."

He apologizes for his absence. Studer, who put about $750,000 of his own money into the campaign for the maritime park, says he rationalizes the break by recalling the personal attacks in the tough campaign. Plus, he agreed that after the vote a Community Maritime Park Associates board would oversee the development. He wanted to remove any appearance of conflict or appearance he would profit somehow from his involvement.

"I was very worried about overexposure," he says. "I resigned (from the park board) but I didn't know where to go."

Being in the limelight during the maritime park debate took its toll on him, Studer admits.

"I was really uncomfortable," he says. "For 10 years, I taught special ed and no one writes nasty letters about you. They thank you. In healthcare, they thank you, too. They thank you for saving their mother or doing a good job. I thought people would say, Thank you, for a new park.' Instead, I was getting anonymous letters and things at home and blogs were saying stuff that was absolutely untrue."

So, Studer emersed himself in his travels about four days a week across the county to tout to groups the system of excellence he developed that focuses on improving leadership and employee satisfaction. During his trips, he began to recognize what successful and not-so-successful cities were doing. He began developing six broad keys for city excellence.

He also recognized something else.

"In 1996, when I first came here you could not call me a leader in this community," he says. "I would not have become a leader in this community if it was not for Admiral Fetterman telling me, Let's move forward.' I don't think Admiral Fetterman thought he would lead for just a couple of years or Vince Whibbs said, I'll do this for a little while.' I would like to push things and I want to be more vocal."

Why should you listen to Studer?

"Some will. I think about 56 percent," he says jokingly. That's the percentage who approved the maritime park a year ago.

Studer knows that at least 35 percent of you are already tuning him out and against anything he proposes. The polling company used by maritime park backers found Pensacola's negative vote is automatically at least 35 percent no matter what, he relays. Typically, the firm reported that it finds a 25 percent automatic "No" vote exists.

"Pensacola was the most negative of any city it had ever polled," Studer says. "I believe positive people are just a little quieter than negative people. We need to tap into the positive people in our community."

Whichever you are maybe you should at least hear Studer out because he has already overcome the impossible both professionally and personally.

He grew up in a poor, working-class family. He was the smallest kid in his class, with a speech impediment. He was deaf in his right ear with only partial hearing in his left. He finished high school with a D average. He hit rock bottom Christmas Day 1982 at 31, when he sat alone with a hangover in his home and decided to start putting two failed marriages, debt and alcoholism behind him.

A special education teacher, he switched careers and entered the healthcare industry as a community relations director. He eventually climbed the ladder to become the chief operating officer at another hospitalHoly Cross, which was located in Chicago's mean south side.

There a team hired to turn around or shut down the troubled, financially-hemorrhaging hospital put Studer in charge of an unprecedented featraise its 3 percent patient satisfaction to 75 percent in one year. He did. And the year after that satisfaction shot up to 94 percent.

Today, Studer preaches excellence as the head of Studer Group, a 123-employee firm that began with seven employees in 2000.

He has already begun preaching city success, passing around his six keys to a thriving community to friends for comment. He also talked about them in a recent speech in Pensacola to retired military officers.

"It's not all me," he says of his list for city excellence. "I've read a lot on economic development. I'm in cities across America all the time. I've collected some of these from other people. I believe you have to do all six."

Studer says he recruited the entire group of local retired military officers to promote and follow the six points.

"I ended by telling these officers, You've finished your tours of duty. But I ask you tonight to sign up for your next tour of duty,'" he recalls. "They all got up on their feet. That's what they want to do, too."

Those six main things the Pensacola area can do to improve the quality of life for all its citizens, according to Studer, range from economic development initiatives to consolidation efforts. They are:  

1) Identify current local employers that bring revenue inside the area from outside the area, such as the Florida Institute for Human and Machine Cognition, Silver Bullet Technology and others. Also, identify small entrepreneurs who have the potential to become big companies.

2) Create better work environments for employees, focusing on better leadership, wages and benefits.

3) Work on quality of life issues, including public safety, clean environment, education, and entertainment, including activities for families.

4) Establish a well-organized economic development effort involving city, county and state governments, the chambers of commerce, local economic development groups and businesses. Make sure it's ready to act quickly.

5) Consolidate government agencies, non-profit agencies, even businesses to become as efficient as possible.

6) Maximize what is good or the positives about the area. The communitywide effort includes everyone from citizens to top business executives.

Studer proposes creating an annual report card to measure how the Pensacola area does in each of the six areas.

"We shouldn't look at it as bad or good but as a way to see what we're doing well and look at what we can do better," he says. "I think transparency is key."

In the end, Studer hopes the Pensacola area shows the same type of gains as his special education students and troubled hospitals.

"How do we get better rather than making excuses?" Studer asks. "When I first came to town people would always say to me, Pensacola has so much potential.' Well, potential isn't any good if you don't use it."

Here, in his exclusive interview with the Independent News, Studer outlines and explains the six ways to a better Pensacola area in his own words:

1. STUDER ON IDENTIFYING TOP EMPLOYERS AND UP-AND-COMING SMALL BUSINESSES:
"The Gallup Organization looks at cities making economic improvements. They found those cities have very focused efforts on identifying current employers, particularly those bringing revenue inside the area. They strongly try to keep those employers because you can bet other cities are talking to them. Those cities also identify small entrepreneurs who have the potential to become big companies. They make sure they're helping them grow. We've made some pretty good progress on No. 1."

