Jason Watkins’ road to becoming Tampa International Airport’s Manager of Financial Operations was, to put it mildly, a wild ride. Not knowing what he wanted to do after graduating from Tampa’s Gaither High School, he attended community college and then the University of Florida, where he studied journalism and aspired to be a TV reporter.
But he soon changed his mind when he saw classmate after classmate getting low-paying jobs in small towns, so he took the LSAT during a “law school phase.” That phase ended after further research, so he tried his hand at business school, entering the MBA program at University of South Florida.
Jason had once interned at Fox 13, where he didn’t land a news job but was able to get into sales and research, which – to his own surprise – he loved. Delving into analytics, traffic numbers and revenues “lit this business thing under me,” he said. So business school, with a focus on finance, seemed like the right track.
It wound up being an interesting time to start such a career, with the Enron scandal unfolding and the tech bubble collapsing. He worked as an auditor for Raymond James Financial and then joined Education Management Corporation, where he served as a regional vice president and other prominent roles in Tampa and South Carolina. He even became the executive director of one of EMC’s competitors, Kaplan Higher Education, at one point. He eventually returned to the world of finance again, and at the urging of his wife who missed Florida, the couple returned to Florida where he took a job working as a senior controller for Florida Atlantic University.
“Changing jobs so many times I got a lot of exposure to a wide range of technology, business processes and such,” Jason said. “Some good, some not as good.”
In March 2014, Jason joined the Aviation Authority’s Finance Department, where he immediately felt at home.
And that’s when he got one of the biggest scares of his life. About a month after joining TPA, he and a few co-workers attended a conference in Las Vegas. Jason was running on a treadmill at the hotel and felt a pinch near his collarbone. It went away when he stopped running, but then he ran again at home and felt it again. He went to his doctor, who found the relatively young vegetarian and exercise enthusiast to be healthy. But the doctor recommended a stress test just in case.
The finding: Jason had three blocked coronary arteries. The blockage was serious, and close to being fatal. He immediately underwent heart bypass surgery.
Jason spent some time recovering, gradually working from home and getting on conference calls as he completed cardiac rehab.
“A lot of people here didn’t know who I was at that time,” Jason said. “The Authority treated me like a million bucks, though.” Jason eventually returned to the office and is becoming one of the biggest driving forces in modernizing the way the Authority handles payments, budgets, analytics and other financial systems. Most of the projects he has been working to implement, such as ePayables and Oracle Fixed Assets, will bring the Authority up to the latest practices of going paperless, automating records and streamlining processes, which will both save the Authority money and make life easier for employees.
“It will be a whole new ballgame here,” Jason said. “I’ve got a lot of people working around me – and not just in my department – who get the urgency of this and have supported it from the beginning.” Jason lives in Clearwater with his wife, Danielle, and their two boxers, Marley and Amber. He is a diehard New York Giants fan and a USF season tickets holder. He loves to travel, particularly on cruises.
Having his health scare was a wake-up call, he said, and it has helped him learn how to take it easy and “not sweat the little stuff anymore.”
“I’m not shy about sharing my story about my heart surgery,” Jason said. “I want it to serve as a warning shot for people like me who think they’re healthy but know something isn’t quite right. Listen to that instinct, go to your doctor and get it checked out.”