By Jim Warnken and Christi Sarlo
For Business Currents magazine
Greater Naples Chamber of Commerce
The little voice comes from the back seat — sometimes as soon as 10 minutes into the trip and often asked multiple times, especially as the destination gets closer.
If you have a child or have ever traveled to Disney World with kids, you have heard it before: are we there yet?
The boredom of a long car ride, combined with the anticipation of the exciting things that lie ahead is too much to contain. Although, as adults, we try to handle our impatience in a more dignified manner, we can experience some of the same emotions, but not always when it comes to a family vacation.
For struggling business owners or those out of work, the question of where our local economy is today and where it is headed, is a real concern. Are things improving? Will this be a good season? Are things getting better or have we reached what others call the "new normal"? Are we there yet?
As we did last year, we once again surveyed CEOs and business leaders on a number of topics pertaining to their business, external factors influencing their business, and the overall health of the economy. We also added a few new questions on issues that seem to be getting a lot of attention in the news.
The survey, conducted during November and December, produced responses from 201 organizations, an increase from the 140 we received last year. We thank those who completed the survey. As the voice of the business community, the Chamber needs this input to help guide their efforts. What follows are some of the more significant findings.
This year, there was greater participation from larger organizations. Last year, 16 respondents indicated that they employed over 100 people. This year, the number increased to 53 (there are roughly 250 organizations in Collier County that indicate they employ more than 100 people).
In terms of all responses, the largest number came from organizations categorized as banking/financial services/insurance (16.4 percent), legal/accounting/professional (15.9 percent), hospitality (11.4 percent), construction (9 percent), healthcare (8.5 percent) and not-for-profit (8.5 percent).
44 percent of those surveyed said they added staff in the past 12 months and 15 percent reduced staff. This compares to last year's responses of 34 percent and 21 percent, respectively. Clearly, this shows improvement. Fifty-one percent of businesses categorized as banks/financial services/insurance and 59 percent of healthcare enterprises increased staff, while 55 percent of governmental entities decreased staff.
Looking forward, 87 percent of businesses sense the economy is either improving or staying the same. Of those who believe economic activity is on the rise (44 percent of all responses) two-thirds plan to hire more staff. Those industries that appear to be doing the most hiring are real estate/development, legal/accounting/professional, hospitality and construction. Only 26 businesses (roughly 13 percent) felt the economy was declining. Of those businesses, only 5 planned to reduce staff in the coming year. Out of 201 organizations that responded to the survey, only 5 plan to reduce staff in the coming year.
Like last year, the perception that banks are not lending does not seem to reflect reality, at least as far as the survey respondents are concerned. Of the 59 companies that approached lenders for financing needs, 44 were successful. This is almost a 75 percent success rate.
In terms of health benefits, 70 percent of all companies provide health insurance. As would be expected, the larger the company, the more likely these benefits are provided. Most of the companies surveyed pay between 50 percent and 80 percent of the premium.
Finding qualified staff is always cited as an important factor in attracting businesses to the area. This doesn't seem to be a problem for existing companies as 86% responded that finding qualified staff is not an issue. Additionally, the cost of housing no longer seems to be as big of a problem for recruitment and retention as 61% felt it was no longer a concern.
The business community has not changed its opinion of what the priorities of public institutions should be. Reducing expenditures/balancing budgets, improving educational systems, and reducing regulations were considered the highest priorities. In terms of specific institutions, law enforcement scored very high; 95 percent rated these agencies as either effective or improving. Collier County EMS received an 86 percent rating and the city of Naples received an 85 percent rating. On the other hand, only 27 percent view Collier County government as "effective" and 37 percent indicated the county government as "improving," for a total of 64 percent.
Should Collier County Schools be allowed to shift tax revenues of roughly $14.5 million annually from capital needs (buildings, maintenance) to operations (salaries, textbooks)? Some indicated that they did not understand the issue, however, of those that did, an overwhelming majority (81 percent) said "yes." Should the bed tax for those staying in hotel rooms and short-term rentals be increased by 1 percent, with the proceeds used to promote tourism? Over two-thirds of those who weighed in on this question said "yes."
Finally, where do people get their news? The most prevalent responses were 73 percent Internet, 69 percent television, and 60 percent local "printed" newspaper. It will be interesting to see how this changes over time as more leaders of the "connected" generation enter positions of leadership.
So, what conclusions can be reached with all of this? Overall, the business climate continues to improve. The business community remains optimistic and plans to expand or maintain, not contract. The guys and gals who wear badges are well respected in our community. The business community wants public institutions to reduce spending, but are OK with shifting tax revenue or taxing others for what they believe are the right reasons.
The past four years have been very difficult for many people in Southwest Florida. For some, it will take many years to recover. At the same time, we all know that our economy continues to rely heavily on tourism and retirees and our ability to weather future storms lies with more diversity in the industries that make up our economy. But efforts to diversify take time, money and commitment from a lot of stakeholders. In the short-term, we need to get back to where we were or perhaps to "the new normal."
Are we there yet? It has been a long ride and still too early to tell, but we are starting to think that it won't be long before we are driving by Mickey's ears with our destination right around the next corner.
Jim Warnken is CEO of the Neighborhood Health Clinic, a medical home for low-income and uninsured working men and women of Collier County. Jim also serves on the board of the Greater Naples Chamber of Commerce. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Christi Sarlo is the marketing manager of Markham Norton Mosteller Wright & Company, a certified public accounting and consulting firm. Christi can be reached at email@example.com.