Thursday, December 14, 2017
Business

Lykes Insurance chief John Brabson to retire this month after four decades in business community

TAMPA

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 protected] Follow @thadmoore.

Comments
Tampa chamber names first companies for minority business accelerator

Tampa chamber names first companies for minority business accelerator

TAMPA — Four firms in marketing, construction and secure cash logistics will be the first to go to through a new Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce program designed to help black- and Hispanic-owned companies grow their businesses through two years of...
Updated: 1 hour ago
FCC votes down Obama-era ‘net neutrality’ rules

FCC votes down Obama-era ‘net neutrality’ rules

NEW YORK — The Federal Communications Commission has voted on party lines to undo sweeping Obama-era "net neutrality" rules that guaranteed equal access to internet.The agency’s Democratic commissioners dissented in the 3-2 vote Thursday.The FCC’s ne...
Updated: 1 hour ago
From Crystal River to Brooksville, branch out to shop on these unexpected main streets

From Crystal River to Brooksville, branch out to shop on these unexpected main streets

You don’t have to stare at a greeting card to picture a bustling old main street lined with decorated shops and lampposts. Historic small-town shopping districts are easy to find, and more charming than Walmart. Beyond the downtowns of St. Pet...
Updated: 1 hour ago
American Social booming on Harbour Island

American Social booming on Harbour Island

HARBOUR ISLAND — Downtowners, conventioneers, hockey fans, concert-goers and anyone hungry for waterfront dining are discovering American Social Bar & Kitchen on Harbour Island. Panoramic views, accessible boat slips and walkability to Amalie Arena a...
Updated: 2 hours ago
A healthy dining option opens in Downtown Tampa

A healthy dining option opens in Downtown Tampa

SOUTH TAMPA— Vale Food Co., a health food restaurant, hopes to make its mark on the bay area foodie scene with the opening of its first location in Tampa.In 2014, Sunny Ilyas was a Florida State student trying to find an affordable, healthy meal for ...
Updated: 2 hours ago
Soccer store opens in Westchase on the brink of World Cup

Soccer store opens in Westchase on the brink of World Cup

Even though the United States Men’s soccer team didn’t qualify for the 2018 FIFA World Cup, that hasn’t diminished local fans’ excitement about the upcoming international event.Ariel Martinez, owner of Best Buy Soccer and Lacrosse, has already receiv...
Updated: 2 hours ago

Tampa Bay is above average in minority homeownership

Tampa Bay ranks 22nd among the nation’s 45 largest metro areas in the percentage of minority homeowners. According to Abodo, an online apartment marketplace, 46.2 percent of minorities in the bay area own their homes, which have an average value of $...
Updated: 2 hours ago
Seafood variety comes to Westchase

Seafood variety comes to Westchase

WESTCHASE — Tony Bartolo is well aware of what Westchase locals say about the location of his new restaurant, The Seafood Exchange. The spot in Westchase Town Center is notorious for a continual string of unsuccessful restaurants that have opened and...
Updated: 3 hours ago
Boom in Tampa Bay single-family home rentals means fewer houses for sale

Boom in Tampa Bay single-family home rentals means fewer houses for sale

imes Staff WriterA boom in rentals of single- family homes is contributing to the severe shortage of houses for sale nationwide. In the Tampa Bay area, 18.2 percent of all houses are being rented out instead of being put on the market, Zillow found. ...
Updated: 3 hours ago
Be ready for busy roads and airports: 5.6 million Floridians to travel for the holidays

Be ready for busy roads and airports: 5.6 million Floridians to travel for the holidays

A record-breaking number of Americans are expected to travel during the holiday season next week, according to a AAA report released Thursday.The travel company projects 107.3 million Americans will pack their bags and leave their homes between Dec. ...
Updated: 5 hours ago