Not Building In Vain

Not Building In Vain
Issue 9 // 4th Quarter // 2014 Category:Purpose By: Jessica Burchfield

"Except the Lord build the house, they labor in vain that build it."  - Psalm 127:1


As the parent company for Suncoast AutoBuilders, Inc., Strick Development, Inc., and the Suncoast Design Group, Suncoast Team Services provides all-encompassing care to a variety of industry clients. Recent projects include luxury car dealerships, conference centers, high-end retail and hospitality businesses, and private corporate homes. 

A Wise Master Builder 

With a background in marine construction, Tom Strickland always had an entrepreneurial spirit. Working off the advice of his father to pick a career that he loved, Tom attended Florida Institute of Technology—Jensen Beach, for commercial diving and spent several years working on underwater building projects. Realizing his need for more education, he attended the University of Florida and earned a degree in building construction. 

Soon after graduating from UF, Tom was approached by Hardin Construction to begin a career in the commercial construction industry. It was from this chance meeting that Tom’s entrepreneurial dream came to fruition. “The lack of integrity in the construction industry bothered me,” said Tom. “After three years of working in the commercial construction world, I figured it was time for me to do my own thing.” 

Around the same time, Tom and wife, Bonnie, were married. During their reception, a family friend presented Tom with an offer to consider a small change of career focus: automotive construction. Promised a three-year plan to owning his own business, Tom jumped right in. 

“God will work His best in our lives,” said Bonnie, as she told her side of the story. “The man that approached Tom at our wedding reception was John Pettit, owner of J. W. Pettit, a contractor and construction company in St. Petersburg, Florida. My father was the architect for the firm with a specialty in designing car dealerships. The reason why Tom got into the automotive design niche is because God weaved it all together. We stand in awe at how God worked it all for our good.” 

Exceeding expectations, nine months after accepting the job with John Pettit, Tom took the big step toward becoming his own boss. “I took a project thru re-zoning as my first client, then Mr. Pettit threw me out of the office!” said Tom. “It was amazing. He mentored me, taught me what I needed to know, and then let me go. I found out later that I was the fourth or fifth person he had launched into a into successful entrepreneurship. I am honored to be a part of such a sustainable, reproducible legacy.” 

Following the Blueprint 

“The two great things that Mr. Pettit instilled in me is one, to have position in the marketplace—to be good at something specific—and second, to use the design-build approach—to understand the complete process of construction from beginning to end. I like to know why I’m doing what I’m doing. If I know why I’m doing it, I know what to do; if I’m just blindly reading plans, it’s just sticks and bricks.” Tom Strickland

Suncoast Team Services does not specialize in a particular make of car; rather, they approach each contract with individual attention by addressing the unique specifications of the industry and meeting the needs of every client on a personal and professional basis. By implementing the design-build approach, Tom and his team are involved at every step of the process. 

“Many times we get involved before the client even buys the land,” said Tom. “We are available for professional counsel. The building is just a building, but the project succeeds because of our business plan. Once the client knows the plan, we can guide them to say, ‘You need X, but if we do it this way, it’s going to cost more. Maybe you don’t really need X–maybe you need X-Y.’ We put the needs of the client before our own agendas. We speak their language.” 

To Tom and Suncoast Team Services, applicability is of utmost importance. Choosing rather to meet the needs of a client than to push the most expensive product, Tom operates upon the principles of quality, applicability, and professional honor. 

“One of the most important aspects of building is delivering the right product,” said Tom. “Quality goes much deeper than marble or plywood. It goes to the meat of the matter. Once we decide upon the proper product, we focus on proper delivery in a quality fashion. I have A+ customers and I have C customers. The C customers don’t value a quality product as much as the A+ customer, but that doesn’t mean that my delivery will be any different. We offer quality delivery, communication, treatment, and product. That is why we are successful. We are cost plus; we are an open book. We operate on total transparency. They know where we stand. I am a God-fearing Christian and I operate to honor Him in all that I do. It makes all the difference.” 

The Labor of the Entrepreneur 

December 2014 will mark the 27th anniversary of Suncoast Team Services. Incredibly humble, the Stricklands give all glory to God for His sustaining grace through the economic upheaval within the automotive and construction industries over the past three decades. 

