Mike Sutton, Habitat For Humanity Pinellas
Mike Sutton talks non-profit transformation, construction in Pinellas County, and his battle with Habitat's common misconceptions
On this episode of SPx, Joe and Ashley attempt to pitch an HGTV show with Habitat for Humanity of Pinellas CEO, Mike Sutton. In this lively and insightful discussion, Sutton talks tactics and challenges behind his first experience as CEO and how he's leveraged his background to grow Pinellas’ Habitat into the second largest affiliate in the country - constructing 59 new homes last year. Along the way he's doubled his staff, rejiggered his Board of Directors, and brought life back to Habitat's annual fundraising events. He shares his uphill battle with misconceptions, construction in a densely populated county, and workplace culture in the non-profit world.
- Habitat for Humanity's growth under Sutton's leadership: "We just came off of our record year where we completed 59 new homes in Pinellas County...we’re actually the second largest Habitat out of 1,300 affiliates across the country based on new home construction right here in Pinellas County."
- "When I was hired in 2014, we had come off of about four or five straight years of building around 25 homes a year."
- The Habitat Board upon Sutton's hiring: "we wanna serve more families, that’s our greatest need and greatest contribution to the community, so we wanna figure out how to serve more families and get deeper into Pinellas County."
- With a background in fundraising and development, Sutton did not expect to work in the non-profit sector: "I never saw myself as a CEO of a non-profit, I always thought that I would continue to advance my career in the fund development world, maybe go on to a University setting or a hospital setting. But this has been an amazing opportunity for me."
- Sutton came into Habitat Pinellas with the opportunity to catalyze its growth: "I came into an organization that wasn’t in disarray or wasn’t in a bad spot, it was just they needed that person to take it to that next level."
- On board re-jiggering: "We really needed to do some work to diversify who was on our board. And I remember taking a look at our board – and, again, this isn’t a knock on previous leadership, but we’re a construction company and we didn’t have one person on our board of directors with construction background."
- The board: "we were able to bring people in who had a passion for what they did and could help apply that to the mission of Habitat and be a catalyst for that springboard forward."
- On quality and community: "When you’re driving down the street, we don’t want people to say, ‘Oh look, it’s a Habitat for Humanity home.’ We want our homes to blend in with the community, we want them to be a home that is there 30 to 40 years from now, when that home owner pays off that mortgage."
- On the need for innovation: "Labor and materials have increased significantly over especially the last 12 months.... We used to have laundry rooms in our houses, we eliminated those and we moved the laundry facilities out into the garage. That saves about $3,500 a house. You do the math, times 60, that’s a significant amount of savings."
- Innovation methods in a densely populated county: "We’re starting to have conversations around tiny homes, container homes, looking at things a little bit differently."
- Finding land to build on in Pinellas County: "We’re a peninsula, on a peninsula and the most densely populated county in the state of Florida, ahead of Miami-Dade, and so what that does is it makes finding affordable land very challenging."
- On rehabbing homes: "because of the strict building codes in the state of Florida, that it’s actually more cost-effective for us to take a house down to the slab and to the studs. So, building new is actually more cost-effective than to rehab a home."
- A common misconception of Habitat is that they give away homes for free (which they do not): "I can stand in front of a group of 200 people and talk about Habitat and how we do not give away homes, and 70% of them will walk out of the room and not take that into account, no matter what we tell them. So, that’s something that we struggle with from a messaging standpoint."
- Instead, Habitat negotiates a zero interest mortgage: "So they’re not in a place where they’re paying maybe 50 to 60 percent of their monthly income towards rent. Our idea is to get them below 30% and saving a significant amount of money while they’re also building equity and they’re contributing to the tax base with their home as well."
- "Eighty percent of the families we serve here in Pinellas County are single moms. "
- On being a non-profit: "I feel like a non-profit is a tax status, it’s not a business model, so we can’t lose money, we can’t always run with no profit. And so, it’s really been a matter of culture shift for us."
- On the ReStore: "100% of the proceeds go back into building more Habitat homes. So, it helps to fund a couple of houses every year with the proceeds from it. But it actually is an environmentally friendly operation, because we’re keeping things out of the landfill."
- On office culture: " I want nothing more than our employees to love every day at Habitat. I take it personal when someone is not happy at their job. I wish we had more resources to be able to provide the most fun and enjoyable work experience that people could possibly have."
- "This role over the last four years has really allowed me to get to better know myself, and that’s one of the things I’ve come to learn, it’s that I’ve recharged through down time and quietness."
"I have a belief that you surround yourself with people that are smarter than you and people that are knowledgeable in their respective positions and you’re able to accomplish a lot."
