Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Point guard to point man: Rising business star Brian Lamb is out to elevate Tampa Bay's economy

More than 650 people packed the Tampa Convention Center in April to see five business pioneers inducted into the Tampa Bay Business Hall of Fame.

The ceremony can be a stuffy affair — long, dull, self-congratulatory.

On that Thursday evening, all the inductees were men. One was 51. One was 64. One was 80. One was dead. All were white — except for one.

Brian Lamb took the podium well into the program as the audience grew increasingly restless and sleepy. The tables tittered with small talk.

By the time Lamb was done talking, the room sat in rapt attention, suddenly inspired.

"Stay with me on this journey," Lamb told his audience. "I am not done. We are not done. Find a way in your own special way to leave your fingerprints on this community.

"Until completely spent," he promised, "I will be a public servant until the day I die."

Brian Lamb may not be a household name in Tampa Bay — yet. But among area movers and shakers, Lamb is a once up-and-comer who has distinctly arrived.

He's a regional president of one of the nation's larger banks. He sits on scores of boards, including the Tampa Bay Partnership and Enterprise Florida, and will soon chair the Florida Bankers Association. Most notable, he chairs the influential board of trustees of his beloved alma mater: the University of South Florida. He's a graduate whose time there was highlighted by a successful run in the '90s as a star point guard and captain of the Bulls basketball team.

Lamb counts some influential local business leaders as mentors and friends. He has carved out an admirable block of charitable work. He has become a go-to person for leadership and reason when it comes to economic development — even helming the Tampa Bay Partnership during its full-scale reinvention from regional marketing to political advocacy group.

There even are whispers that he could be a future candidate for major political office — even Tampa mayor — though he says he has no plans for politics.

But on this there is no doubt: Lamb is a player in Tampa Bay's future who is hitting his stride.

When he was inducted into the business hall of fame, Lamb stood out not only because of his rousing speech and his addition to the room's paper-thin diversity.

That night, he was a mere 39 years old.

• • •

Lamb grew up in rural Gadsden County near Tallahassee. His father, Eugene Lamb Jr., is a retired public school teacher and basketball coach who once picked tobacco on area farms. Deloris, his mother, was an administrator with the Florida Department of Corrections.

Brian played basketball early and well, even joining his dad when he coached local games and listening in on halftime locker room sessions rich in game strategy and inspirational words. Eugene Lamb says he and his wife made it a point to spend lots of time with their son and daughter (now working for a major insurance company in Jacksonville). As big as sports was to their athletic son, school came first.

Brian graduated from the Florida A&M University Developmental Research High School on FAMU's campus in Tallahassee, getting top marks as a student and athlete. Especially in basketball.

"He learned commitment," says his father. "Brian has always been dedicated to do what he needs to do to get the job done. I remember when I realized he was going to excel."

It happened when Brian was in first grade. His parents got a note from his teacher saying he was disturbing his classmates. Mom and dad went to the school and met with his teacher.

"She said other students would be working and Brian was talking to them," his father recalls. "I asked her about his class work and was told he had turned it in 15 minutes before the others. I asked what grades he was getting and she said, 'All A's.' "

His father asked the teacher what she did when he finished early. "I let him sit there," she responded. His father asked if she considered giving him second- or third-grade textbooks to work on at those times.

"I never got another note," he said.

By high school, major universities came knocking. Places like Stanford, Fordham and other schools offered Lamb full scholarships. But it was another school 200 miles down the Florida Gulf Coast that caught his eye: USF.

"I wanted to stay in Florida, close to my parents," Lamb says. "They had been instrumental to me in that stage of my life. And I suspected they would continue to be pivotal in the future."

He says he also wanted them to be able to see him play basketball.

Quick at math, Lamb pursued accounting in one of the USF business school's top-rated programs. He graduated in four years.

But it was basketball that earned Lamb the spotlight and the opportunity to lead. He ranks among the university's best players in history. Nearly 20 years later, at the business hall of fame this past spring, Lamb's introduction included mention of his USF team, down by a point, beating a nationally ranked Florida State team at the buzzer — thanks to the two free throws of a cool-headed Lamb.

He toyed with going professional, but a shoulder surgery derailed those dreams. "It was a tough time when I realized I would not be able to play basketball after college at any level," he says.

Instead, Lamb took a job at Tampa Electric Co., at first reading meters. "The only thing I underestimated," he laughs, "was the number of dogs involved in the process."

From that humble start, Lamb moved quickly through various accounting positions, becoming the power company's director of finance at age 27.

John Ramil, a USF grad and later CEO of TECO Energy, the parent of Tampa Electric, took an early liking to Lamb. Ramil remembers Lamb as well grounded, with a passion and willingness to listen. "He's got all the makings of a great leader and great business person," Ramil says.

