One on One with Linda South
Luke & Associates’ VP of Commercial Services
by Eric Wright
Performance and motivational guru Tony Robbins once said, “The meeting of preparation with opportunity generates the offspring we call luck.” Winston Churchill further clarified this phenomena when he added, “A pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity; an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty.” Few individuals in this community have seized opportunities and met challenges with optimism, innovation and an adherence to her core principles like Linda South. From being the Secretary of the Florida Department of Management Services in Tallahassee during the administrations of Jeb Bush and Charlie Crist, to managing a Tire & Auto dealer and starting an automotive machine shop, South has done it all.
SCB: Your professional journey reads like a Horatio Alger story. What were the key elements that helped you navigate your way?
LS: I’m a ‘hometown honey.’ My parents met in Brevard and, though we moved around as a part of my father’s military career, he retired here in time for me to attend Edgewood Jr. High and graduate from Merritt Island High. After high school, I was in banking and did some sales, but at 26, I was hired by Dean Witter, which later became Morgan Stanley. My dad had encouraged me to invest as a teen, so I was highly interested in the stock market.
The opportunity that opened was amazing – the EEOC (Equal Employment Opportunity Commission) obligated them to increase the number of higher income women in their company. As a result of the suit, they had an outreach responsibility, which caught my attention in a women’s business magazine. And I said to myself, ‘That sounds like me,’ and I believed it was me. They were looking for skill sets I thought I had.
SCB: So were you aware of these skills?
LS: Not really, I just had a great deal of optimism so I pursued it diligently and aggressively. It was a phenomenal opportunity and though it was challenging, I loved every minute of it. There have been other doors that have opened throughout my life, but this was the first. I learned about the financial markets, compliance and professional sales techniques, plus I was in a position to meet some fabulous people. I believed that if I could get my client past the fact that I was a girl, in my 20’s, we could do great work together, and that what I offered with my honest and straightforward approach would prove to be a great benefit.
SCB: This was in the mid to late 80’s, so how did you navigate being a woman in that very male-dominated field?
LS: There were five women stockbrokers at the time in Brevard and there was certainly reluctance, on the part of female as well as male clients. At times, they did go to the manager and ask for someone else, but I always saw that as their loss. I built my book of business by doing educational seminars and by developing an expertise in tax sheltered investments. Also I built relationships with other professionals, like CPAs and lawyers, who understood the value of my specialty and that they were a great source of potential referrals. I wanted my clients to not only win in the market, but to keep what they won.
SCB: But then you left that to manage a Tire & Auto shop. Why?
LS: My husband’s family business was growing and I wanted to spend more quality time with my son, so I went from selling stocks to selling shocks.
SCB: So you actually were involved on the sales side?
LS: In a small business you have to do everything. Actually, in any business there are two main skills you need. First, the deep domain knowledge of the service or product you are selling and, secondly, knowledge of the business side that enables you to deliver that service or product efficiently.
My husband was an expert in the technical side and I brought the business acumen. What appealed to me was the business was changing – as tires became more technically advanced, their life was extended dramatically. When we first started, a set of tires lasted 25,000 miles, but now that number has doubled. Therefore, we had to reevaluate the lifecycle of our sales or we would be at risk. So we went from 85 percent tires and 15 percent service to, by the time I left, 15 percent tires and 85 percent service, which changed the fabric of the organization for the better.
SCB: How did you know that transition was coming?
LS: I was a voracious reader of the trade journals and became involved with the trade association, where I met Pam Gatto, who was also a very successful woman in a man’s world. She became an incredible mentor to me. The whole industry had to adapt to the transition or go out of business. Certainly during that time there were customers that came in and wanted to talk to a man, but I was a quick learner and projected the idea, ‘You’re going to benefit by doing business with me.’
There was a lot of crossover from the investment business. Explaining investments to non-investors is a lot like explaining cars to people who aren’t mechanics; I was an interpreter, which was what I became wherever I went.
SCB: You left to lead, for the next ten years, what eventually became Brevard Workforce and founded the Dynamic Works Institute.
LS: I had an unfortunate experience with a potential employee from the Job Board that motivated me to get involved and I ended up as an employer representative on the State’s Private Industry Council. I let all my other volunteer work go in order to focus on this one area that I felt was so crucial to the whole business community and could make everyone’s life better. The operation was in a transition and by that time I was serving as the Chairman of the Board. Our executive director was forced to leave and my board asked me to serve as the executive director, for what I thought was a short period of time, 90 days. But I never made it back to the automotive business.
I became extraordinarily engaged in the business of workforce development, and loved it. After those 90 days, I told the board they needed to find someone else. I agreed to stay on for six months, at a minimum salary level, but at the end of that time they decided I was best suited for the job and I spent 10 years there. We created the Brevard Job Link, which was the first of its kind and introduced a number of innovations that I am so proud of today. We worked with welfare reform and helped people walk through the doors of prosperity, which many had never experienced. The goal was to focus on every job, every person, every time.
SCB: But then you went to Tallahassee?
LS: Following the ‘04 and ‘05 hurricane season, I knew we had built something that added incredible value to the community. But after 10 years I was ready for a new challenge. I had completed my undergraduate degree, was working on my MBA at Rollins and felt I had a larger role to play at the State level.
I graduated from Rollins on Saturday and was in Jeb Bush’s office on Monday as the Director of the Agency of Workforce Innovation, which some States call the Secretary of Labor. I served him in that capacity for a year until his term expired; then he encouraged me that my job wasn’t completed and Charlie Crist offered me the position as the Secretary of the Florida Department of Management Services.
After 4 years in that capacity, I was ready to come back to Brevard. I didn’t know where I would go from there; I was interviewing all over the country and though my heart was here, I didn’t expect to find the kind of position I was looking for. Then [Luke & Associates CEO] Jim Barfield approached me about being their VP of Commercial Services and it has been a wonderful fit.
SCB: What is the biggest difference you see between the private business world and the political/governmental world?
LS: People underestimate just how hard the job of our elected officials really is. Frankly, when I went to Tallahassee there were some areas where I was pretty naive. Though there are many similarities between business and government, the biggest adjustment I had to make or learn was that in the corporate world cash was king. In the political world power is king. Regrettably, due to the nature of politics, often compromises are made which don’t always serve the best interests of all the people. That is where I was naïve.
SCB: What have been some of the primary life lessons you have learned over the journey you have described?
LS: Always be curious because learning opportunities are presenting themselves all the time. The complexities and the pace of knowledge growth demands that we are lifelong learners.
Second, take care of others’ needs before your own; if you do, in most cases, yours will be taken care of. To put it another way, don’t forget the customer. Though in my career the application changed, that core principle didn’t change.
Third, you have to pay attention to the numbers and processes, from business to nonprofit to the government sector; the debits and credits have to balance or you can’t get anything done.
SCB: Some people would have melted under these pressures and the biases you ran up against. How did you not only survive, but thrive?
LS: I’m a real high energy person so I was comfortable with all the demands. Also, I am a learning animal, and you have to feed that animal. For me, these different professional environments stirred something inside me. To be honest, being a young woman in the brokerage business was hard. If that environment had been like it is today, I might have stayed in that arena but I would never have had the incredible experiences that ensued. I am not motivated by money; I talk about the bottom line because that is necessary to achieve the mission, but what motives me is the mission. My story is not ‘This girl succeeded,’ instead it is ‘Helping people helped me succeed.’
A respected author and speaker, Eric Wright is the assignment editor for SpaceCoast Business magazine.