John Brabson did not give up his membership at the Charlotte Country Club in North Carolina when he moved to Tampa in the 1970s. He wasn't sure how long he'd stay.
"I had no idea," Brabson said. "I didn't know if it was going to work out."
Four decades later, he's still here, a man who has been a key player in the area business community. Brabson, 74, has run Peoples Gas, presiding over its sale to TECO in 1997; he's been the chairman of the 115-year-old, family-owned Lykes Bros., marrying into the local conglomerate's fourth generation; he's chaired the Tampa Bay Partnership, a group he credits with bringing the region together; and most recently, he's been chief executive of Lykes Insurance, taking over six years ago to address its sluggish sales.
But at the end of this month, Brabson is retiring.
Bill Taulbee, executive vice president of Lykes Insurance, will take over as CEO and Brabson says he plans to spend his time focused elsewhere, like his work as chairman of the board of Tampa General Hospital.
In a wide-ranging interview at his Park Tower office in downtown Tampa, Brabson discussed how the local economy has grown since he arrived and how the Tampa Bay area has grown more cooperative.
What did the local economy look like when you got here?
When I got here, this was the only high-rise building in all of downtown Tampa. (In) 1975, this was it. You look out the windows today, you see much bigger buildings on all different sides. I could look outside of this building and see the University of Tampa, and there was nothing between us and the University of Tampa. I now look down here, and I see the port, and I look at what Jeff Vinik is going to do for all of the downtown area, and this has got to be one of the most exciting, most vibrant places in the whole United States. It really, really does.
Another thing I'll tell you is that when I came, you had St. Pete, and you had Tampa. And they had their leadership there, they had their power company there, they had their newspaper there. … And you look over here, and we had a newspaper, and we had a power company, and we had a big piece of water between us. And the two were friendly, but they never really worked together.
Today, through the work of the Tampa Bay Partnership, this region is acting much more as a total region, and consequently, you're seeing some very positive things get done for everybody.
Back then, it was truly two different cities. It wasn't considered Tampa Bay at all, in my opinion. You look at it today, and we're working together. We've got a great airport. We've got major league franchises and teams, and it's the Tampa Bay area.
Tell me about the challenges that divide created.
They weren't working together. They were fighting against each other. And when we would go to Tallahassee and we would talk to our legislators about getting something done, whether it was funding or whatever it might have been, they would turn around and say, last week, St. Pete was in here, and they want this, and you want that. You guys have got to get your act together.
We came back (from a trip to South Florida to see how leaders there cooperated) and sort of realized that needed to be put together and the business leaders needed to work together. And we started doing that, and I think you've got terrific cooperation today, better than you've ever had before. And look at what's happening, look at the results of it. We're one.
One of the challenges facing the region is the lack of corporate headquarters here. I wonder if that influenced the way you ran the companies you did, if you saw it almost as a civic issue, instead of just managing the family's assets.
I think to be successful, you've got to be part of the community. The overused phrase is that you've got to give back. But I mean, truthfully, that's how you accomplish things, that's how you grow your company — not only by focusing on what you do in your own little world right here, but what you do for the area. As you said, especially with Peoples Gas, as the area grows, we're going to grow with it.
Is there a city you look to as an example of what you'd like to see this region move toward?
The one that I know the best is Charlotte. I've just seen it happen there ... and I will have to say, in my opinion, the business community, through their involvement and care for what happened in that region, were the driving force — not the politicians — to making it happen up there. I saw a lot of it, and then I left, but I stay in touch, and I think that's happening here.
So what's next for you?
I went to Harvard Business School, and they gave us a book to read. It was called The Seasons of a Man's Life. And there are times and places for everything. Some people, I think, do stay on too long. I've been here for six years; I didn't plan on being at the insurance agency for six years. (We) turned it around. We've got great people here, a great philosophy of doing business. It's set up right, we've got a good successor coming in, and it's time for me to do some other things.
What do you think those other things are?
I think Tampa General Hospital is for the next couple of years or so going to absorb a lot of time. I've got a couple of companies that I'm talking to about being on their board of directors. But from an operational point of view, I'm probably much better suited now to being on boards and advisory groups and things of that nature. I mean, I'll stay involved. I can't not stay involved.
Contact Thad Moore at email@example.com. Follow @thadmoore.