The New Establishment

The New Establishment

As one generation of leaders moves on, it’s time for a new, younger group to step up and make contributions in both the professional world and the community. These eight under-40 men and women are a testament to the future of the Emerald Coast. They often are put in the spotlight – and this is when they shine the brightest. Using their professional skills, each has taken an active role in making the Emerald Coast the best it can be. This year’s feature highlights the achievements that make these men and women leaders – now, and in the future. Profiles by Erica Bailey and Lori Hutzler Eckert


George Brannon Jr.: The ExecutiveGeorge Brannon Jr. describes himself as “the type of person who can’t sit still.” And judging by the 27-year-old businessman’s list of professional accomplishments, that statement is easy to believe.

Brannon, who is senior vice president of Southern Escrow and Title LLC, manages the day-to-day operations of the six-office company that facilitates real estate closings in Northwest Florida.

A native of Memphis, Tenn., Brannon grew up in the title and escrow business, learning from his father, George Brannon Sr., founder of Southern Escrow. However, the younger Brannon’s business experience has not been handed to him by virtue of a family legacy.

At the age of 19, Brannon was employed as a title abstractor while attending the University of Mississippi. A year later, he cofounded VannBrann Title Abstracting in Oxford, Miss. After two successful years, he sold his portion of the business to his partner and relocated to the Emerald Coast to join Southern Escrow.

Brannon also is a charter member and chairman of Emerald Coast Emerging Leaders, which is affiliated with the Destin and Walton County chambers of commerce. He and other community leaders formed the group as a business and social networking tool to recruit and retain young business talent on the Emerald Coast.

Brannon has embraced the area as his home over the past six years, and he described it as the perfect location for his young people to build a future.

“It’s a large community but it’s not,” he said. “You have an influx of people every week with tourism, and there are so many opportunities here.

 “And, of course,” he said with a laugh, “we live on the water – so what’s not to like?”


David Costa: The Franchise Owner

You’ve heard the old saw from your high school teachers – “If you don’t (finish school, get good grades, apply yourself, etc.), you’ll end up flipping burgers at McDonald’s.” For David Costa of Niceville, it’s not such a terrible fate. Costa worked as a night-shift manager during his high school days and now, at age 26, is a franchise owner/operator of a McDonald’s restaurant.

When Costa was 13, his father went through the process of opening a McDonald’s restaurant franchise – giving Costa a glimpse into what it takes to be a part of the restaurant business.

It wasn’t until his first year of college that he realized he wanted to pursue a future with the golden arches.

“When I was at the University of Florida, I came home and my dad was looking at opening another restaurant,” Costa said. “And that’s when I started thinking that maybe it would be smart for me to get involved in this.”

He returned to Niceville and graduated from the University of West Florida with a degree in business administration.

Working for the family business, Costa Enterprises, Costa got involved in the McDonald’s Corporation Next Generation program. After two years, he was approved as a McDonald’s owner/operator at the age of 23. In addition to being director of operations at Costa Enterprises, he owns Costa Family Investments and is the owner/operator of one location. Married to Jennifer and father to 8-month-old son Joseph, Costa sees many opportunities ahead of him.

“In 2000, we opened the second restaurant, and since then we’ve gone to eight restaurants in six years,” he said. “There’s so much potential (and) it’s a really unique, big thing to be a part of."


Joseph Rogers: The Beautifier

Joseph Rogers, award-winning hairstylist and owner of Avantgarde Salon & Spa in Destin, is one of those rare individuals who knew as a child exactly what he wanted to be when he grew up. By the age of 15, Rogers had enrolled in cosmetology school as part of a vocational program through Niceville High School.

“I never knew anything else,” he said. “By the time I was 16, I was working in a salon.”

At the age of 19, the path was paved for Rogers to leave the area and pursue a career in any number of metropolitan areas. Instead, he decided to open his own salon on the Emerald Coast.