Florida has an affordable housing crisis. Home ownership rates sit at an all-time low, homelessness rates at an all time high, and wages remain stubbornly stagnant for Florida’s workers. According to the Florida Housing Coalition, close to 1 million Florida households spend 50% or more of their income on housing. In major cities like Miami, Fort Lauderdale, Palm Beach, and Naples, Florida Housing Coalition says families must earn more than $22 an hour to afford average rent for a two-bedroom apartment. The problem is undeniable. But the solution is complicated.
Lawmakers knew this issue would come to a head many years ago. In fact, they saw it coming from miles away – and with their powerful intuition, they created the William E. Sadowski Affordable Housing Trust Fund in 1992. Funded by a mandatory documentary stamp tax paid on all real estate transactions, this fund grosses a few hundred million dollars a year, and funds two major state programs for affordable housing. The Trust Fund allocates 70 percent of its funds toward the SHIP program (which provides money to local governments to create and preserve affordable housing). The rest of the funds go to the State Housing Trust Fund.
Despite the Sadowski’s “trust fund” status, the money gathered for this fund has historically and systematically been reappropriated for special interests and general budget funding well outside of the scope of its intentions. Since 2003 (the first time the fund was dipped into, during the Jeb Bush administration), nearly $2 billion has been “swept” from this fund to fill holes in other areas of the state budget. In fact, the practice is so common at this point, the Sadowski fund is treated as a quasi slush fund for Florida lawmakers to use at their discretion.
Naturally, journalists around Florida have been covering the story, leading to outrage among affordable housing advocates throughout the state. According to the Sadowski Coalition, if the programs were fully funded, there would be 241 additional housing units built in Pasco County (Senator Corcoran’s district) and 1,908 in Miami-Dade (Senator Trujillo’s district) alone. If these numbers are taken to state-level, a potential 12,657 homes could be built, housing an estimated 92,881 people.
But the rosy image painted by the Sadowski Coalition is not necessarily shared by all. While Democrats in the House and Senate are fighting to pass a bill to keep Sadowski funds entirely allocated to affordable housing, Republicans have reservations. According to the Miami Herald, despite the negative press that the sweeping of these funds is gathering, many legislators (including Senator Trujillo of Miami and Senator Brandes of St. Petersburg) argue that the current affording housing programs could not absorb the additional funds anyway. Separately, Senator Brandes argues that the model used to develop affordable housing is unsustainable, as building costs are sky-rocketing at the same time that land prices are increasing. In practice, despite the so-called “ransacking” of these funds by legislators, the untold truth may be that the current infrastructure built by state and local government programs is simply not enough.
And the problem is only projected to get worse. This fact has become undeniable in recent months, especially following the influx of residents from the Florida Keys and Puerto Rico as a result of the destruction of Hurricane Irma. FEMA funds are set to expire for Puerto Ricans living in hotels and motels following the hurricane. Soon, they will have to find new places to live, possibly setting an already strapped system up to breakdown entirely. (WLRN)
As with many of the state’s social programs, now is the time for innovation, or at least for education. The state has numerous avenues to learn and innovate, from business perspectives to nonprofit perspectives and best practices throughout the country. Habitat Pinellas is partially funded by affordable housing dollars, but they’re an example of a business model that does a lot with very little. As the second largest Habitat affiliate in the country, Habitat Pinellas is a model for affordable housing done well. Just in the last year, Habitat Pinellas has taken it upon themselves to reduce costs and innovate their own practices to make building and remodeling homes more affordable. They have taken into consideration costs of building homes with different roofing pitches, flooring materials, or laundry facilities in different areas of the home. They’ve also taken advantage of opportunities for multifamily housing and toyed with popular models for cost-saving, such as tiny homes. It’s time for the state and local affordable housing mechanisms to innovate too, and they could serve to learn a thing or two from Habitat for Humanity Pinellas.
"I feel like a non-profit is a tax status, it’s not a business model, so we can’t lose money, we can’t always run with no profit. And so, it’s really been a matter of culture shift for us."
Table of Contents
(0:00 – 0:41) Introduction
(0:41 – 2:14) Habitat for Humanity’s Growth in Pinellas
(2:14 – 3:54) Becoming a CEO at Habitat
(3:54 – 8:54) Habitat Board Supporting Growth
(8:54 – 13:35) Types of Homes Constructed
(13:35 – 15:50) Public Perception About Habitat
(15:50 – 19:14) Creating Community
(19:14 – 22:26) Management Style
(22:26 – 24:41) In Nicaragua with Habitat International
(24:41 – 28:37) ReStores
(28:37 – 32:37) The Blueprint Gala
(32:37 – 40:05) Challenges at the Job
(40:05 – 45:01) The Need for Quiet Time
(45:01 – 48:45) Spending Free Time
(48:45 – 50:39) Mentoring Youth
(50:39 – 53:10) Shout-outs
(53:10 – 54:03) Conclusion
Joe: Hey, this is Joe Hamilton.
