Many moons ago, not long after graduating from Naples High, I remember a bittersweet conversation with old friends with whom I’ve long disconnected, over illicit beers at a time when Florida’s drinking age was still 19. This was the summer before going off to college, and someone declared Southwest Florida an idyllic place for one’s high school years. We all agreed how nice it would be to return someday after happy careers, and retire.
Back then, Reagan-era Naples was beautiful and largely undiscovered—a retirement town first with burgeoning financial, hospitality, retail sectors and a newspaper everyone read. (Each Naples Daily News masthead had a U.S. flag with the words, “Keep USA First.”) One fondly recalls long dinner table conversations about current events, politics and economics, based on what Jeff Lytle could fit into that day’s editorial page.
Upon high school graduation, if you went to college—because not everyone went to college back then—you likely ventured up to Tallahassee, Tampa, Gainesville or places out of state from which you’d launch a career based on your alma mater’s network.
But this began to change when Florida Gulf Coast University set up shop in a largely undeveloped part of pre-village Estero, thanks to the vision and plucky leadership of Tommy Howard, Ben Hill Griffin III and Roy McTarnaghan, among others. Now you could receive an education as rigorous as the one received in Gainesville, and firms, wanting access to this new talent pipeline, moved to the region and increased its capital base. A major selling point for this new university was its premier business school, which, led by Dean Richard Pegnetter, immediately started establishing relationships with local industry that reap benefits to this day.
FGCU’s College of Business eventually would be named for the Lutgert family, a fabulously productive and important Southwest Florida wealth creator, while Pegnetter’s leadership in expanding Southwest Florida’s human capital base was taken up by many of the people he hired or who followed him: Ara Volkan and Tanya Benford in accounting, Judy Wynekoop in information systems, Lee Kirche and Raj Srivastava in supply chain and logistics, and Shelton Weeks and Howard Finch in finance.
Pegnetter attracted investment and ownership in the Lutgert College by the many firms with a vested interest in its success. Both Moorings Park and Alico Inc. established eminent research chairs devoted to accounting, finance, marketing and logistics. Wasmer Schroeder funded the signature trading room from which Lutgert’s student-run Eagle Fund is managed, with the help of its Bloomberg terminals (provided thanks to the support of Schwab, which recently acquired Wasmer).
There are many, many other such investments and their stories will be told another time. For now, think of a key economic lesson of FGCU and the Lutgert College of Business’ role in leading the way to the regional economy of today. By establishing ourselves as a source of workforce-ready talent, whether in the areas of accounting, supply chain, finance, real estate, marketing, hospitality or even professional golf management, we justify capital investment that makes our region richer, creating opportunity and full careers in Southwest Florida that would not otherwise exist, or would have at least been sucked into the network of a distant and much less connected university.
This is how we take business personally, and it was all unforeseen by my friends and me that summer day after high school graduation. Today’s economy is more diversified, keeping talent that was previously lured away to other regions of the country, and I find cause for joy —and a little bit of irony—when meeting recent high school grads eager to work and establish themselves in careers in our region. They don’t know how difficult that would have been in the not-too-distant past, or the role of FGCU, the Lutgert College of Business, and many thousands of business leaders, educators and risk takers, in making it possible.
Hopefully, they read Gulfshore Business, and now they do.
Christopher Westley, Ph.D., is the dean of Florida Gulf Coast University’s Lutgert College of Business.