“I love to travel to big cities, but I love living here,” he said. “I never had a desire to live away. And it doesn’t get much prettier than this.”

Rogers, now 28, remains committed to the Emerald Coast as a business owner. He is moving his salon, which has a staff of 20, to a new location in Destin. The future site, now under construction, will serve as the anchor store for the adjacent shopping plaza, offering twice the square footage of the current salon.

Rogers has become almost as well known for his charitable giving as he has for his expert skills as a stylist. He and his staff are active in contributing time and talents to local groups such as the Children’s Advocacy Center, Children in Crisis and the Mattie Kelly Arts Foundation.

“I feel like the community has been so good to us, being a small, locally owned business,” he said. “So we try to give back whenever we possibly can.”


Loretta Shaffer: The Promoter

Spend any time at all with Loretta Shaffer and it immediately becomes clear that she is passionate about promoting the Emerald Coast for all that it is and all it will be.

Director of sales and marketing for the Beaches of South Walton Tourist Development Council, Shaffer considers the area to be “Florida’s last frontier.” She uses her strong tourism industry experience to promote Walton County, which she feels has only begun to flourish.

Raised in Naples, Fla., Shaffer, 34, has built a career out of promoting Florida. Prior to joining the Tourist Development Council, she served as the marketing and promotions director for an entertainment attraction in Kissimmee, and as a public-relations representative for the Kissimmee-St. Cloud Convention & Visitors Bureau.

Shaffer relocated to the Emerald Coast four years ago to join the Beaches of South Walton Tourist Development Council.

“In moving here, I believed I could take the Beaches of South Walton to the next level to generate business for Walton County,” she said. “I instantly loved the product when I saw it and knew that it was more than undiscovered Florida – it is truly the crown jewel in the tiara.”

Shaffer manages the marketing research, advertising and sales functions for the Tourist Development Council.

“What an exciting time to be the director of marketing for the Beaches of South Walton – we are celebrating our 20th anniversary,” she said. “And I love leading the short- and long-term market strategies of the destination.”

While Shaffer successfully recruits millions of visitors annually, she said she keeps a steady eye focused on the future. In her words, “a world of opportunities” will open up as the Emerald Coast becomes further discovered. And with the energetic Shaffer spreading the word, that time is likely to be sooner rather than later.


Mary Kathryn Speake: The Banker

Mary Kathryn Speake graduated from college just two years ago. However, the young banking professional is well on her way to creating a lasting impression within the Emerald Coast business community.

Speake, 23, is a private banker and marketing director for GulfSouth Private Bank in Destin. The Eufaula, Ala., native, who graduated from Auburn University with a degree in communications, was hired in July 2005 to open the locally owned and operated bank.

For Speake, relocating to the Emerald Coast was an easy decision.

“I visited here my whole life and thought of the area as just a vacation place,” she said. “But I feel like I have found my home away from home; I found my niche here.”

In her dual role for the bank, which opened its doors in November 2005, Speake is gaining valuable experience.

“Being with a new and growing bank, everyone works very hard and wears a lot of hats,” she said. “It is really nice to be exposed to so many facets of the bank.”

In April 2006, Speake was honored by the Emerald Coast Emerging Leaders, an organization for young professionals created by the Destin and Walton County chambers of commerce. Speake was selected from a large group of her peers for best exemplifying the qualities of a young leader.

As Speake considers the future of the Emerald Coast, she sees her role as helping to build an even more vibrant community.

“One thing I would hope to do would be to bring more young professionals to this area,” she said. “It is an exciting time. The growth and vision for this area is just flourishing, and at the same time, there is a deep concern to preserve the heritage of Destin.”


Traci Stokes: The Volunteer

Traci Stokes says she was shy as a child. Obviously, the outgoing 34-year-old with the quick wit and contagious laugh has overcome any bashful tendencies as one of the Emerald Coast’s most active volunteers.