Ashley: And Ashley Ryneska.
Joe: And we’re here today with Mike Sutton, CEO of Habitat for Humanity in Pinellas. Welcome, sir.
Mike: Thanks for having me. Appreciate it.
Joe: So, we’ve been following you guys for a long time, and you’ve had some pretty explosive growth in the last couple of years. Can you talk a little bit about that?
Mike: Yeah. It’s an exciting time at Habitat. We just came off of our record year where we completed 59 new homes in Pinellas County. And when you really look at that on the spectrum with other Habitats across the country, we’re actually the second largest Habitat out of 1,300 affiliates across the country based on new home construction right here in Pinellas County.
Ashley: Which is amazing, if you look at your growth from 2014. I think in 2014 you were doing, what? – maybe 20 to 30 houses a year. What did you have to do to get to nearly 60 homes in a year?
Mike: A lot. When I was hired in 2014, we had come off of about four or five straight years of building around 25 homes a year. And everything in the Habitat world is based on the number of homes you build. So, we were building 25 homes a year and the board, they kind of made it clear when I was hired that, hey, we wanna serve more families, that’s our greatest need and greatest contribution to the community, so we wanna figure out how to serve more families and get deeper into Pinellas County. And so, we started that process of really trying to advance the mission of Habitat, and we really started with the growth of our board and bringing on folks who – their business acumen would really lead well to the work that we were trying to do. And then obviously, with the growth also comes the addition of staff, so our staff went from about a 25-person staff to… we have 55 staff members now. So, there were a lot of challenges along the way, but what’s been absolutely amazing it’s just the embracement that we receive from the community in terms of the work that we do on a daily basis.
Ashley: And your background prior to coming to Habitat in Pinellas was really strongly focused on the fundraising acumen side of a non-profit, if that’s accurate.
Ashley: So, you moved into a CEO position. How did you handle moving into all of the administrative and wonderful executive aspects of CEO?
Mike: When I was hired, one of the reasons that they did hire me was because of my fundraising background. So, they knew as an organization, to get to that next level that the investment was gonna need to be in the fundraising realm. So that was probably one of the main reasons I was hired. And it’s been a fun transition. I never saw myself as a CEO of a non-profit, I always thought that I would continue to advance my career in the fund development world, maybe go on to a University setting or a hospital setting. But this has been an amazing opportunity for me. This is the second Habitat affiliate that I’ve worked for, and so the opportunity to come back to Habitat was probably the most appealing piece. I have a belief that you surround yourself with people that are smarter than you and people that are knowledgeable in their respective positions and you’re able to accomplish a lot. So, I don’t know the first thing about building a house, we joke all the time around the office that the last person you want out swinging a hammer is Mike, and so I stay far away from the construction site from a building standpoint. But we have those people on our staff that lead those different efforts, and it allows me to focus my time on being external and out in the community and representing Habitat at events and engaging donors. But really back to that question of the change from focused on fundraising 100% of the time to maybe 25% of my time, that was a little bit of a challenge, but we have an amazing development team at habitat that with that growth of the organization has also grown over 100%.
Joe: That’s a special and rare time. You come into a new organization and you have a mandate from the board to grow.
Joe: So, can you talk a little bit about the energy on the board when there’s the catalyst for this transition to growth? And as you started bringing on some of these people, how did you choose them and then what were some of the tactical things that they did? And then did the board stay, did they accept moving into the growth phase as readily as they had hoped?
Mike: Yeah. What was exciting when I did start at Habitat was that the board was 100% on board with the growth. So, there wasn’t this need to come in and really try to sell everyone on the fact that we needed to figure out how to serve more families. So that was one obstacle that was not in the way. But my predecessor had been there for about ten plus years, she did a great job running the organization and taking it from a one to two home a year operation to building 25 homes a year, and really did a good job of setting the organization up for success. So for me, I came into an organization that wasn’t in disarray or wasn’t in a bad spot, it was just they needed that person to take it to that next level. And so, we really took a look around the board table, and we had an amazing board and a group of folks that really devoted a lot of time to Habitat, but the majority of the people checked the same box. And so, we really needed to do some work to diversify who was on our board. And I remember taking a look at our board – and, again, this isn’t a knock on previous leadership, but we’re a construction company and we didn’t have one person on our board of directors with construction background. So, we started to really look at those holes that we had as an organization. In order to raise more money and to be more visible in the community, we know we needed people that had a PR or a marketing background. We needed fundraising expertise… So, we were able to bring people in who had a passion for what they did and could help apply that to the mission of Habitat and be a catalyst for that springboard forward.
Ashley: It’s interesting that you mentioned infusing the board with that acumen, you have a Senior Gift Officer from a local foundation that serves on your board. How do you manage a potential conflict of interest when you bring acumen from the outside in?
