At just six years old, Bridgette Bello was published for the first time, launching her career into the print media space. Today, Bridgette is the CEO and Publisher of Tampa Bay Business and Wealth Magazine, a print and digital publication redefining the way media is consumed in the Tampa Bay Region. We were lucky enough to secure a spot on her busy calendar to ask a few questions. Read below to learn more about how Bridgette found success in the print media space, the immense impact she is making on her community, and her deep love for Tampa Bay and the people who inhabit it.
- Did you know from day one that you wanted to be in the print media industry? Tell us a bit about how your career started.
I did know from day one, actually. I love telling this story! My parents owned a business when I was a little girl and I actually did a piece for class when I was 6 years old that one of their clients ended up turning into his television commercial. So, at 6 years old, I was published for the first time. But I went to school for journalism, I was the editor at both my collages newspapers, my first real job was at a newspaper, and yeah, I just always knew that that was what I wanted to do.
- What was the commercial for?
I think it was for a gutter guy… and it was a story I wrote about what it was like to be a raindrop and he turned it into something to do with the gutter! Clearly, I don’t remember super well, my mother tells the story better but that was the first time that something I did was run in some sort of media stream.
- What made you decide to start your own publication?
I have to be a little careful answering this one… in my previous life, I was in the business news media and really felt like the direction of news, in general, was going the wrong way and felt like I could do it better. So as an industry, once they started paying reporters to get people to click on their stories and to pay for that content, I think that’s really where the general news media lost their way and how we ended up where we are today. So much opinion, so much sensationalism and salaciousness. We really chose, when we started TBBW to still be a news organization, we still break news, we still look for strong content partnerships, and make sure we are relevant without being “fluffy.” But we chose the news we WANT to cover and we chose not to participate in the negativity. Ya know, businesses shutting down, companies laying off people, lawsuits, all those kinds of things that we feel aren’t good for the Tampa Bay region. We chose to write about things that are positive about Tampa Bay and things that we feel can make a positive impact from an economic perspective.
- What has been the hardest part about starting TBBW Mag? How did you overcome the hurdles?
I think the hardest part was the number of people who tried to tell us that print is dead and that we were crazy to be launching a print publication in 2018. That still is a hurdle quite honestly! We have these similar conversations with agencies that just don’t have print media budgets anymore. But really, what we found is that with the right audience and the right idea, the right relationships and reputation, people will take a chance on you. And they have taken a chance on us! That is what we love about this community. We say all the time that if we had picked up and moved to Austin it would have been a whole lot more difficult than it has been. In this community, everyone has really rallied around us and been really amazing so nothing but love for Tampa Bay!
- How are you, and more specifically TBBW Mag, currently involved in the real estate industry?
The real estate industry, and specifically commercial real estate, has always been a really big part of not only my business but also my coverage. I just spoke for the local CREW Tampa Bay Chamber last week and I was talking about how when I joined business media I had to learn, basically baptism by fire. I would sit in these meetings and they’d throw terms like cap rates, and REITs, and I would sit there and nod and look cute and smile, then go back to the office and go, “What the hell is a cap rate!” Keep in mind this was 1999 so Google wasn’t a thing. I would literally sit with my commercial real estate reporter and say, “Teach me!” A big part of one of the lessons that stuck with me was that when a new person in the media comes to town, be the one to educate them. Be the person that makes them not feel stupid. In that case, you are likely to be a person that they will count on and trust for the rest of their career. It was also a turning point in my career when I was appointed to take over the Tampa Bay region from a business news perspective; they sent me here in 2007. 2007 was not good from an economic perspective. Commercial real estate went from being almost 50% of my news revenue, to in one day, the spigot being shut off. There is one guy here who is kind of a legend, his name is Lee Arnold, and he’s always been someone who is ahead of the game. He took me to his office in 2008 and showed me his big Smart TV and started talking to me about how the Internet was going to change the industry. It seems like it was a long time ago but it was just 15 years ago. Commercial real estate really left the print media industry that had been relied on in the past and ventured into the digital world. So, it has been a big part of my career and it impacts the whole economy. When commercial real estate slows down, residential real estate slows down, and everybody knows to watch out. I hope to always hold some expertise and relationships in the industry.
- How has the current state of the market affected your business? Where do you see things 3-6 months from now?
We are in really good shape! We have had a really strong start to the year. We hit 70% of our annual budget before the end of the first quarter. So, our outlook is really rosy. I think nationally things are probably different. Certainly, what we are seeing from a layoffs perspective and large corporations that are starting to cut staff by the thousands, certainly means we are headed into tougher times. But, you know, going back to what I said about how amazing this community is, I think we are going to be fine. I think Tampa Bay is going to be fine. There is so much development and fire in the belly, so much growth, so many people moving here, so many companies moving here that I really think this is going to be a blip on the radar. I hope that doesn’t come back to bite me! I can speak from the great recession standpoint and say we were the last to go into a recession and we were the first ones to come out of it. And I know that because the company I was working for had markets across the country and we slowed down way after other markets and saw the comeback way sooner. I was back to my pre-2007 numbers by 2010 and most of the country was not back to that at that time. You know, maybe those Indian burial grounds that keep the hurricanes away from us also keep the economic hard times away from us too. Ha! I am never moving anywhere else. This community is reliant and full of amazing people who will say, “I don’t care about the circumstances anywhere else; I am not leaving.”