Stokes, deemed “Best Volunteer” for 2006 in Emerald Coast Magazine’s “Best of the Emerald Coast” readers’ poll, has become a recognizable name associated with numerous local civic and nonprofit groups. She said she gladly serves those groups to make a positive difference in the Emerald Coast, an area she has called home since 2000.

Through her job as marketing director of Silver Sands Factory Stores in Destin, Stokes has furthered her mission to support the community in a professional capacity.

“I do feel a sense of responsibility,” she said. “Silver Sands Factory Stores has been here for 15 years and is such a huge part of the community, so we are pleased to be contributing.”

When Stokes is not chairing committees, raising funds or organizing charitable events, she can be found giving of her time to students at Fort Walton Beach High School. Stokes teaches color-guard lessons to about 60 girls for 10 months a year and says the effort helps keep her grounded.

“Nothing is more humbling or motivating than working with high school kids,” she said. “It is a big part of who I am.”

With an overflowing schedule of commitments, Stokes happily noted that “other than being a little tired, I feel like I am just a little piece of a great machine with all the important initiatives that are enhancing this area.”


Jami Swift: The Animal Lover

The Emerald Coast has gone to the dogs, so to speak, and no one could be happier about that fact than Dr. Jami Swift, D.V.M.

With numerous local events centered around the wellbeing of our pets, as well as the many area businesses catering to their varied creature comforts, Swift, 29, said she’s proud of the Emerald Coast for its willingness to incorporate dogs, cats and other furry friends into our daily lives.

“I truly believe animals make your life better, and it shows in this community,” she said. “We are lucky to live in a place that gives us an outlet to share that part of our family with the rest of the world.”

Swift joined the staff of Destin’s Barry Veterinary Hospital after graduating from the Louisiana State University School of Veterinary Medicine in Baton Rouge in 2002. She said she “grew up everywhere,” including overseas for nine years, but selected the Emerald Coast as the place to make her home.

“I set up interviews along the Florida Gulf Coast, and this area was my favorite,” Swift said. “What keeps me here is that I just put my roots down. I enjoy the pace of life here – I don’t feel like it’s a rat race. I like the small-town feel with the large-town amenities.”

During her short time on the Emerald Coast, Swift has established a reputation as being not only knowledgeable and professional, but compassionate and understanding of both her patients and their owners as well.

Encouraged by the growth of the area, Swift said her wish for the Emerald Coast’s future includes the introduction of a no-kill animal shelter. And as the area evolves, she is dedicated to providing the best possible veterinary care.

“I see that I will continue to be a part of a community of people who will always value their pets – and I will be there for them.”


Mary Kathryn Wells: The Performer

For Mary Kathryn Wells, the Destin Commons lifestyle center is a stage.

Wells, who studied singing, dancing and piano from the age of 7, uses her multiple artistic talents in a business environment as director of marketing for the 550,000-square-foot open-air shopping plaza.

After receiving a bachelor’s of fine arts degree in 2000 from Brenau Women’s College in her home state of Georgia, Wells, 28, pursued a successful career in the performing arts. She focused on musical theater, even sharing the stage in a lead role for a year and a half with Dolly Parton at the country music legend’s Dollywood theme park in Tennessee.

But Wells was looking for a change when she vied with more than 60 applicants for the marketing position at Destin Commons in July 2003.

Calling the day she got the job offer a “pivotal moment,” she said that “I always thought I was a big-city girl, but I realized the Emerald Coast and Destin Commons is where I wanted to start building a career. I knew this was going to be a new beginning.”

Over the past three and a half years, Wells has managed the advertising, community development and tenant relations for the 80 stores and restaurants located at Destin Commons. She also uses her theater background in her job to the benefit of thousands of residents and visitors with programs such as the free live entertainment and Broadway performances she books at the center throughout the year.

“I think that performing is in my blood; I am very artistic and I have found ways through my position at Destin Commons to bring out the creative side,” she said.