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Lykes Bros. is renewed by finding niche in new marketplace

The legacy of the seven Lykes brothers seemed destined to fade away after most of the company was sold off in the late 1990s. However, the company is back in the spotlight, becoming a major player in so-called green businesses.

Times file

The legacy of the seven Lykes brothers seemed destined to fade away after most of the company was sold off in the late 1990s. However, the company is back in the spotlight, becoming a major player in so-called green businesses.

Apparently you can teach an old dog new tricks.

Lykes Bros. Inc., once a proud, prominent and powerful private family business based in Tampa, fell off the business radar around the start of the new millennium.

But now it shows fresh signs of life, especially in its latest move to become a player in so-called green businesses, ranging from alternative energy, mulch and — the most 21st century-styled business yet — setting carbon (CO2) values on lands in the early stages of the greenhouse gas and carbon offsets industry.

It wasn't long ago that Lykes Bros. was a fading family enterprise. For good reason. Most of it was sold off in the late 1990s:

• First Florida Banks, a multibillion-dollar banking company that was the largest anchored in the Tampa Bay area? Sold. Now it's part of Bank of America.

• Florida Gold, Sunkist and Old South OJ brands, part of the Lykes Pasco processing business? Sold off.

• Lykes Bros. Steamship Co., once one of the world's largest steamship operators? Went bankrupt and sold off.

• Lykes Meats? Sold to Smithfield Foods.

• Lykes Energy and its Peoples Gas natural gas business? Sold to TECO Energy.

Big businesses. All sold — in part because Lykes Bros. struggled with the competing internal interests of a multigenerational family.

Well, reports of surrender by Lykes Bros., now in its fifth generation, appear premature. Lykes Bros.' CEO is the long-time attorney and one of Lykes' own, Howell Ferguson. Lykes Bros. controls hundreds of thousands of acres, which the company says makes it the 12th-largest landowner in the United States. It remains a prominent cattle and agriculture business.

This week, a new Lykes subsidiary started from scratch announced it had won a state contract to build a database of the carbon value of state-owned lands. Forest lands, for example, will be given a value for the amount of carbon that can be captured in trees (plants "breathe in" carbon and produce oxygen) and that won't be released into the atmosphere as a greenhouse gas. The Lykes subsidiary, called EcoAsset Solutions, is positioning itself to compete in the emerging industry based on the economics of carbon and climate.

John Wakefield is both an EcoAsset senior vice president and manager of corporate business development for Lykes Bros.

"Our parent company (Lykes Bros.) has been a land steward for many years," Wakefield says, so developing a carbon inventory for state lands is a natural extension.

"Any business goes through growth cycles," says Wakefield, who represents new blood and attitude in Lykes Bros. "We are looking for growth trends."

Early this year, Lykes Bros. cut a deal with a Massachusetts company called Verenium to supply fuel for an ethanol facility to be built in Highlands County. Verenium will handle the plant. Lykes will plant 20,000 of its acres nearby to grow "energy cane," or biomass to be converted to ethanol.

These days, Lykes even sells "sustainable and carbon-friendly" eucalyptus mulch under its "7L Brand."

Lykes Bros. was founded in 1910 by seven brothers in the cattle and meat business. Hence the reason for the family brand: 7L.

Robert Trigaux can be reached at trigaux@sptimes.com.

Lykes Bros. is renewed by finding niche in new marketplace 04/22/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, April 22, 2009 11:16pm]
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