Florida businesses post best January ever – Sarasota Herald

But in a reversal of last year’s trend — when Southwest Florida businesses were outperforming the state average — firms in Sarasota and Manatee counties cooled off.

The two-county economy measured by business sales grew just 2.8 percent for the month, down from a rapid 9 percent pace during the fourth quarter. Charlotte County continued the pace, though, with a 10.4 percent increase, according to data from the Florida Department of Revenue.

In all, Florida businesses recorded $71.6 billion in sales during the first month of 2012, with professional service firms, consumer electronics and wholesalers leading the way.

Throughout much of 2011, Florida businesses reported sales that were nearly at 2007 levels. It was not until January, though, that there were back-to-back record months.

It might finally mark an exit from what some economists consider a lost four years, something akin to the stagnation of the Japanese economy.

“It’s consistent with what we’re seeing on the national level, the economy doesn’t stay down forever,” said Scott J. Brown, senior economist at St. Petersburg’s Raymond James Financial Inc.

Given the financial brink that the nation’s economy was at in 2008 and the ongoing sluggishness of the jobs and housing markets, “it was really expected this was going to take a long time to really get going,” Brown said.

Aside from Sarasota and Manatee counties, much of the Florida’s success in January came from the Gulf Coast: businesses in Pinellas, Lee, Collier and Monroe counties recorded double-digit percentage increases in January.

For Sarasota-Manatee economy, the top performers for January were boat and aircraft dealers, office equipment, building supplies, restaurants, apparel and professional services, with all reporting double-digit percentage gains for the month.

Although the tourist season has been a brisk one, the hotel/motel sector did not make the top echelon on industry performers, but did grow 8.7 percent in January.

Other major industries reported modest growth for the month were general retailers, 6 percent; wholesalers and auto dealers, 5 percent; and manufacturers, 2 percent.

Frank Perry, retail sales manager at Keeton’s Office Art Supply in Bradenton, attributes some “limited” growth during the first quarter, along with expectations of continued growth, to two factors. Perry said the growth “has been fueled primarily by the expansion of some of our existing service industry customers and several new businesses opening in our market.”

The professional services category — which includes law, accounting and consulting offices — has been one of the stronger sectors in Southwest Florida for the past two years, and saw a 37 percent rise in January.

That success may have been the source for some of the growing activity seen by office equipment and supply firms, which recorded a 15 percent increase in January.

But that has not bled into other industries, most notably, the struggling commercial office sector. Of the region’s major industries, commercial property leasing is among the worst performers, down 2.2 percent in January and flat over the last 12 months.

Statewide, the professional services category saw an even bigger increase at 53 percent at the beginning of the year. Just as was seen locally, the boost in the businesses of these office-based professionals appears to be doing little to fill the tens of millions of square feet of empty office space in Florida. Statewide, the commercial leasing and rental sector fell marginally in January.

Among the state’s major industries, the biggest gainer was the long-suffering consumer electronics segment, which more than doubled in January.

Other top-performing industries: wholesalers saw sales rise at at 18 percent clip; restaurants, 12 percent; general retailers, 10 percent; and manufacturers and auto dealers, 8 percent each.

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