Learn, Earn and Return
Power advice with Garrett Richter, CEO and president, First Florida Integrity Bank
Garrett Richter often finds himself measuring his professional success against decades worth of strong advice offered up to him by his dad. But as a young man, the future banker neglected to take to heart the first part of a fatherly aphorism to “learn, earn and return.” Says Richter, “I wasn’t a good student; I didn’t pass chemistry so I didn’t graduate from high school.”
Having strayed from the academic path, a still-teenaged Richter had no choice but to learn how to earn. His father, who owned a small printing business that had hit hard times, mandated that he pay rent on his bedroom in the family home in Pittsburgh. Richter found a job at Mellon Bank—as a janitor. But any hope he may have had to coast through the experience, anonymous in a T-shirt and slacks in the bank’s sub-sub-basement, were dashed on day one when his father intervened with another dictum: “You don’t go to work at Mellon Bank dressed like that.” So, every morning for six months, Richter rode the bus to the Union Trust Building wearing a suit and tie and carrying a briefcase. “Seven guys would get off the bus with me and get on the elevator up,” he remembers. “I’d get on the elevator down, change into clothes from my briefcase,” then reverse the process at the end of the day.
The tactic yielded his father’s desired effect: Richter was offered a job in Mellon’s trust department by one of those seven men in the up elevator. But by then, Richter had volunteered for Vietnam with the Army’s 75th Ranger Regiment. When he returned stateside in 1971, “All I wanted to do was drink as much beer as I could and get acclimated back into the world,” he says. Predictably, his father had other ideas. Three days later, Richter was back at Mellon Bank, this time working as a bill collector with a bigger salary, his own newfound determination to make it through college via night school and soon, a fiancée—Diana, who he met in a bar after class one night and married shortly thereafter.
He and Diana had three children together as Richter earned his way up through the ranks at Mellon. He eventually moved the brood to open a backroom services office for Mellon in Naples. Richter’s own maxims eventually started to infuse his narrative. “Family is where you go to recharge,” he says. Family provided more than just a theoretical backbone, though, when Richter left Mellon in 1989 to co-found First National Bank of Florida (FNB) with Gary Tice. Diana worked for Richter, salary-free, for almost a year.
In 2005, FNB was bought by Fifth Third Bancorp; under his non-compete agreement, Richter was obligated to sideline himself from banking for four years. Seeing, finally, an opportunity to return, he ran for the state legislature and promptly put his “banking side” to work on insurance and tort reform. “But my ‘heart side’ saw how I could help with funding children’s initiatives,” he says. A desire to help kids still informs his philanthropic activities now that he’s back to banking—since 2009; he’s now CEO-president of First Florida Integrity Bank, which runs its own child-based charity in Collier County.
Richter wishes he could still check in for advice from his father, who passed away in 1981. “The seeds he planted when I was a kid were dormant until I grew up,” he says. But because of them, “I’ve been involved in banks that make a meaningful difference in people’s lives. And equally important is my reputation.” Richter pauses in order to gear up for one more guiding aphorism: “Your reputation is like your shadow: it goes everywhere you go.”