One on One with David Fuller
The SunTrust Center has graced the skyline of Orlando for almost three decades and is the tallest building in the city and in Central Florida. Long before the recent focus on Downtown Orlando as the nexus of the region’s vibrancy, the bank put a 35-story stake in the ground. That commitment continues as the largest bank in the region and in the fact that David Fuller was named president of the SunTrust Foundation and is here in Orlando. Fuller came to the area as the division president for SunTrust Bank in Central Florida in September 2010, then transitioned to the Foundation in 2015 and is currently serving as the chair of the Metro Orlando Economic Development Commission.
EW: What drew you to the banking industry?
DF: I’ve been a career banker for 32 years. I grew up in Texas and went to Baylor University.
EW: Good time to be a Bear, yes?
DF: Absolutely! When I graduated, banking was a booming industry in Texas and I found it combined analytical skills with relationship skills, which was a great fit for me and attracted me to the job. Thirty two years later, it is still those two primary elements that I continue to rely on in my career.
EW: And what attracted you to Florida?
DF: Looking back my only regret is that I didn’t get here sooner. I like Texas, but my wife is from Sarasota and I enjoy doing a lot of stuff outdoors, so this is paradise for me. Some people say they miss the seasons, but I love the year round outdoor activities. In addition, SunTrust has a great legacy here, so I thought it was a great opportunity to participate in that.
EW: I understand you like to compete in Iron Man Triathlons, how did you get into that?
DF: I was approached, because I was a runner and had done some marathons, to be a part of the team training for the Leukemia/Lymphoma Society. But I loved the team training experience and to be clear I’m not winning these triathlons! The attraction to me is the combination of the physical and mental challenge, to train, to compete and to finish is the reward.
EW: How did you get into the side of your business that focuses on the social, cultural and education development within the community?
DF: There was no sudden epiphany; it was more of a gradual process. I always was involved in the community wherever I was, but when I came to this market I was impacted by a statement the founder of SunTrust Linton Allen used, “Build your community, build your bank.” It is often repeated, but it really resonated with me.
Soon after I came, I became the campaign chair for the Heart of United Way, so I saw the needs in the community and what was being done to address them. That linked both what I was doing with United Way and the Economic Development Commission. What I discovered as I sat on both boards, was that we were talking about exactly the same thing, from different angles.
DF: In the EDC meetings we were discussing job growth, attracting employers and in the Heart of United Way we were talking about graduation rates, post-secondary education opportunities, health and income. It was the same subject matter from two different perspectives.
EW: That is something often missed.
DF: It connected the dots for me; the EDC is about attracting high paying jobs and the United Way is about the outcomes of economic vitality.
EW: What is your biggest challenge as the Foundation president?
DF: What I enjoy most about this new role is also what I found to be the most challenging. The hard part is knowing exactly who to give funds to, and therefore there are a lot of things we have to say no to. But it is really fulfilling seeing a grant come to fruition and to know we are changing lives.
EW: You were part of the EDC’s branding campaign “Orlando. You don’t know the half of it.” How would you measure its impact?
DF: It all came out of this desire we have to improve our number of ‘At Bats’ in Orlando, being in the consideration group with site selectors.
Ken Potrock from Disney led the effort, and what guided us was we didn’t want a branding campaign that you could fill in ‘anywhere USA’ and it would sort of work; we wanted something that was unique to Central Florida and spoke to what we knew about Orlando. The 62 million visitors we have each year don’t know the Orlando we know.
When we were presented with ‘Orlando. You don’t know the half of it,’ we said ‘that’s it.’ It not only captured the feeling we had, it also gives everyone in the other half a place to begin an explanatory conversation; it was a great segue.
EW: Without distracting from the first half, tourism?
DF: Exactly, it isn’t either/or, it is both and the results have been remarkable. PR Week said, ‘the effort shows the full potential of the city;’ Bloomberg West said, ‘Orlando may be the next Silicon Valley.’ There have been 22 million impressions on the TV commercials, 69 percent increase in major media stories. Most importantly the business development pipeline is up 50 percent, we’re getting more ‘at bats.’ But understand the branding campaign was one spoke of a multi-pronged approach.
EW: The EDC did a major benchmarking and competitiveness study, why?
DF: We had to identify who our primary competitors were nationally and how we stack up against them. The study compares us to 11 aspirational and peer regions, like Charlotte, Nashville and Austin, in a number of key areas.
EW: Where are you going to attract companies from and why?
DF: New York, Chicago, California, places with a high cost of doing business and high cost of living versus here where we have a ready workforce, growing infrastructure and even things like weather, as we mentioned this isn’t a bad place to live.
EW: The study identifies our collective strengths by comparison, like economic competitiveness or labor force growth, but there are also some areas where we are near the bottom, like STEM workers, average annual wages or advanced industries employment. How do we move that bar collectively?
DF: First we have to build awareness and have discussions, to show what these statistics indicate. Then we ask, how do we build on our strengths?
Being where the world vacations, the new civic and cultural venues, great labor force growth and talent pipeline, being at the top for new and young firms, plus we have very strong leaders that tend to work together; these are incredible strengths. What we want to do is look at the foundational issues, whereas we tend to focus on outcomes, the foundational issues bring the outcomes.
The branding campaign, which is only 11 months old, just gets us up to bat. We now have a benchmark to determine how we have moved the needle in all these areas every year. We continue to do things like attracting advanced manufacturing companies and continue to graduate a STEM educated workforce, all of which enhances our area and our competitiveness.