2. STUDER ON CREATING BETTER BUSINESS LEADERS, WAGES AND BENEFITS:
"Creating better work environments for our employees means three things: leadership, wages and benefits. The main reason people give for leaving their jobs is, I don't like my boss.' If you don't like your boss here, that doesn't mean moving to the company across the street. It means moving to Gainesville, Tallahassee or Mobile. We're made up of a lot of small businesses. What if we gave people in leadership positions the training they needed in today's business environment? Why can't Pensacola create a system to train leaders to be great supervisors? The low wages and benefits here are two things that really bother me. The MSAs (Metropolitan Statistical Areas) that grew the most had the best wages and benefits. Charleston, S.C., had the biggest growth and it has the highest average wage. They attract employers because they have talent there. Here, people say it's a good thing that you don't have to pay employees as much as other places. Well, that's wrong. Studer Group has 123 employees with an average salary of $115,000, which includes incentives and bonuses. I'd like to see a billboard that says, Come to Pensacola where we have great places to work, great leaders, great wages and great benefits.' That's the type of billboard that would get people to pull over and stop."

3. STUDER ON QUALITY OF LIFE ISSUES:
"People have to feel like they're safe to go around and drive downtown. With tourists, safety is a huge issue. And people want the place to be clean. You have to have clean streets, a clean environment and clean air. Third is education, which I believe is one of our real strengths. We have the Pensacola High School International Baccalaureate program and George Stone Vocational-Tech Center, a junior college, a Christian college and a four-year university with post-graduate studies. That's huge. Gallup shows cities with four-year universities outperform those that don't have them. The Escambia County School District is doing well. They understand where they are and how to get better. (Superintendent) Jim Paul has his team poised to do that. Finally, you have to have entertainment, including family outlets. People want to go places that they don't have to drive hours to get to. For families you need parks and recreation. Entertainment is critical for young people to stay."

4. STUDER ON ORGANIZED ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT:
"I talked to Bobby Bright, the mayor of Montgomery, when he was here last year. He said eight years ago, if you said something was going on in Montgomery, people would say, I don't think so.' They started revitalizing downtown. Now, Hyundai and 40 other companies have come to Montgomery and the surrounding area. They're well organized and have a responsive economic development mechanism between the city, county and state and the chamber, depending on the chamber. We need to have our act together, if we want the Hyundais. When Nissan came to Nashville, Tenn., they were visiting four cities in four days. We have to be prepared to talk about the advantages of being in our area. We need to have a well-organized team that can respond quickly if someone shows interest in our area. If someone had an inquiry, who would they call? Who's that person? We need cooperation between the city, county and state so we can be ready to move with some sort of package. I think the Pensacola chamber has made some progress in this area."

5. STUDER ON CONSOLIDATION:
"What I've seen are communities, like Kenosha and Walworth in Southern Wisconsin (near Milwaukee) moving past city-county consolidation to county-county consolidation. They're making government as cost efficient as possible. There are business opportunities for not-for-profits. And if we really want to be bold, there's the potential to consolidate some healthcare services here. Looking into the future, baby boomers will need heart and cancer services. We have good heart and cancer programs already. But what's the potential if we merged them and had regional heart and cancer centers? People would come from everywhere to Pensacola. We could have the largest heart and cancer centers in the region. Also, we have to have a regional airport. But to consolidate you almost have to have someone come in from outside to make it happen, someone who doesn't have those emotional issues. If you're looking to merge two cancer centers, the presidents of each are looking at each other and wondering which one of them is gone."

6. STUDER ON MAXIMIZING POSITIVES:
"While we are fixing and refining things we must lead with the positives, such as our talent, environment, education, social services, art and culture and military bases. We must be very good at maximizing what is good about the Pensacola area. If we don't talk about the positives, all people will hear is the negatives. If someone comes to town whether it's an employer or person and all you do is tell them how bad it is, why would they come here? There are a lot of good things going on in our area. We have a lot of talent. When I first started the company in 2001, I hired a fella from Dallas to be the president (B.G. Porter). We have offices in both Dallas and Pensacola and we advertise openings in both cities. By far, we've found more talent in Pensacola than in Dallas. I'm amazed at the talent level in Pensacola. It tells me talent will stay here if given the chance. Our environment attracts 6 million tourists every year. Very few communities have that. If we can get them to stay a little longer, spend a little more and get some to stay, that would be huge. I'm a special education teacher and I think we have a lot going for us in education and not-for-profit agencies. We're doing an impressive amount to help people. I do a lot of traveling and I can tell you that very few have a Saenger Theatre and Pensacola Little Theatre. I was in Rock County, Wis., and they were thrilled because a dinner theater was opening. Our military bases are a tremendous advantage. First of all, they spend money and second they bring people in from everywhere. We have men and women who've lived all over the world and they choose to retire here. They could make any place their new home. What other cities have that kind of intellectual capital?"

6 Ways to Better Pensacola Area
Pensacola businessman Quint Studer believes there are six main things the Pensacola area can do to improve the quality of life for all its citizens.

1. Identify current local employers that bring revenue inside the area from outside the area, such as the Florida Institute for Human and Machine Cognition, Silver Bullet Technology and others. Also, identify small entrepreneurs who have the potential to become big companies.

2. Create better work environments for employees, focusing on better leadership, wages and benefits.

3. Work on quality of life issues, including public safety, clean environment, education, and entertainment, including activities for families.

4. Establish a well-organized economic development effort involving city, county and state governments, the chambers of commerce, local economic development groups and businesses. Make sure it's ready to act quickly.

5. Consolidate government agencies, non-profit agencies, even businesses to become as efficient as possible.

6. Maximize what is good or the positives about the area. The communitywide effort includes everyone from citizens to top business executives.

duwayne@inweekly.net