Written by McKenna Kelley | Photos by Gabriel Burgos
Like most Tampa transplants, Sul Hemani was first lured to the area by the weather.
“My parents moved to Florida [from our hometown of Chicago], and one year on December 22, I came to visit them for the holidays,” Hemani says. “My brother came to pick me up from the airport, and his windows were rolled down, his sunroof was open, and he was wearing shorts and a T-shirt. I just looked at him and said, ‘You better have an extra room because I’m moving.’”
Now in charge of BankUnited’s branding and business development for the Tampa Bay region, Hemani started out in electrical engineering. A self-described people person, he quickly learned that he wanted more interaction with others than engineering provides. After bouncing around a few other fields, Hemani returned to school and entered the banking industry.
“I just love it,” he says. “You meet different people every day, and every day is different. It drives me that I get to work with people who are so different but come together to make a successful business.”
Hemani says being a good leader ultimately requires open mindedness and a willingness to give for the sake of giving — something he models through his own actions. He has become deeply entrenched in a wide variety of local non-profits, serving on the boards of the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, the Centre for Women, the Drug Abuse Comprehensive Coordinating Office (DACCO) and the USF College of Nursing Advisory Board, among involvement with other organizations. Hemani says he likes to give time to groups he feels he can truly be an asset to.
“Over this years I’ve been blessed, so I think this is my time to give back to the community,” he explains. “God’s been really gracious to me, so I think it’s time that I return the favor.”
Tell me a little bit about what you do here at BankUnited.
I’m the vice president and business sales leader for the Tampa Bay market. My sole job is to grow our branding and business development — get the name out, get the clients in.
You’ve been the treasurer of the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, the vice president of the board of The Centre for Women, a trustee on the board of the Drug Abuse Comprehensive Coordinating Office (DACCO), the chairman of the board for the USF School of Nursing Advisory Board and you support the AGA Khan Foundation. How did you get so involved in community work, and how do you choose the organizations you give your time to?
All of them have a little bit of a story behind them. With the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, my best friend passed away with that cancer, so that was my connection. I ran for Man of the Year [Ed. note: a competition where nominees for Man & Woman of the Year create teams to raise funds for the society]. Somebody nominated me, and I accepted and ran. It’s a 10-week [competition], and everybody all together raised almost $380,000 that year. After that they asked me to join the board and get more involved.
With The Centre for Women, they do a huge fundraiser every year, so I went to their fundraiser, [the Gourmet Feastival]. A friend of mine was the chairman of the board at the time, and he introduced me to the board. He was leaving the board, so he nominated me for his empty seat. That’s how I got involved with The Centre for Women.
I got into the School of Nursing through a close friend of mine, Julie Gillespie, who works for USF. She introduced me to the then-dean of the School of Nursing, Dianne Morrison-Beady. She was new to the university and doing her business planning, so I helped her with that. She asked me to join her board and help get her used to the community. She used to be the chair, but when she stepped down she asked me to be the chair, and I was chair for three years. I’m the immediate past chair of the board now.
It’s really just connections. You get asked [to join organizations] a lot if you’re out and about and doing things. People ask you to join this board or that board, and then you see where you are the right fit — where you can be a true help and not just sit on the board and put it on your résumé. If I’m a good fit, I’ll accept if I can give time and do something [beneficial]. I don’t want to take it and say, “Yeah, I’ll show up to a couple meetings and I’ll look good and make connections.” If I can’t be an asset to them, I don’t necessarily want to join the board because if I’m not a help, why should I join? Somebody better is out there who can help.
Over the years I’ve been blessed, so I think this is my time to give back to the community. God’s been really gracious to me, so I think it’s time that I return the favor and help out.
How did you get involved with the grievance committee for the Florida Bar?
You know, I still don’t know how that happened [laughs]. A friend of mine was part of the grievance committee, and he left his seat and nominated me to be a part of it. I sat down with him and said, “Look, I’m not an attorney, I’ve never had any experience with this.” He said that was perfect because [the committee] has a few attorneys and a few public members. That’s how they put the board together, so they have an even mix. He said it would be perfect because I come from the business world, so I know and have used attorneys for business. I know the other side of it, and that’s what they were looking for to make a complete group.
You started out with B.S. in electrical engineering. Why did you switch to finance?
From childhood, that was my dream. I wanted to be an engineer. I wanted to build things. I went to engineering school, and when I got to the real world and worked in my field, I did not like it. I’m a people person. I need to see people and talk to them and interact. I was put in kind of a cubbyhole. I was in a tiny office with three or four monitors, typing away all day long. That was just not my thing. I paid my dues and worked in the field for a couple of years and then left and did a lot of different things. I ran and owned jewelry stores for my family, did different businesses and joined my brother and his construction company. Then finally I landed in the banking industry, and I loved it and decided to stick with it. I went back to school and joined banking.
