Leadership Toward A Goal

Tommy Suggs is a man of leadership and commitment

Thomas E. Suggs, president and CEO of KeenanSuggs.

Photography by Jeff Amberg

Thomas E. “Tommy” Suggs can still scramble for a touchdown. In the past 15 years, he has quarterbacked five moves around various Columbia locations for his burgeoning insurance agency, KeenanSuggs, at long last the entire Columbia area staff is located on two floors of the company’s building at 1330 Lady St.

The move makes KeenanSuggs more visible – and more accessible – to its core clients: hospitals, school districts and banks. A fully integrated agency, KeenanSuggs provides commercial and personal insurance, benefits, risk management and payroll services from its offices in Columbia, Greenville and Raleigh.

“We kind of run it ‘A’ to ‘Z,’” Tommy says of the business, which serves commercial, personal and government-related clients who want a full-service firm. Tommy is agency president and CEO.

The agency has been keeping an alert eye on a national issue affecting all of its clients: government-mandated health care. “A lot of it’s going to happen regardless of any court ruling,” Tommy says. “We’ve really got to be strategic in addressing it. It’s important for our clients to stay ahead of the issue, so it’s important to us.” KeenanSuggs is proficient in adapting to change and successfully maintains a strategy of remaining current and relevant to best serve its clientele.

“We have a dedicated and committed staff,” Tommy boasts. “We’re all in sync with what’s important: our values, relationships, service excellence and professionalism.”
That commitment led to a record year in 2011, despite low growth for the U.S. economy as a whole. It also has meant a hectic schedule for Tommy, who spends much of his time traveling, to keep up with the demands of business.

But KeenanSuggs doesn’t focus only on its clients; it also cares for its own workers. In 2011, the agency was named one of the best places to work in South Carolina. According to Tommy, being downtown makes things even better. “We wanted to be downtown for our staff to walk to lunches, to just be out on the streets,” he says. “We love it there. It’s been a wonderful move for us.” For example, the move has allowed the company to begin a walking and wellness program for employees. Before the move, employees occupied two buildings, one of them downtown and one on traffic-heavy, restaurant-light Huger Street near Blossom.

The move is one that Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin hopes will lead to further corporate relocations that bring people downtown to do business and to shop. “We are in the midst of a spectacular transformation downtown,” Mayor Benjamin says. “New businesses and restaurants are lighting up storefronts like never before, and people are crowding the sidewalks for the first time in a generation. By bringing their offices to Lady Street, KeenanSuggs Insurance is showing confidence in downtown’s promise.” 

Conducting business in comfort and being able to lunch around the corner is what Tommy wants for his employees. That the move pleases the mayor is just a perk.

Revealed by those who know him best, Tommy isn’t particularly good at sitting still. What he does best is to keep things running – a role he played well as quarterback for the University of South Carolina in the late 1960s. Tommy still holds the school record for most touchdown passes in one game: five. He led U.S.C. to the Peach Bowl and the Atlantic Coast Conference title in 1969, and he was inducted into the South Carolina Athletic Hall of Fame in 1983 and the University of South Carolina Athletic Hall of Fame in 1989.

Tommy briefly considered professional football, but at 5 feet 9 inches and slight, he felt he was too small for such a bone-crushing career. So after graduating from U.S.C. with a bachlor of science in business administration, he completed graduate courses in business and finance, including a program at the prestigious Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania. Despite being a self-professed “very outstanding underperformer,” Tommy earned fine grades and became a management trainee at South Carolina National Bank.

Within 10 years, he had left South Carolina National for a senior vice presidency at South Carolina Federal. He became executive vice president and chief banking officer, then a bank board member in 1993. After 23 years in banking, Tommy bought Rooney & McArthur, a 47-year-old insurance agency started by Russ Rooney and Palmer McArthur, that ultimately became KeenanSuggs.

Through the years, he has led the Columbia Chamber of Commerce and performed community work with such diverse concerns as the South Carolina Nature Conservancy, the American Cancer Society and the Sisters of Charity Foundation.

Tommy is one of the best-known businessmen in the Capital City. His expertise in banking, finance and insurance has propelled him into many a leadership role – several of them at his beloved U.S.C.

Perhaps his most public role is as “color man” for U.S.C. football broadcasts. The man who once wore the Gamecocks’ No. 12 now analyzes plays for the U.S.C. football radio audience – a post he won 39 years ago at the recommendation of former coach Paul Dietzel.

“This role is a labor of love,” he says. “Actually, the university as a whole is a labor of love for me.” Tommy has served on U.S.C.’s Board of Visitors, raising money for its business school, and he has led its development foundation.

Currently, Tommy is chairman of U.S.C.’s Garnet Way, a multiyear effort to shape the financial and marketing future of Gamecock athletics. As chairman, Tommy says, “I try to bring together successful people who never played – never wanted to play – but who care about athletics and who care about what pride in the program could mean for the culture of Columbia and, by extension, South Carolina.”

U.S.C. Athletics Director Eric Hyman is a fan. “Tommy brings a level of commitment, energy, pride and passion to South Carolina athletics,” Eric says. “Without people like Tommy and the investments they have made in our program, South Carolina athletics would not be able to compete and achieve at the high level we are currently enjoying.”

Tommy says that anything that helps U.S.C. sports also helps Columbia. “The university and the city as a whole – and the state – benefit from our athletics,” Tommy says, citing the example of Carolina’s back-to-back national championships in baseball. “All of a sudden, people feel better about living in Columbia. It’s behavioral economics – raising spirits ultimately lifts the economy.”

William Hubbard, a partner at the law firm of Nelson Mullins Riley & Scarborough, serves on the Garnet Way cabinet with Tommy. A former chairman of the university’s Board of Trustees, William was a freshman when Tommy played his final year as quarterback. His impression of Tommy the student is an enduring one.

“I drove by myself up to Clemson for the Clemson-Carolina game and have a vivid memory of Tommy Suggs driving the Carolina team toward the west end zone at Clemson for the winning touchdown,” William says. “It stands out in my mind as clearly as if it happened yesterday.”

On the field and off, William says, “Tommy is one of the great leaders at Carolina, one whom the rest of us should emulate. His business sense and knowledge of finance have proven to be quite valuable to the university. And his leadership style is one of drawing everybody toward a goal that we all understand.”

That commitment recently earned Tommy an honorary doctorate from U.S.C. But it also has earned him a lot of travel, complex schedules and sleepless nights. “It’s hard to get away from the demands of this busy life,” Tommy says. “It’s hard to totally relax, unwind and get away from the responsibilities. But I guess I’m just kind of wired that way.”

That way, Tommy knows, is to just keep playing the best he can until he scores.

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