“In the 27 years of our company, we’ve seen four ups and downs,” said Tom. “The last one was much more severe than anyone predicted. It’s funny, after going through the first three, you start to see the signs. The first one scared me to death, the next was a bit easier, then the next easier than the first two. After the third one, I knew we were going into a decline. 2009 about killed us. The two hardest hit industries were construction and automotive. It was an extremely humbling time.” 

Rather than let the chips fall as they will, Tom and Suncoast Team Services took the recession as an opportunity to take an introspective look at their operations. “Currently, we are at 11 employees,” Tom said. “We figured out how to be much more efficient; everyone works long and hard. During the down times, we figured out how to do things better. For example, our closeout packages have gone from a huge box of miscellaneous files to a flash drive. I look back at what we have done in 2014 with 11 people and stand in amazement. Six or seven years ago, we would have needed double the manpower. God is good.” 

Not only are flexibility and adaptability two strategies that have been integrated into the daily operations of Suncoast Team Services, but also they are qualities that are found in thriving entrepreneurs. Tom has learned to rely on the providence and provisions of God, rather than to trust his own abilities or desires. 

Describing the process in which he realized that the successful entrepreneur is actually the man or woman that relinquishes control to God, Tom knows that the success or failure of a project is in the Master Builder’s capable hands. “It took a bit, but it was one of those steep and severe lessons that God obviously needed to teach me. As much as I thought I was in control, I was not. I thought about it a lot, because it is one of the negative aspects of the entrepreneurial spirit. If we are not fully connected to God, if we do not understand why He put us in the position of power, we start to feel sorry for ourselves, doubt ourselves, and shake our heads a lot.” 

“Success begins to get you high,” he said. “You start to think that you can make work and that money grows on trees. You become the master of your own destiny. That is Satan, so clearly. When I started to feel on top of the world, God brought me back to my knees. 2009 was our most difficult year and I'm surprised we were able to survive. The next few years after that were still difficult but God provided for us. By 2013 we had regained our stride. My constant charge to my people is that we never forget what God did for us. Our memory needs to be longer.”

Not Laboring in Vain 

Except the Lord build the house, they labor in vain that build it. 

Elbow grease and a hard work ethic are found within the heart of every entrepreneur, but Tom Strickland possesses something stronger: the fervent desire to see God honored in every build. 

Early in his professional career, Tom recognized his need for accountability and mentorship. After attending a secular mentoring group for several years, he turned to the Tampa chapter of C12, the Christian business peer advisory board based in Greensboro, NC, for biblical support and accountability. 

“The beauty of C12 is the structured program that is brought to the table,” said Tom. “The real key is that it helps you understand that your business is a mission and a ministry. That realization gives you a deeper meaning than what the P&L looks like for each day. I’ve always cared for my people, but I didn’t grasp the deeper role I had to play. In a variety of ways, C12 helped me approach my leadership style with individuality and create a workplace environment that suits my personality of management rather than what works for someone else.” 

By joining other successful entrepreneurs in a mutually beneficial mentorship program, Tom has become more than simply the owner of one of the country’s leading automotive construction businesses. He has become a respected member of the Tampa Bay community and a supporter of both local and national charitable outreaches through company-compensated volunteer time during the workweek. To this date, Suncoast Team Services has completed nearly 400 automotive projects from small remodels to $10 million dealerships, from the Cayman Islands to Las Vegas, but Tom’s heart is in St. Petersburg, Florida. 

“I’m in my twelfth year of C12; one of the great things they helped me realize was my mission for the Florida Suncoast. Through this mentorship program, I have expanded my calling to something much more significant than just building several hundred car dealerships. I won’t look back and wish that I had done one more job, but that I had reached out to more people in my community and within my company. That will be the regret; not the projects or the money, but the outreach possibilities.” 

Suncoast Team Services has found that with constant attention to the blueprints in every element of a build, a quality product is delivered to each and every client. Similarly, by following the precepts and principles found within the Word of God, Tom Strickland has built an automotive construction operation that seeks to glorify and bring honor to the wise Master Builder. 

“Through this process of building our company, there were many opportunities to fall on our knees,” said Tom.

“When God would shut a door, we trusted Him to show us what to do. Having the entrepreneurial drive is tough. It’s hard. But God is always faithful. When we build for Him, we never build in vain.” Tom Strickland


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