Some people think leaders are born. Jimmy Patronis would say leaders are made.
Once a culinary arts student at Bay High School in Panama City, Fla., Patronis later earned an associate’s degree in restaurant management from Gulf Coast State College. Following this field was a no-brainer for this fourth-generation member of a restaurant family, he says.
“My great granddad, my granddad, my dad, they’ve all been in the restaurant business. My dad and uncle have a restaurant in Panama City called Captain Anderson’s. I work there today with my three brothers.” At the local favorite, which offers fresh seafood, you can watch boats unload their catch at the docks.
If it sounds like Patronis went from school right into the restaurant business, that’s not the story. He took high-school culinary arts because it was familiar.
“We had our in-house competitions with culinary, and it just never really clicked for me,” he explains. But the SkillsUSA contests in Extemporaneous Speech and Quiz Bowl were fun. “We got bronze at Quiz Bowl, and I got a bronze in Extemporaneous at state.”
That’s when his ability to lead and speak kicked in. Becoming a state SkillsUSA officer was next. “One thing led to another,” he says. As the 1993-94 national postsecondary president, Patronis was invited to attend a White House ceremony for the School to Work Opportunity Act.
Seeing politics in action led him to a bachelor’s degree in political science at Florida State University. “So many of those experiences inspired me to want to see bigger things and challenges,” he says. While in college, he interned with the Florida Senate and then went abroad as a research assistant in the British Parliament for member Robert Ainsworth.
After college, Patronis headed back to Panama City, where it was natural to become active in his local community while overseeing the family restaurant. He was heavily involved in the chamber of commerce.
Later, Patronis chaired the local airport authority during the relocation of Northwest Florida Beaches International Airport, the first U.S. airport built after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. The new airport boomed, from serving 250,000 passengers per year to 900,000.
Patronis was elected to the Florida House of Representatives in November 2006, the second Republican to serve District 6 in Bay County. He credits SkillsUSA with helping him win the competitive primary. “All of the confidence building that you get through the goodwill tours and the membership tours helps you feel more confident about addressing a group of strangers on why they should give you the time of day.”
Through SkillsUSA, he also learned how different people earn a living. “The state legislature and the policies that we pass affect every single individual in the state,” he points out. “So any time that we had something that may affect a specific career field or business, I definitely had at least an understanding at a real all-hands level that my colleagues didn’t.”
Man about town (and the state)
Patronis is a member of the Florida Public Service Commission, appointed by the governor to regulate gas, water, telecommunication, electrical and transport companies. Formerly, he served on the Florida Elections Commission. He has been a bank director, a hospital trustee, a member of many boards, and named one of the state’s Most Influential People.
But Patronis says no honor in his 29-year career means as much as the support of his wife, Katie. “I’ve got a 4-year-old and a 6–year-old. When you bring kids into it, everything changes: ‘Am I leaving them something to be proud of?’ ”
Now 43, Patronis says SkillsUSA helped shape his character and career. “It goes back to the support of my first SkillsUSA advisors and my state director. You get unconditional love from your mom and dad, but when you find somebody else’s support outside your own family, that’s the day you’ve made an impression and can really make a difference.
“I was never a good student,” he admits. “But when you have this gratification of doing something with your hands, you’re not looking at a score on a paper but at a creation you just made. I think that’s definitely a turning point in any young person’s life of being a success.” •