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7 Strong Women Of Martin and St. Lucie Counties Who Led Their Communities Through Tough Crises

When trouble strikes an institution, sound and solid leadership is vital to navigate a crisis. While men may lead most businesses in the marine, aviation, agribusiness and life science industries in Martin and St. Lucie counties, we can’t overlook the women who have carried many of our institutions through troubled times. Whether crises in real estate, municipal debt, county budgets, natural disasters or gang violence, these women weathered the storm following these five principles: collaboration, communication, commitment, consultation and compassion.

Collaboration: We trumps me

A licensed optician and vice president for National Vision, Michelle Lee Berger ran for Port St. Lucie Council in 2004. Hoping her campaign would shift the political debate toward issues impacting families, the wife and mother of two boys wasn’t expecting to win. Victory surprised her; and more would follow.

A few years earlier, the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, gripped the nation with shock, sorrow and a fear that affected everything—including the economy. One small city defied the slide. Under the headline, “Bad Times? Not in a Thriving Florida Town,” a Jan. 21, 2002 New York Times story described Port St. Lucie as “one place in the country that is escaping the current recession.”

The city’s rise was meteoric. Affordable home prices. Active construction. Torrey Pines Institute moves to town. Vaccine & Gene Therapy Institute (VGTI) follows. Digital Domain Media Group splashes on the scene, pursuing top talent to make movies. Each garners funding from state and city tax dollars and incentives.

Then, the 2008 recession took shape, unfurling the scope of the subprime lending crisis. Home foreclosures soared. In the fall of 2012, Digital Domain filed for bankruptcy protection, laying off 300 people. In 2013, Liberty Medical Supply, which employed more than 1,000, filed bankruptcy. This spring, VGTI announced its financial problems. In June, QVC announced the closing of its call center. Now, the city’s debt exceeds $900 million—a third from soured economic development projects.

“It’s all a very stark reminder that we don’t operate in a vacuum,” Berger says.

Such drastic swings of fortune humble the decision-making process, Berger says, who earned a master’s in public administration since joining the council.

“When there’s a crisis, there’s no room for ego,” she says. “When there’s a crisis, you need every brain operating and collaborating. I never expect to have all the answers, but I try to surround myself with fact-finding people and fact-based people.”

Thick skin is vital to survive the fishbowl of Port St. Lucie politics, which attracts sharp media scrutiny.

“You have to be willing to be ridiculed and targeted during (council) brainstorming events,” she says. “In a business environment, you’re usually behind closed doors with five or 10 people and that old adage, ‘No idea is a bad idea’ is very comforting in that environment.”

Taryn Kryzda stepped up from assistant administrator to acting administrator for Martin County in 2007. The county budget started deflating before the real-estate bubble popped. Increased homestead exemptions, commercial tax-rate caps and property tax reform cost the county millions in funding and revenue sharing.

“But no one anticipated the reduction in property values,” Kryzda says, now a 28-year veteran of Martin County government. “The board at the time was trying to avoid raising taxes while still meeting the mandated reductions required by the state.”

The worsening economy spiked unemployment and foreclosures. Following the former county commission majority’s direction to provide as much relief as possible, Kryzda cut $20 million in taxes and $50 million in additional expenditures. All told, more than 130 county positions were eliminated—85 voluntary separations and early retirements, the remainder unfilled vacancies.

The fallout still lingers. Kryzda says the last commission was only beginning to realize the maintenance obligation of its expanding infrastructure. That backlog has mushroomed to $250 million—growing by $15 to $18 million every year.

To address the debt, the current county commission majority—elected in 2012—faces tough choices. Having already allocated increases to ad valorem taxes, the board is exploring assessment fees for fire, stormwater and roads, Kryzda says.

“Unless we can put more than $15 million aside each year, we’re not making a dent in the backlog,” she says.

Communication: Quickly and clearly

The 2004 and 2005 hurricanes of Frances, Jeanne and Wilma wreaked damage across the state and left millions without power. Since then, Florida Power & Light has invested in hardened essential infrastructure, improved technology and refined response procedures.

“FPL has an army of highly skilled and committed restoration specialists that are out there working on the power lines and the transformers,” Amy Brunjes says, external affairs manager for FPL. “After a storm, my job is to make sure the community knows what they’re doing because the crews can’t be in two places at once.”

Brunjes, it often seems, can be in two places at once. With a schedule that would exhaust a socialite, she attends governmental meetings, chamber functions and charity events across Martin and St. Lucie counties. But her mission is straightforward: “Being there, being everywhere and being present and participating in the priorities of the community and contributing time, treasure and talent,” she says.

A former journalist for The Miami Herald, South Florida Sun-Sentinel, The Palm Beach Post and Scripps Treasure Coast Newspapers, Brunjes is the FPL point person in reporting damage and providing updates on efforts to expedite restoration.

FPL annually conducts exercises that simulate a major storm striking in its service area and readies resources to roll out as early as 72 hours in advance of landfall. Once the “storm” subsides, rapid restoration efforts begin.

“You can’t eliminate outages altogether when there’s a hurricane,” she says. “There’s going to be outages. Because of the investment we’ve made in strengthening our infrastructure and electric grid—that results in the power being restored sooner.”

Commit completely

Stunning marina. Historic downtown. Venues that draw world-class entertainment. These are all attributes any municipality would crave. Yet, the notoriety of a few city blocks garners the most headlines. And the repercussions are horrendous.

