1. Business

Why Fifth Third Bank leaders see time is right to grow customers — and reputation

TAMPA — The first remarks out of the mouth of the three Fifth Third Bank executives is how the plane they flew from Cincinnati to Florida had to be de-iced on the runway before takeoff.

Here they are in downtown Tampa on the 20th floor of Fifth Third's regional office. The sun is shining. The outdoor temperature is close to 70 degrees. And the view out the window, from the sprawling Port Tampa Bay to the endless expanse of Tampa Bay waters, is at its seductive best.

Fifth Third CEO Greg Carmichael came to town this past week to check on his bank's grip on the growing Florida market. He was accompanied by Brian Lamb, until this past fall the bank's North Florida regional president and still the chairman of the University of South Florida board of trustees. Lamb was promoted in late 2016 and now works out of the bank's Cincinnati headquarters as the company's chief corporate responsibility and reputation officer. Rounding out the trio was David Call, recently promoted to Florida regional president now in charge of the entire state and as of January a new resident of the Tampa Bay metro area.

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

Florida is by far the most populated state of the ten in which Fifth Third operates. Of late, business is good for the bank here, even if growth for now in Florida's real GDP trails other big states (Ohio, Michigan and North Carolina, as examples) that make up the bank's market. Carmichael says Fifth Third came to Florida in the 1990s — as did many Ohio banks — to follow their wealthy Midwest customers who arrived first as snowbirds and later socked in as retirees.

Carmichael, who spent decades in the technology industry before becoming a banker, says Tampa Bay's strong middle market of commercial business — companies with revenues from $20 million to $500 million — is a great fit in Fifth Third's lending wheelhouse. But he is wary of portions of the real estate market in Florida and elsewhere.

"We are in the seventh or eighth year of this recovery, and typically that is the longevity of a U.S. recovery," Carmichael cautions. "So we're keeping an eye on commercial real estate. The multi-family market feels a little overheated, given this cycle. And wages have not kept up with rising rents in the coastal cities."

Still, he remains bullish on Florida and, more than once in the interview, expressed interest in beefing up the bank's presence in Jacksonville.

Carmichael, noting how early President Trump has just taken office, expressed cautious optimism about the new administration. "Our customers are not yet sure what will and will not play out," he says.

He rattles off what could happen. If Trump spends to improve the infrastructure, the country may see stronger economic growth. If corporate taxes are cut, "that bodes well," he says. If interest rates rise, that can help some customers and the bank's bottom line. If Trump can trim regulations, that could be good news, he adds

Lamb's busy overseeing a rollout of a five-year, $30 billion rollout in Fifth Third lending and investment commitments to communities across Florida and nine other states. He's even setting up consumer advisory boards in the bank's markets to provide feedback on whether and how well the bank is living up to its business and philanthropic commitments.

Done right, Lamb believes, this kind of commitment will boost Fifth Third's brand with customers. "At the end of the day you will hear us say: 'We want to be the one bank people most value and trust at a time when our industry has its own set of challenges," says Lamb. "We think we can differentiate ourselves around our reputation."

Carmichael agrees. "Given the Great Recession we went through and the Wells Fargo situation" — where employees opened unauthorized accounts to meet unrealistic sales goals, damaging the bank's trust with the public — "banks have been under pressure from a reputation and image perspective." That is why, he says. Lamb's new job is so critical.

Call most recently ran Fifth Third's South Florida market our of Naples before relocating to run the entire state out of Tampa. He is the bank's new face in the Tampa Bay business community and should become a more familiar figure in short order.

Tampa, says Call, has proved most welcoming.

Contact Robert Trigaux at Follow @venturetampabay.