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Up Close with Rob Panepinto

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Florentine Strategies & Orlando Inc. Board Chair

By Eric Wright

There is a growing conviction that entrepreneurs who start, scale and ultimately have successful exits in a particular region are often the most passionate and committed to investing back into their community. It is what the legendary Charlie Gray of Gray/Robinson calls, “Paying your civic rent.” It can be seen in Austin with Michael Dell and in Las Vegas by Zappos founder Tony Hsieh. One needs to go no further to find the legitimacy of this claim than Rob Panepinto, President of Florentine Strategies and Chair of the Orlando Inc. Board. Panepinto helped grow a fledgling company called Magnetix into the highly successful technology and business process outsourcing company Connextions, providing healthcare consumer engagement solutions, which now is a part of OptumHealth.

I grew up in New York City and my first job out of college was in Times Square, before it looked like it does today, pre-Giuliani and pre-Bloomberg. My parents had moved to Orlando and my wife and I would come down on vacation. After a couple of visits we asked ourselves, ‘What are we doing taking a subway an hour and half to work every day?’ I had two weeks’ vacation and used that time to do a job search and found something in the simulation sector; to run a contract the company had won to build an interactive tourist kiosk in the Orange County Convention Center.

When the center expanded they didn’t want to extend our contract; that is when I joined the team at Magnetix. Some very savvy entrepreneurs had bought it in ‘92 and soon saw the handwriting on the wall that the technology was aging (cassette tapes) and realized their real expertise and future was in services, not manufacturing. Jack LeFort the CEO, who was a great mentor to me and anticipated the trend of moving from B to B towards B to C. We saw the growing importance of a direct to consumer relationship on the horizon, particularly in healthcare and leveraged that initially with Florida Hospital and then with Blue Cross Blue Shield of Florida, to develop their first branded website selling individual policies online.

Hitching Up to a Shooting Star

None of us, at the beginning, foresaw that the journey would end where it did. I knew these were extremely bright and insightful guys and I had a sense that this was an opportunity to be a part of something that could become far bigger than myself. We saw that if we could get into the consumer services side it would take off, but we were doing less than one million at the time and there were fits and starts.

I wish I could claim I was self-aware enough in my twenties to say, ‘I’m an entrepreneur.’ I do realize I have always been more of a ‘builder’ than a ‘maintainer.’ I was never a big business corporate type of guy, though I learned and enjoyed being part of a Fortune 10 company after the acquisition.

Moving forward, that thought of doing something that is greater than yourself and the desire to make an impact is clear. I think it was more of an intuitive attraction when I was young, it was definitely a trigger. That is why mentors are important in bridging the gap with our own self-actualization.

Civic Rent

I began to really think about my place in the community, rather just in our corporation, after the private equity transaction. We were at a point where the business was certainly sustainable; we had 1,100 employees in Orlando and I felt it was time to give back, particularly to this community because it had been so good to me. I moved here knowing no one but my parents; Orlando is a very welcoming place that says, ‘If you want to contribute, we would love to have you.’ In New York that is not the case.

I called the CEO of the zoo in Sanford and volunteered to be on the board and I loved it. A friend introduced me to Mark Brewer and I became involved in the Central Florida Foundation, which connected the various sectors public, private and independent for me.

From there things began to crystallize around the economic development issues driving the future of Orlando and entrepreneurialism. That is really where I want to give back, to help young people who are building their businesses to do what we were able to do. That pays special dividends personally and in the community.

When it comes to economic development I strongly believe in farming, growing our business base, as well as hunting. When a company is headquartered here you have the corporate heart of the organization versus just an operational center. To me the economic impact of a startup that grows to 100, 150, 200 people has a much greater multiplier effect than a much larger number of jobs being relocated here. I didn’t read that in a study; it is what my gut tells me. But don’t misunderstand we need both; the corporate community is extremely committed to the area. Those who have been successful here and have made it our home want the community to be successful as a whole.

Steering Central Florida’s Future

The Central Florida Partnership’s ‘Regional Priorities’ I think are just that; the priorities all of us should focus on. Talent pipeline, transportation, capital, which I am focused on and international business are exactly where we need to collectively work.

As Chair of Orlando Inc. I hope to see the tech startup community better connected to Orlando Inc. as an organization. Jim Thomas, Carlos Carbonell, Greg Pollack and others are now on our Board. That community needs to connect to the larger community in terms of management expertise, capital and clients. What made us successful at Connextions was developing our relationship with Florida Hospital and Blue Cross Blue Shield. That big to small connectivity is vital; organizations like the Chamber should be able to do that. If someone is at Canvs I want them to be thinking how to leverage the relational connections we can make to help their businesses grow.

There is also a whole different opportunity for entrepreneurial accelerators for those that are in the independent, non-profit space, like Ben Hoyer’s coffee shop Credo. There you pay whatever you think you should for the coffee and after he covers his overhead, he gives the rest to non-profits. He says, ‘All I want to do is make Orlando the best place in the world to live.’ I guess that is what I want to do as well.’

World Chamber’s Commerce

If Orlando can become the site of the International Chambers of Commerce World Chambers Congress, it is another step in taking our place in the global economy; that we are more than a place to visit. This is the opportunity to, as the EDC says, ‘See the other half of it.’ When international business leaders come and see the Port, the Space Center, Medical City, the airport and the new downtown venues, it showcases our region in a unique way. Also, if the Association of Chamber of Commerce Executives has their convention here, in conjunction with the World Chamber, that will be historic.

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