- What is your favorite thing to write about or document in your magazine?
Oh! Umm… we love the fun stuff! Getting to write about travel, fine dining… we have a section called “The Good Life” where we highlight fun stuff, whether it’s the new Louis or Rolls coming to the market. We also have a “Luxe Life” section where we highlight experiences, that may be kind of ridiculous for most people but for those who are wealthy, its nothing to pay $1,000 for someone to set up a cabana for you at the beach so you don’t have to lug all your stuff down there yourself, right? So, we get to write about really neat, fun things that not everyone gets to experience. But, certainly, our coverage of local businesses is extremely important. I think we have had a commitment to our readers from the very beginning that the people we put on the cover aren’t the same 50 people that get written about every day. One of our qualifiers is that it must be someone who is “off the radar.” Somebody whose story hasn’t been told. It’s always interesting to find out why their stories haven’t been told too. In some cases, it’s because they don’t do business here because they are national or global companies and Tampa isn’t really that important to them. Sometimes, we even need to convince them why it is important! Like, hey, does your workforce live here? Do you want pride in your employees? Do you want to use this from a recruiting standpoint? Do you want to use this as a tool for people in the region to see the size and scope of your company? Then they usually go, “Oh, well I didn’t even think about that before.” Some of it is that we have a very Mid-Western, humble, no-press-seeking vibe, for lack of a better way to put it, in this region. When we were talking about launching Tampa Bay Business and Wealth, we had discussions with people in South Florida that we were originally partnered with, and they were pretty adamant that the “W” be included in the title of the magazine. But this isn’t South Florida! People don’t “peacock” here. We don’t have 150-foot yachts lined up in the basin for everybody to see. That’s just not the mentality of this region. We did get some pushback in the beginning. My biggest compliment ever, and I think he would be okay with me including this but Dave Bevirt from SPP who is Head of Commercial Real Estate and in charge of recruiting companies to Water Street and that whole new area that really used to be dead but now is so full of life. He came up to me and said, “Oh my god, your magazine is what I take with me when I’m recruiting new companies here because you guys are the only ones telling the stories about what is really going on in this region.” I was like oh wow and said “Wait, let me grab my phone! Can you say that again!” Ha! I mean there is no greater compliment, right?
- What is one of your favorite memories over the years working in the media space? (a cool person you met, an awesome event you attended, etc.)
I don’t know if it is media related, but I can tell you about the proudest moment in my career. It was an event and does speak to, kind of, how and who we are in this region. In 2021, we were nominated for Small Business of the Year through the Greater Tampa Bay Chamber of Commerce. I have been around and involved in that awards program for the last 16 years and had always heard that it was extremely difficult to win. I had always heard that no one wins their first year and to go in knowing you don’t have a chance, since it was our first year. I had also always heard it was political. So, all those things are very discouraging, right? We were a tiny team at that time, not that we are big now, starting next week we will have five, but at that point, there were three of us. There have been three of us since the beginning. The Tampa Chamber puts you through an unbelievable number of interviews and hurdles and presentations and creative challenges. I’ll tell you my favorite one. We had just reached finalist status, so had made it through two or three rounds at this point, and they said the final round was they were going to bring six judges to our office and do a site visit. I was like, “Okay cool, well… our site is 800 square feet and you can stand in the middle and rotate and you have had your tour.” Ha! So, I am not sure that this visit is going to be entertaining like some others may have been. But they challenged us to get creative and we did. We changed the little site visit into a CEO Connect, which is the event that we are most known for. We ended up winning Small Business of the Year in our very first year! It still makes me emotional… you know, it was a really big deal! Then, they nominated us for United States Chamber Small Business of the Year in 2022. Which we heard from everyone was a lot easier to win than the Tampa one so I think we went in a little overconfident. Since we won Tampa, we thought, “Oh, we got this if it’s easier to win.” We were one of 27 companies in the entire country that made finalist status there and one of only two in Florida. We did not end up winning but one of 27 companies in the country, I’ll take it! So, those were really my pinnacles so far.
- I see you have been very involved in various charity organizations and sat on a few boards. Tell us more about that and how you got involved there.
