The proposed merger of the three largest blood banks in Florida, including one based in Orlando, is far enough along that a marketing company has been hired to come up with a new name for the conglomerate.
The "rebranding" effort is the most telling sign yet that the consolidation is likely to happen, though no one involved will say that definitively.
"I haven't seen any land mines so far. That's what makes me cautiously optimistic," said Rick Walsh, chairman of Florida's Blood Centers in Orlando.
J.B. Gaskins, vice president of donor services and marketing at Florida Blood Services of St. Petersburg, said, "Everybody is feeling pretty positive."
The three nonprofits, Walsh said, also have been exchanging financial data. The third potential partner is Community Blood Centers of Lauderhill.
If the operations come together, they would have an annual income of more than $300 million, 2,700 employees and access to 80 percent of Florida's population.
The upshot for donors and clients, Walsh and proponents say, likely would be a more efficient operation that results in flat, or possibly lower, blood prices and a more consistent supply because local shortages could be covered by surpluses elsewhere in the system.
"It's like Rick [Walsh] says, 'We do not do mergers because they are easy, but because they make us better,' " said George "Bud" Scholl, interim CEO of Community Blood Centers.
Blood banks rely on the largesse of people who donate their blood. The centers then test the blood to make sure it is safe and break it up into various products.
A pint of whole blood sells for $200 in Orlando and South Florida and $185 in Tampa Bay, though other products can be sold for considerably more. The three organizations combined collect about 1 million pints of blood annually.
Many details of the consolidation are unknown, such as who might be in charge or where the headquarters would be. Walsh said he has some ideas but would not unveil them until an FBC board meeting later this month.
He would not discuss any potential names either, saying a Lakeland marketing company is interviewing donors, employees and community leaders about possibilities. Questions include "what does it [a new name] mean? What does it stand for?" Walsh said.
He predicted a decision could be made by mid-May. The three centers have been talking since late last year about what they've called a merger of equals.
Consolidation is attractive to Orlando because it has faced financial difficulties and a sometimes-balky donor base during the past 18 months, in part because of a controversy over the pay and management decisions of former CEO Anne Chinoda.
Chinoda resigned under pressure after a series of articles in the Orlando Sentinel disclosed questionable business practices at the agency and a $71,000 raise — which brought her compensation to $605,000 annually — a month and a half before 42 workers were laid off.
Walsh said the Orlando blood bank is performing better this year than last but he did provide any specifics, saying only that "I'm very pleased."
Florida's Blood Centers, which began almost 50 years ago in a back room on what is now the Orlando Health hospital campus, has grown into the second-largest blood bank in the state.
Mergers are common in the blood-bank industry, especially in Florida. There once were more than 20 blood banks in the state, but that number has fallen to eight. It would drop to six if the three come together.
Last summer, the St. Petersburg operation took over the blood bank in Lakeland, beating out a bid by Orlando. It was the fourth consolidation Florida Blood Services has completed in recent years, joining banks in Manatee County, Tallahassee and Pensacola.
Gaskins said the key to a successful merger is ensuring that the local community still has its needs met while the larger company becomes more efficient by reducing duplication and overhead costs.
"There's no doubt in my mind that if we pull this off, we will keep the communities' best interests in mind," Gaskins said.
Orlando's last major push at expansion brought in mixed results. In 2005, the bank bought a failing blood bank in South Florida for $16 million. That enlarged FBC's coverage area and customer base, but donations in the area have lagged, causing Orlando to buy blood from other centers to keep up with demand.
Walsh also said FBC no longer is fighting a bill (SB 94) that would force major blood banks to disclose their expenses and income by filing a report annually with a state agency. A similar bill last year died after hard lobbying against it by the industry.
Walsh, who consulted with board member and former Lt. Gov. Toni Jennings before backing off, said he decided FBC already was publishing online most of what the bill was seeking.
"We were almost there anyway," said Walsh, who previously fought the bill because, he said, he thought it would force blood banks to disclose pricing data that should be secret.
The bill is sponsored by Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, who opened an investigation of the industry after the Orlando Sentinel articles. It culminated in a hearing at which Chinoda promised full cooperation.
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