What’s made you stick with banking?
I just love it. You meet different people every day, and every day is different. You have no idea what the day is going to look like when you walk in. That’s what I liked about retail as well, and I did it for some years because of that reason. Every day you’re meeting new people. You’re learning new things from people. It’s just that interaction. It’s the same thing with banking. I’m managing five or six different people right now. Managing different types of people, [you learn] that each is one different. They all work differently. They all act differently. It drives me that I get to do that and work with people who are so different but come together to make a successful business. That’s what brought me here. And who knows what the next step will be. I’m pretty sure this is not the end. I’m sure there will be a next phase coming up. What that will be, I don’t know yet. It’ll come, just like banking came and hit me upside the head. As time passes, things come up and I just jump into them. I guess I’m the type of person who gets bored very easily. I’m always looking to do different things and different ways of doing things.
What is something about your job that someone outside the banking world might not know?
It’s not as pretty as it looks. Everybody says [the old phrase] “bankers’ hours,” but there’s no such thing as “banker’s hours.” You start at 7 or 8 in the morning sometime with calls, and you go on ‘til 8, 9, 10 at night because you’re going to networking events or meetings, or you’re taking clients out for dinners. People think, “Oh, banking is a great job and it’s easy.” I think it’s the most stressful job I’ve had yet. I’ve done a lot of different things, but I think this is the most challenging job I’ve ever worked at.
Why did you decide to move to Tampa?
My parents. My mom and Dad moved here a year prior to when I moved. Chicago is my hometown. I thought I was going to live in Chicago forever. I love the place. My parents moved to Florida, and December 22 — I will never forget that day — I came to visit my parents for the holidays. My brother came to pick me up from the airport, and his windows were rolled down, his sunroof was open, and he was wearing shorts and a T-shirt. I got off the plane and I had on a big overcoat, a muffler, a sweater and a thermal just to get to the airport to come here.
I got here and looked around — I saw that beautiful [Howard Franklin] Bridge because my parents lived in St. Pete at the time. I went over that bridge, and I said, “Oh my gosh, this must be heaven.” It was that beautiful. I got to [my parents’ house], and Mom’s in the kitchen cooking, Dad is nowhere to be found. I said to my mom, “He knew I was coming, so where is he?” She said, “No, no, he’s in the backyard barbecuing. He loves his food on the barbecue. He’s cooking for you.” I looked at my brother and said, “It’s December 22 and you guys are barbecuing?” I go outside, and my dad’s cooking away. He said hi and hugged me and all that. Then something he said just changed me. He said, “Go change, then we’ll eat. I turned the pool on this morning, so it should be 86 degrees by the time we’re done eating. Then if you want we’ll jump in.” And that was December 22. I just looked at my brother and said, “You better have an extra room because I’m moving.”
That’s literally what I did. I went back home, I called all my friends, and I told them to come take whatever they wanted from my apartment. I called my best friend and said my big screen and anything else he wanted was his, all he had to do was, when I moved, help me clean the place and drop me off at the airport. I called my landlord and said I was moving to Florida, and he said OK. I went to my work the next morning and I gave my two weeks notice. Two weeks later, I packed up and I left. I ran fast [laughs].
First everybody got scared and worried that something happened, but I said, no, it’s just that I’m missing out. Half of our life is putting on clothes and the other half is going and taking them off. Whatever’s left over is used to go and shovel snow. I couldn’t believe I swam on December 22. That would never happen in Chicago. That brought me here, and this has been home ever since.
I’ve visited Chicago many, many times since then, and usually I go in the winter because I love the holiday season and the snow. When I leave, I tell [my friends there], “You can have it. I’m going back to my sun.”
What traits do you consider necessary to being a successful leader?
Be open-minded. Go with the idea of giving for the sake of giving. Don’t have expectations of getting anything back. That would be my suggestion.
What is your proudest achievement up to this point?
My kids — three beautiful girls. I have a 15-year-old, a 12-year-old and a 9-year-old. It is so much fun, I cannot explain it [laughs]. But it’s great. They keep me grounded, and they keep me well-balanced.
Who in the Tampa Bay community do you admire professionally?
That’s a tough one. One of the people I admire just passed on — [former Florida Representative and Senator] Helen Gordon Davis. She started The Centre for Women. She was a very, very strong lady. What she achieved at that time [in the mid-20th century] to pave the way for the women of today is amazing.