No one knows Palm Beach County like Kelly Smallridge.
Born and raised in Palm Springs, her passion and deep roots in the community shows in her commitment to her job: Smallridge has worked for the county's economic development agency for nearly 25 years – the last eight as CEO and president.
Along the way she has helped Palm Beach County's Business Development Board forge strong alliances locally, regionally and nationally. Since 2006, Palm Beach has added nearly 14,000 jobs from companies that have relocated to the area or expanded even as the region waded through the housing crisis and recession. Those companies have made a total capital investment of nearly $656 million.
"I think she's one of the best not only in Florida but in the country," said Bob Swindell, who leads the Greater Fort Lauderdale Alliance, Broward County's economic development agency.
For her entrepreneurial success and community involvement, Smallridge won the Sun Sentinel Co.'s 2012 Excalibur Award for Small Business Leader of the Year in Palm Beach County. The award was presented Thursday evening at the Boca Raton Resort & Club.
"She's earned the respect of everyone in her industry," said Troy McLellan, president of Greater Boca Raton Chamber of Commerce. "When you represent a county that's as big as Palm Beach, bigger than the state of Rhone Island, with all its diversity, that takes a very special person.... She has done an amazing job."
Swindell said Smallridge is particularly innovative, citing her recent strategy to contact CEOs with second homes in Palm Beach County to intrigue them to expand their business operations here.
Smallridge is the daughter of Larry Anders, who was once design chief for Pratt & Whitney near Jupiter, overseeing development of engines for military jets including the F-16 and F-22. Her mother Mary was a teacher and later operated the London Daisy Private School in Palm Springs, where Kelly helped out as a youngster.
"I was responsible for filling out the bank deposit slips and learning how to balance the books," she recalls.
Smallridge, 46, began working for the BDB in 1988, within a week of graduating with from the University of Florida. Colleagues describe her as a hard worker. One early example: she spent the night on the couch at the office when she was in her 20s, in order to get all her work done. Her father would bring her dinner.
She married her husband Mark Smallridge and in the following years was often seen with a baby in tow at the office. As their family grew to three boys, her mother watched the children during the week. "My parents have always been extremely supportive," she said.
That support system has allowed her to pursue a career that had been dominated by males.
Today, Gov. Rick Scott often points to Smallridge as an example of how an economic development agency should be run.
"Kelly is a strong advocate for bringing business to our state. She is committed to economic development in South Florida and I am proud of the jobs she has brought to our state," Scott said.
In 2012, Smallridge was chosen as the Enterprise Florida's board representative for local agencies statewide. Board members say among Smallridge's strengths are hiring and team-building. She manages a team of 15 at the BDB.
"Kelly and her staff – that's a fine-honed machine," said Rex Kirby, chair of the Business Development Board.
The team is known for its quick response to companies considering an expansion into the county.
"Within 24 hours they called back. They consistently follow up," said board member Val Perez, regional vice president at TD Bank.
Last year, Smallridge was instrumental in retaining jobs at Pratt, which was particularly rewarding given her father's history with the company. Ultimately, parent company United Technologies Corp. decided to launch a new jet engine production line creating 230 jobs, ensuring work for future generations.
Another big win for Smallridge was Aldi's decision in 2011 to open a 500,000 square foot office and warehouse in the Village of Royal Palm Beach, which will become the discount grocer's division headquarters.
The BDB, a not-for-profit corporation that receives 40 percent of its funding from the county and the rest from its 370 members, has a $2.4 million annual budget. That's smaller than many agencies around the state, Smallridge said, so she has to be creative.
Last year she convinced mortgage processing firm Digital Risk that the county was the best place for its new Florida office by working with employment agency Workforce Alliance to provide pre-qualified job candidates.
That proactive move "got them over the finish line," Kirby said.
The financial services firm now has plans to add up to 450 new jobs, in addition to the 150 announced last June.
More recently, Smallridge saw an opportunity and wrote letters to 30 Wall Street companies and that caught the attention of the New York Post, Fox News, and CNBC. "It was a frenzy of media activity but it has landed us 40 or 50 leads," she said.
Smallridge said she soon expects to show results in the form of at least one new company moving to the county.
But Smallridge said she always makes sure the CEO is the "real deal." She's skeptical, for example, when the first question asked has to do with financial incentives the county has to offer. Tax breaks and other incentives are useful when a company is considering multiple locations, she said, but incentives "shouldn't make or break a deal."
POSITION: President and CEO, Business Development Board of Palm Beach County
PERSONAL: Married to Mark; with three children Grant (19); Cole (17) and Rhett (11).
EDUCATION: University of Florida, bachelor's degree in public relations, 1988
CAREER HIGHLIGHTS: Joined BDB in 1988; became president and CEO in 2004
COMMUNITY INVOLVEMENT: Mentors girls at Wellington High School, board member of Family Promise, Workforce Alliance and Enterprise Florida.
HOBBIES: Spends her free time watching her sons play football, lacrosse and basketball.