“My heart aches for 2-year-old Ma’Kelia (Burkes),” Diane Hobley-Burney says of the little girl killed in April in her Fort Pierce home by a passerby. “Justice for Ma’Kelia must happen—and not just for Ma’Kelia, but the other victims of crime in Fort Pierce.”

Hobley-Burney is newly charged with upholding that justice. The first African-American woman to serve as the city’s police chief, Hobley-Burney created some success working with communities plagued by gang violence and police distrust.

In seeking out Hobley-Burney, Mayor Linda Hudson recognized the root causes of Fort Pierce’s stubborn crime and commanded grassroots solutions. Raised in Fort Pierce, Hudson left for Chicago with her late husband for 25 years and worked for the American Medical Association. She returned and immediately got involved with the community before being elected mayor in 2012.

“We’re in the throes of a situation that is being perpetrated by less than 300 gang members and wanna-be gang members in a neighborhood where most of the people are law-abiding and don’t want them there either,” she says. “Fort Pierce is much bigger than those areas. Unfortunately, when you Google Fort Pierce, that’s what you see.”

To get gang violence under control, Fort Pierce aims to capture gang leaders, intervene with kids headed for gang activity and direct them toward positive substitutes such as the Boys and Girls Club, social services and volunteerism.

“I go down to Avenue D,” Hudson says. “I go to all the different churches. I go by myself. I go there at night. I’m not afraid. I don’t go there at 2 in the morning—but I don’t go anywhere at 2 in the morning. I know our city is safe. The rest of the world doesn’t known that our city is safe.”

With Hobley-Burney’s help, she hopes to change that.

Consultation: Heed sound advice

All the training, seminars and books on crisis leadership fail to instruct as effectively as example. For Jennifer Atkisson-Lovett, the example was her mom, Mary Ann Villalva. In 1980, her mom opened RE/MAX of Stuart, only the third franchise in Florida. “Experts” pronounced its doom.

But Villalva was unbowed by bleak prognosis or bitter circumstance. A coal-miner’s daughter, Villalva grew up as one of six in a rural Pennsylvania home with no running water. Cramped conditions forced her to move out at age 13 and work as a family caretaker. She taught her three children wisdom and work ethic.

“[Villalva] told me that success doesn’t come easy—and there’s no free lunch,” says Atkisson-Lovett, who at age 12 regularly cleaned the RE/MAX office.

After graduating college and enduring long hours and little pay in retail in Atlanta, Atkisson-Lovett decided to pursue her interest in real estate. Joining her mom, Atkisson-Lovett learned from the best. Her mom prepared her for the swings of a commission-only salary. Agent Patrick Stracuzzi taught her to escape her comfort zones. Agent Priscilla Sawicki taught her to balance business with life.

From 2002 to 2008, RE/MAX of Stuart sold millions of dollars in real estate, peaking at $300 million in sales in 2005. Brokerages everywhere flourished. As others extended overhead, Villalva and Atkisson-Lovett saved.

“As I knew from my 35 years, what goes up must come down,” Villalva says. “It just went up too fast. Fortunately I was smart enough to be prepared. And you better be prepared for the downtime.”

Compassion: Give without expectation

As the market crumbled, RE/MAX of Stuart lost 50 percent of its agents. But Atkisson-Lovett and Villalva refused to raise fees on those who remained. Instead, they dispatched their team leaders to Washington to meet with officials from Housing and Urban Development to learn about short sales. They upgraded the office with better technology and later opened a Palm City office.

The investments paid off. Last year, RE/MAX of Stuart sold more real estate than any other brokerage in Martin County, its 55 agents closing on $308 million in sales.

“My mom always instilled in me, ‘You’re only as good as your agents.’ In their loyalty, work ethic and results, we’re blessed with some amazing agents,” Atkisson-Lovett says.

Giving credit and hogging blame—such are the hallmarks of true crisis leadership, Berger says, who’s relieved at the recent sale of Tradition Studios (formerly Digital Domain) to Christ Fellowship.

“I’m standing up for my city. We’re going to get through this,” she says. “When things are bad you have to be willing to stand out front and say things are bad, but let me tell you why and what’s going to happen next. When things are good, you put your team out front and let them tell you why things are good.”

Trusting the people who serve under you—particularly during tough times—empowers their potential over the long haul, Kryzda says.

“I tried not to tell the department heads where they should be making reductions,” she says of the downturn. “If I’d just gone in there and started cutting, I effectively just whacked them at the knees and now they have to deal with it—and that’s not fair. Having worked in Martin County as long as I have ... I’ve been able to build a trust that I think has been very helpful for staff and for the residents.”

Accountability and relatability go a long way in restoring people’s confidence (even if their power’s not yet restored).

“When people are frustrated, we’re patient, we’re understanding and we’re empathetic,” Brunjes says. “Chances are, we’re going through the same things. My power doesn’t come on any faster because I work at FPL. … By being so many places in the community year-round, hopefully I’m a trusted and familiar source. Then when our customers are dealing with the frustrations of having their power out, it’s just a matter of letting people know that we understand and we’re working feverishly to get things back to normal.”

Showing up often—no matter the conditions, weather or otherwise—builds trust that calms nerves and can save lives.

“The first step is getting in the community,” Hobley-Burney says. “They have to see not only that we’re human, but that we’re there to protect them. … And they’ll be able to trust us more when crimes occur.”