Business consultant in demand around the world

Published: Sunday, June 1, 2008 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, May 31, 2008 at 12:22 a.m.

John Spence learned about business at the feet of giants.

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John Spence, managing partner of Flycaster & Co., business consultant to local companies and Fortune 100 firms, at his office in Alachua on Tuesday. He bought the dinosaur at an auction.

Doug Finger/The Gainesville Sun


John Spence

  • 44, managing partner, Flycaster & Co.

  • PERSONAL: Married


  • BEST ADVICE RECEIVED: "People do what seems easy and convenient, not what's best for them."

  • FAVORITE BOOK: In Search of Excellence," by Tom Peters

  • FAVORITE MOVIE:Monty Python and the Holy Grail"

  • WHAT'S PLAYING IN HIS CAR: Usually a book on CD, or relaxing music
  • HOBBIES: Fly fishing, gardening, cooking

  • EDUCATION: BS in public relations, University of Florida, 1989

He was director of public relations and later CEO of the Billfish Foundation, for which the board of directors had billionaires Winthrop P. Rockefeller, and Don Tyson of Tyson Chicken, with everyone else worth at least $100 million.

In his next job with Sales Force Systems International, he followed instructors around the world as they facilitated $100 million deals for corporations such as General Electric and IBM.

He has devoured more than a hundred business books a year for the past 20 years and he reads a dozen magazines a month, along with other articles and studies.

Today, he is coach to the giants, traveling around the world to teach his first-hand experience and book knowledge at executive sessions, company meetings, trade associations and colleges.

Spence's clients include Verizon, Qualcomm, Microsoft, Merrill Lynch, GE, IBM, Mayo Clinic, BlueCross BlueShield, Fidelity Information Services, and local banks and engineering firms. He is a guest lecturer at the University of Pennsylvania and Cornell University, among others.

He has about a dozen recurring clients he works for 3-4 days a year, and about 40 "one-offs" a year for clients that need a speaker or training for anything from a roomful of managers to several thousand people.

His messages are culled from the patterns he finds that are common to great leaders, thinkers and businesses, tailored to a company's particular needs.

In a brief synopsis of his message, Spence talks fast and enthusiastically, but is very clear and concise, and repeats himself to emphasize key points. He said he has boiled down about 110,000 pages of reading to these five key traits of top companies:

* A clear, vivid, well-communicated vision.

* Lots of open, honest, robust communication. "The No. 1 issue with clients I work with now is lack of courageous communication."

* Hire and develop the best people. "There is a war for talent." The caveat is they must also be team players.

* A culture of urgency to carry out plans. That, he said, is another weakness of many businesses, "to take good ideas and actually executive effectively."

* Focus all that on serving the customer.

The companies that nearly get it all right include GE, Microsoft, Google and Apple, he said.

Spence's message is featured in his book, "Excellence by Design: Leadership," which hits shelves this fall through a publisher. He has sold 20,000 self-published copies to clients.

His consulting and presentation work keeps him on the road more than 200 days a year. In a couple weeks, he heads to the Bahamas and then Austria. He spends a lot of time in Japan and China, and in the U.S. in California, Denver, Chicago, New York and Philadelphia.

Flying, he said, has become particularly tedious in the post Sept. 11, 2001, world, but the work makes it worthwhile.

"I really don't have a job anymore. I just have a really fun life that I get paid to live," he said. "I never feel like I'm going to work. My clients are all friends."

Consulting takes up about 70 percent of his time. The rest is in marketing and design work through Flycaster & Co. in partnership with veteran advertising designer Tony DiFranco. His wife, Sheila Spence, manages operations for both businesses.

The Flycaster name can cause confusion. People have come into his Alachua office seeking fishing gear. Spence said he is even going to teach a couple unannounced visitors how to fly fish just for fun.

He got the name from a former accountant who owned rights and gave it to Spence as an umbrella company over several past ventures. He thought the name was appropriate since he loves to fly fish.

Flycaster also handles marketing for several companies in the marine industry including EdgeWater Power Boats and Albermarle Boats.

Spence grew up in Miami as a fifth-generation Floridian and the son of prominent malpractice attorney J.B. Spence, who is still in practice at age 86.

He came to college at the University of Florida to study public relations.

"When I graduated from college, my life's ambition was to travel around the world, lay on the beach, drink rum drinks, go fishing, play golf and get paid to do it, and that was actually my first job."

More specifically, he went to work for Rockefeller's Billfish Foundation. His job was to travel to marlin fishing tournaments, co-host an ESPN fishing show, play golf in celebrity tournaments and raise money for fisheries research.

The foundation's board was impressed by his work ethic and the ideas he brought to their meetings whenever presented with a challenge.

They named him CEO at age 26 overseeing an organization with offices in 20 countries.

"They'd say, 'Who has ideas?' I'd raise my hand and say 'I have about 30.' And they're not my ideas. I stole them from smart people."

After six years, he said the job wasn't fun anymore as he was spending a lot of time in Washington lobbying Congress.

"My highest value in the world is honesty and I didn't find a whole heck of a lot of that up there," he said.

Spence went to work for Sales Force Systems International, a large sales and leadership training and development firm that helped major corporations facilitate deals. He decided to strike out on his own when he realized he was generating income for someone that was just collecting the checks.

"I'm not greedy, but I'm also not stupid," he said.

While at UF, Spence fell in love with the people, culture and outdoor recreation of the area, so he returned to Gainesville when he started his own business.

"For what I do, we could live anywhere in the world," he said.

Spence was named by Inc. Magazine as one of America's Up and Coming Young Business Leaders and has been honored by Toastmasters, Dale Carnegie and the Florida Employers Advisory Council. The Flycaster side of the business has won numerous Addy awards from the Gainesville Advertising Federation.

Anthony Clark can be reached at 352-374-5094 or

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