A CFO for the Sunshine State

Florida elects a CFO. Plus: Racing rockets.
Kate O'SullivanDecember 1, 2006

Little noticed amid the upheaval of the November elections was that rarest of things: a race for CFO. The citizens of Florida elected Democrat Adelaide “Alex” Sink, the former president of Bank of America’s Florida operations, as the state’s new finance chief. She edged out departing state Senate president Tom Lee.

Sink, the first woman and only Democrat to serve in the state’s cabinet since its 2003 reorganization, will oversee some 2,700 people and a budget of $300 million. Florida, the only state that elects a CFO, combined the positions of comptroller and state treasurer to reduce the size of the cabinet.

Like her peers in the corporate world, Sink will monitor the state’s funds and supervise risk management and accounting. But she’ll also handle some responsibilities that her corporate counterparts do not. Twelve major state divisions report directly to the CFO, including the Funeral and Cemeteries division and the State Fire Marshal. “The job is in line with the governor’s in terms of the breadth of responsibilities,” says Lance deHaven-Smith, professor of public policy at Florida State University.

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Educating voters about the post was a major campaign challenge. The CFO position was so unfamiliar that pundits called it “the UFO.” But Sink, after trailing by double digits early in the race, proved adept at effecting a turnaround. Among other novel strategies, she encouraged supporters to hold “Running in Heels” parties to help women candidates. Attendees received lapel pins featuring a pair of gold stilettos.

Not that it was all razzle-dazzle. “I ran on a platform of being a very strong fiscal watchdog for the people’s money,” says Sink, who augmented a 26-year banking career with some positive public exposure during her husband’s unsuccessful 2002 gubernatorial campaign. Sink says she will make Florida’s property-insurance crisis a top priority, and has proposed creating a regional catastrophe fund that would include coastal states from Texas to Maine.

Rocket Man

Imagine a sport where pilots fly rockets into the heavens while thousands of spectators follow the action on high-tech monitors. Granger Whitelaw has, and he is so confident in the idea that he founded the Rocket Racing League. In fact, the company plunked down $2.33 million for 170 acres near the Las Cruces International Airport in New Mexico, where it plans to build a 50,000-square-foot industrial center. “Think Indy cars in the sky,” says Whitelaw.

While the CEO won’t say how much capital is invested in the project, he estimates revenue of $10 million by next year and $150 million by 2010. With three teams already on board, the first rocket race could take place as early as next August.

Meanwhile, RRL is recruiting aerospace and navigation entities to lease space and set up shop at the New Mexico site. Whitelaw hopes to build an “industry cluster” for aerospace development that will not only enhance rocket racing but also create technology that is broadly applicable to aviation companies and the burgeoning space industry. “It will be a place where the aero industries, including our own research division, can test components in a repetitive environment using professional drivers and receive professional feedback,” Whitelaw says.

Would-be rocket-racing fans will have to see whether RRL has the right stuff to get the ambitious venture off the ground. — Laura DeMars