Gosh.. my list of charity boards and committee chairs, and what not, is very long. It is a big part of the mission of the magazine as well, you know, if you go back to what I was saying about making a positive impact on local economic development. You can’t have a thriving economy if you don’t have a thriving community so, we get involved wherever we can with non-profits. One of the things we had to tally for the United States Chamber Small Business of the Year was what our give back has been so far and since September of 2018 we have given back almost one million dollars to local charities. That doesn’t even count our hours or board services, that is just real media. We have a philanthropy spread that we run every month that we don’t charge for. It is specifically targeted towards those untold stories or the under-exposed and/or misunderstood nonprofits in the region. That is about an $8,500 value every month. We give any banners on our site or in our newsletter that are unsold to local nonprofits to be able to promote events and hopefully get more people to write checks while they are at these events. It is a big part of our culture and who we are. Our biggest event ever, which is probably my second proudest moment, and actually is next Friday, is our Tampa Bay Business Women’s Awards. We have never done it before, this is our first year, the venue holds 500 people and we were sold out two months ahead of time. So, we will have 500 people at the Tampa Bay Women’s Awards next Friday. But a part of what we are requiring them to do, as a finalist, is they have to do a Habitat for Humanity Build, and I am going to join them. So, Friday, we are going to build a house for a family who doesn’t have one, and that will be part of the legacy of this first group Tampa Bay Business Women. So, I didn’t really answer your questions other than to tell you why… ha! I sit on the Board of Governors for the Center Club, because the Center Club is kind of our Tampa office. Our real office is in St. Pete but we do a tremendous amount of business in the Tampa area, so I want the Club to thrive and have the right people there and the best service and the best ecosystem of any other private club in the region. So, that’s why I give my time there. CEO Council, I am a board member there. That is an organization that is truly so dear to my heart. I have been a member since 2007 and was one of the first Women. Our percentages are getting better, but it is still heavily a male dominant organization because the C-Suite here and nationally is still heavily male. We have about 250 CEOs with very specific requirements for membership. It’s a sanctuary. You know you’ve heard the saying, “It’s lonely at the top.” Don’t get me wrong I used to hear that and say, “Oh yeah, I am sure it’s real lonely with your hot cars and watches and everything else…” but it’s true, you don’t have anyone to talk to when you are running your own company. This is a space where you do have people to talk to and the conversations are very advice driven. People are giving their own time, advice, and knowledge to each other and it’s really just to help everyone grow. So, I sit on the board there to make sure it continues to be the best organization for CEOs in the region. We obviously have a lot of partnerships between TBBW, being that we are a CEO-centric organization and the CEO Council being the same. I am on the board for the Leukemia Lymphoma Society. I had been helping them recruit rock stars for their big fundraising events and they said to me, “Ya know, you’re doing everything a board member does, can you just join us?” So, I was like okay! That’s my most recent board seat. Just an incredibly heartwarming organization that helps children with blood cancers and tries to find a cure. Well, they help everyone with blood cancer, but they have a strong focus on children. I could keep going… I know the list is getting really long but I think it is such an important part of not only someone’s professional journey but also their personal journey. I was involved in the American Cancer Society, never having had anyone in my family with cancer, I just joined because I knew it was so important in our country. While I am still super involved, back when I was newer to the organization, I ended up developing breast cancer and skin cancer and my father ended up getting prostate cancer. It was like well, I had been giving back all these years with no connection to the mission and now I am even more connected. The same thing happened with the Alzheimer’s Association. I was the committee chair for their gala during the pandemic, which was really fun, ha… ended up being a two-year service. Had no connection, had no one in my family with the disease but really believed in the organization. During my seat, my aunt not only got Alzheimer’s but died of Alzheimer’s. So, again, it ended up having an incredible impact on my life. With that said, I think everyone should get involved and give back whenever they can!
- What are your long-term goals for TBBW Mag?
My favorite answer is World Domination! We plan to expand the brand and explore where we will go with it next. This will always be my baby, this is where I raised my daughter, and where I met my husband, so Tampa Bay will always be my baby. But I think there is a place for this brand and what it stands for in every market of the country. So, we really look forward to starting that expansion and seeing where we go next.
- What do you like to do in your free time? How do you balance your days?
have no free time! Ha-ha! My accountant asked me if I just want to check my odometer today then we will check it again before we send my taxes next year because she knows I don’t drive anywhere for personal reasons. I don’t even go to the grocery store… if I am home and have time, I am not using that time to grocery shop, I am having someone deliver it! I do not go anywhere that isn’t business. I have three kids, one biological and two bonus children and they are all 27. They all have amazing careers and they’re all three gone so now it’s really just my husband and I and our puppy who is kind of our kid at this point. My husband is in a business development role, so we are blessed to both understand the time commitment that it takes to make your business successful and what that looks like. In a lot of cases, we get to do it together and both benefit from it so that is really amazing. So, yeah, sometimes on the weekend I will get time to travel or hang out with friends. We have an amazing group of friends that we don’t get to see enough of but they are also business associates so we often get to see them in a business environment. There just isn’t a lot of time for anything other than building this brand and making a positive impact on this community.