Broward County native Bob Swindell said he has long been proud of what the community has to offer residents and businesses but did not originally see himself acting as an advocate for the community’s economic development.
He started in small business, running an industrial-supply company for the first two decades of his career, but now serves as president and CEO of the Greater Fort Lauderdale Alliance, a public/private economic-development partnership for the Fort Lauderdale metro area and the surrounding Broward County, of which the city is the seat.
Swindell recently spoke with Crain about switching from small business to attracting businesses nationwide to his city and what his advice would be for young professionals.
How did you transition to the role at the Greater Fort Lauderdale Alliance?
I’ve frequently learned from people I’ve talked to that the career they had may not have been what their intended career was initially, but it’s interesting how we get to where we’re at.
I grew up in Broward County, Greater Fort Lauderdale, and went to high school here before moving on to the University of Florida. I had an industrial-supply business for the first 20 years of my career and assumed I would be a small business owner for my life, but I sold the business in 2001 to a friend. The position [with the Alliance] was open, and when I realized the organization had promoted Broward County as a business destination, I thought that having grown up here I have a pretty good idea of what the strengths and opportunities were for Greater Fort Lauderdale.
I joined the alliance as senior vice president of business development in 2003. In 2009 they said they would give me a shot as interim CEO, and if we were able to strengthen the organization and provide some new direction, they would keep me on as CEO.
How did your experience prepare you for work at the Alliance?
One of the first things you learn is the importance of giving back to the community that provides you opportunities, no matter what size your business is. There are different points in your professional life when you can do that.
When I first started my company, time was a hard-found commodity. But as the business became more successful, I made it a point to be involved in the community.
What challenges do you face working to attract businesses to the county?
One of the things I find most frustrating is that Broward County has a great story to tell, and we don’t always do the best job of telling that story. I think we’re getting much better.
I went to Broward County public schools, and while they aren’t perfect, I got a great education locally and had several teachers who inspired me. It’s important that we get that message out to parents and students in South Florida.
Our [high school] coding and debate programs are [some of] the largest in the country, and those statistics are pretty impressive. There are several items where we rank No. 1, and it’s an opportunity we haven’t taken enough advantage of in the past.
What goals do you currently have for the Alliance?
We just completed a skills-gap analysis for the workforce in Broward County, along with the educational resources that are available to get a better understanding of how we can make sure our high school graduates and soon-to-be folks in the full workforce are prepared to work for the targeted companies we’re focused on bringing to Broward County.
One of the initiatives I’m most proud of is that we’re focusing on four distressed areas within Broward County. That was one of the results of the report on the skills-gap. These are communities that have a high level of unemployment and a high poverty level, but we're figuring out how we can go to these underserved communities and bring them some of this training and awareness that these careers are available.
What advice do you have for those entering the workforce?
I encourage people to get involved in something outside of your day job, whether it’s a young professionals organization or another group out there and — whatever that outlet is — to dedicate some time to it.
When you get involved with an organization, get involved to further its mission.
Sometimes I meet people who get involved with an organization to further their own business career and make contacts and have business development opportunities, and my philosophy has always been to get involved for the right reasons, get active and do what you say you’re going to do. Through that work, you’ll be recognized by your peers not only in your organization but also the community.
You’ll make a much bigger impact and ultimately also get that visibility for business growth.