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Epilogue: Bill Hough’s friends and family remember his legacy

St. Petersburg philanthropist William R. Hough died at 93.
William and Hazel Hough at a concert at the Palladium in 2012.
William and Hazel Hough at a concert at the Palladium in 2012. [ BRANAMAN, JAMES | Tampa Bay Times ]
Published Apr. 22, 2020

St. Petersburg investment banker and philanthropist William R. Hough was known for his generosity, especially when it came to the arts and education.

Bill, as he was known, and his wife, Hazel, were major contributors to the arts in St. Petersburg, supporting the Museum of Fine Arts, the Dalí Museum, the Palladium, the Florida Orchestra and American Stage. The Houghs were also committed to education, supporting the Canterbury School, Eckerd College, University of South Florida, St. Petersburg and the University of Florida. In 2007, Bill Hough donated $30 million to UF’s Warrington School of Business, making him the school’s largest benefactor.

Bill Hough died April 11 after a long illness at the age of 93. According to his family, his passion for business is a big part of his legacy.

In 1962, Hough founded the William R. Hough & Co. investment firm. He focused on municipal bonds, knowing they would be needed for Florida’s growth to build projects such as roads, hospitals and sewers. That company was sold to RBC Dain Rauscher of Minneapolis in 2004. Hough was also chairman of Republic Bancshares, which was acquired by BB&T in 2004.

Hazel and William Hough.
Hazel and William Hough. [ JAMES BORCHUCK | Times ]

Robb Hough, chairman of WRH Income and Hough’s son, described his dad as highly competitive. His dad believed that William R. Hough & Co. should win every bond issue in Florida, because the firm knew the credit information about each city and worked harder than the competition. He was successful in making it the only Florida firm in the country’s top 10 underwriters of municipal bonds.

Robb recalled an incident from the 1960s, when municipal bonds were generally sold in an advertised competitive sale. Securities firms would come to city hall at an appointed time with a sealed envelope containing their bid.

“Panama City advertised a bond issue for sale in December one year, very near Christmas,” he said. “Dad put together a bid, and flew to Atlanta the night before with the plan to change planes and fly to Panama City so he would be there in time for the sale the next morning. Due to weather, his flight from Tampa was diverted from Atlanta to Chicago. He was able to get a plane that night to Memphis, rent a car, and drive all night in time to arrive at city hall just before 9. He had the winning bid.”

Related: St. Petersburg philanthropist William R. Hough dies

Mr. Hough made philanthropy a guiding principle of the firm. He encouraged every employee to donate to United Way, said his daughter Susan Hough Henry, who runs the Hough Family Foundation.

“He knew the importance of giving, both for those being benefited and for those who were doing the giving,” she said.

The firm was also a family business. His wife Hazel worked there, as did Robb and Susan and their sister Helen Feinberg.

Feinberg, who continues to work at RBC Capital Markets, said that she appreciated how her father drew upon the values he learned in the Eagle Scouts to ensure the firm’s standards.

“The work culture at William R. Hough & Co. was very entrepreneurial, and bankers were encouraged to be creative and ethical," she said. "William R. Hough & Co was known as a regional firm but through our father’s leadership, we prided ourselves in competing with and beating Wall Street competitors.”

Robb’s wife, Susan, used her talents as an interior designer to bring in art to decorate the firm’s offices in St. Petersburg, Orlando and Charleston. She said that Mr. Hough only wanted work from local artists, especially ones who had struggled.

“I learned that often, it was more important that I find the artists’ background, their story, to take back to Bill, than it was about the piece I was bringing to him for purchase,” she said. “He was inspired about the person and that person’s character.”

Mark Rutledge, president and CEO of WRH Realty Services, Inc., a company with roots at the William R. Hough & Co., joined that firm in 1991. He’d just received his MBA and went through about eight interviews with Mr. Hough, who turned him down for a job, then hired him a few minutes later.

Rutledge described William R. Hough & Co. as a place where people came to work for many years, and there was a sense of family. He said Mr. Hough gave young employees the freedom to gravitate to areas of interest.

“The thing that made him great was that he hired good people and then trusted them even at early ages to run a significant business,” he said. “That empowerment has meant the world to me over my years, and it’s something that we still believe in.

“He was a great man and mentor. It was an honor to work for him for 25 years. I’m hoping we can continue his legacy.”

Mr. Hough’s negotiation skills and competitive spirit went beyond investment banking. In 1996, while he was the commodore of the St. Petersburg Yacht Club, he was instrumental in brokering a deal with a syndicate of nationally recognized yacht clubs, including the New York Yacht Club, in an effort to bring the America’s Cup back to this country.

Local sailor Ed Baird, who coached Team New Zealand to win their first-ever America’s Cup in 1995, was tapped to be the skipper in the 1999-2000 Cup competition. If they won for the New York Yacht Club, there was a possibility they could have chosen St. Petersburg as the site for the next defense.

“We could bring the Cup here,” Hough told the Times in 1996. “They could sail between the Sunshine Skyway and Egmont Key.”

Baird met Mr. Hough when he was just 13 years old, taking sailing classes at the St. Petersburg Youth Sailing Center while Hough was participating in races at the St. Petersburg Yacht Club. Mr. Hough invited him to join the crew on his boat for local races.

They formed a lasting friendship.

“Bill was an amazing guy,” Baird said. "After I graduated from college, he always checked in once a year to ask, ‘Are you ready to come work for me now?’ I never was. Later in life, it got to be a joke between us. "

Robb said that after he sold William R. Hough & Co., his dad came into his office crying. They both were. It was a tough decision, but they knew it was the right thing to do because the firm had grown so much that it needed a larger platform to support its operations.

Mr. Hough remained involved in the business as chairman of WRH Realty until just a few years ago, when his health began to fail.

Before that, he loved to travel with his family, going cycling and skiing in Europe and Aspen, Colo. He attended museum functions, participated in triathlons, watched Florida Gators football.

Although he was described as a humble man who never wore a tie, he did develop a penchant for fashion, particularly blazers by Italian designers and Robert Graham shirts — which were designed to be worn without ties.