Lamb moved on to earn some entrepreneurial stripes, serving at a Tampa real estate startup as its chief financial officer. He then landed a regional CFO job at Fifth Third Bank, one of the larger U.S. banks.

Again, he rose swiftly. Just 13 years out of USF, at 34, Lamb was named Fifth Third's regional president. Based in downtown Tampa, he is responsible for hundreds of employees and building the bank's business across all of Central and North Florida.

• • •

Six years later, Lamb's leadership roles are broadening rapidly. He has matured as bank president and continues to gain the respect of business leaders and Fifth Third's top executives at its headquarters in Ohio.

As chairman of USF's board of trustees, he's in a position traditionally held by those with more gray hair and decades of USF commitment.

In economic development circles in Tampa Bay but also in Orlando and Jacksonville — all part of his banking turf — he's helping shape the economic direction.

Lamb, now 40, credits much of his ambition and success to key people around him. They include his parents, who remain close to him to this day. Lamb still calls his dad almost daily.

He also lauds a core of senior Tampa Bay business leaders, many with USF roots, for their support and friendship. Among them: Ramil, who also chaired USF's board of trustees, and Tampa car dealer turned USF philanthropist Frank Morsani, who inspired Lamb's philanthropy. At Raymond James Financial, executive Dennis Zank was Lamb's USF mentor. And USF basketball fan and Outback Steakhouse founder Chris Sullivan shared his business acumen.

To this day, Lamb draws strength and confidence from his USF basketball experience. He sees the intense competition found in sports and business as kindred spirits.

"You have not seen dealing with adversity," says Lamb, "until you go into a locker room and the team is down 20 points. Everything is stacked against me. What do I do?"

Lamb is "relentless" in his efforts to elevate the Tampa Bay region, says Judy Genshaft, USF president for the past 16 years. His advocacy was "essential" in key projects ranging from the new downtown USF Morsani College of Medicine and Heart Institute to the new housing village on the main Tampa campus.

Of Lamb's ambitious goals for Tampa Bay, one best combines his business and education passions. He wants to brand Tampa Bay as a go-to place for talent, and tell that message to businesses nationwide and the next generation of young people.

How? By deepening this region's bench strength with a better-educated workforce, rich in 21st century skills.

It's that kind of long look ahead, his youthful age in senior leadership circles, his diversity and his love for Tampa Bay since arriving as an 18-year-old college freshman that make Lamb such a key ambassador for the region's future.

When he's not leading the charge, he spends as much time as he can with his family by the pool or watching local sports teams.

He met his wife, Paulette, through a college classmate at USF. They married in 2012 and have two daughters. Ava, 2, can now say, "Let's go Lightning," and even hold up a Bulls sign. Cenai, 15, is a stepdaughter who Lamb notes proudly is an A student and an accomplished high school and club volleyball player.

As an African-American banker, Lamb can see there's room for diversity improvement in Tampa Bay. But he also makes a personal point in interviews: He appreciates how welcoming Tampa Bay has been to him since his arrival here 22 years ago.

And he sees improving diversity here as a positive sign — one that can offer this area a competitive advantage.

"I do not have to tell anyone how proud I am to be an African-American," Lamb says. "That is not the point. The point is I am in a community that embraces who I am and has since day one."

One way Lamb chooses to encourage diversity is to mentor minority students at USF. He started helping students not long after he graduated, and despite a lean paycheck set up a modest scholarship to help students pay for fees and books. Though his schedule is busier than ever, Lamb still mentors when he can.

• • •

There's a risk for Tampa Bay as Lamb's business success grows. He could easily be called upon to move on to bigger jobs in other markets.

Fiercely loyal to Fifth Third, Lamb acknowledges the possibility that he may get a call some day from the headquarters in Cincinnati to take on another task elsewhere. Relocation is a common step for regional bank executives to climb the corporate ladder. It's also a big reason why so many area bankers — once natural leaders in the regional economy — now play secondary roles in places like Tampa Bay. They move on before they can set down deep roots.

That's not at all the case, so far, with Lamb. Still, he says if Fifth Third's bosses feel he can be more useful elsewhere, then he would most likely honor that call to duty. Right now, he says, he's committed to growing his bank in Florida — an important state and the largest in Fifth Third's 10-state territory.

Others wonder: Might Lamb some day run for political office?

Lamb says his friends ask him the same question. But he is quick to dismiss any leaning toward politics.

"There is a difference between public service and public office," Lamb says. "I feel I can better drive change through being a business leader."

Contact Robert Trigaux at [email protected] Follow @venturetampabay.

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