Mike: I think the idea there, we do expect a lot from our board members in terms of helping to open doors and help us to fundraise. The agreement that we had with that board member was she has a background working for Habitat in another market, and so we wanted to be able to use her almost in like a consultant-type role. We know that being a member of staff at John Hopkins, she’s exposed to some pretty advanced practices in the fundraising world, so really at the end of the day, she talked to her folks at All Children’s and… Our board doesn’t look at it like a conflict, because we’re not asking her to go out and make asks for us, we’re not asking her to bring in donors for us. What we’re asking her to do is to help validate us as an organization by providing us with knowledge and guidance. And she’s there really as a support mechanism for our development staff.
Joe: I guess at the end of the day it would hard to find people with that specific skillset that they aren’t actively doing that somewhere already to sit on the board…
Mike: I would say so, yeah.
Joe: …and you have to make the best of it.
Joe: And how about the construction folks? What was the impact that they’ve had on the build cost and quality, or deficiencies there that you’ve seen?
Mike: It’s interesting. We build a very strong quality product, in my opinion. Our homes typically, when all said and done, the annual insurance premium is about 450 to 500 dollars a year for a three-bedroom, two-bath home with a one car garage, which really speaks to the quality of the house that we’re building. We stay true to that, that’s the focus. When you’re driving down the street, we don’t want people to say, ‘Oh look, it’s a Habitat for Humanity home.’ We want our homes to blend in with the community, we want them to be a home that is there 30 to 40 years from now, when that home owner pays off that mortgage. So, we’ve had to adjust as the market has adjusted. Obviously, labor and materials have increased significantly over especially the last 12 months, we’re seeing them higher than ever. So, it forces Habitat to be creative and innovative in the way that we do things. So, we’ve had to look at things like looking at the pitch of the roof and doing this differently, and the type of materials we’re using in the home. We used to put tiled floors throughout the home, and we realized that a lot of our families, after they’ve moved in would want to carpet the bedrooms. And so, it’s an added expense to put tile throughout the house, so we’ve tailored that back and started putting carpet in all the bedrooms, and there’s a savings there to Habitat. And just doing things differently. We used to have laundry rooms in our houses, we eliminated those and we moved the laundry facilities out into the garage. That saves about $3,500 a house. You do the math, times 60, that’s a significant amount of savings. When really at the end of the day we’re seeing that on the backend, with the increase in materials and costs, so… That’s probably our biggest challenge and struggle moving forward, is if the market continues to trend upwards the way it has been, how do we as an organization continue to keep our product affordable to serve the families that we serve?
Ashley: Or do you explore other avenues of potential earned revenue, with ReStore and some other efforts to support that?
Mike: Yeah. So, the ReStore has been a huge generator of revenue for us. I think that that’s definitely an option, to continue to try to grow that footprint. We’re starting to have conversations around tiny homes, container homes, looking at things a little bit differently. Personally, I don’t wanna be the Habitat affiliate out there that is the first one to do that. I’d rather see someone else do it, and then we can learn from their mistakes. And with 1,300 Habitats across the country, I’m sure that we’re gonna start to see some of the major market Habitat affiliates start to dabble in some of those things. So, we’ve most recently started to get a couple of years ago into multi-family housing, and so we started to do some town homes, we’re about to build four villas on the South side of St. Petersburg, off on 22nd Avenue South. And so, that’s a little bit different for us, and that’s actually a big movement for the families we serve. The majority of the families that we partner with, their true American dream is still that four-walls, single family home, detached… And so, to really educate them on the benefits of a duplex or a villa type style or a townhome can be challenging at times.
Joe: Have you talked about a mix for that going forward? Obviously, if people want that they can wait for one of those to be available, or…
Joe: So, with the way that you queue potential house recipients, do you think that you’re gonna trend more towards a greater majority being multi-family in the future?
Mike: I think we’ll probably see a mixture at this point. The biggest challenge we face as an organization on a daily basis is land and finding affordable land to build on. We’re a peninsula, on a peninsula and the most densely populated county in the state of Florida, ahead of Miami-Dade, and so what that does is it makes finding affordable land very challenging. You take away the fact that 30 to 40% of the county is underwater, so to speak. We will never build a home where our families are required flood insurance. So, that eliminates a good portion of the county already. So, that continues to be the number one driver of conversation around strategic planning for our organization, is how do we sustain building 50 to 60 homes a year if we’re not able to find the land? And so, a way to possibly do that is to go more dense, and so finding properties where we can build multi-family is probably gonna be a way for the future for Habitat here in Pinellas County.
Joe: You try to be trend proof, I should say, in that you will build the maximum number of housing that you can with the money that’s available. Does it ever come up to you to say, ‘March is just too hot right now to make the numbers work, we’re gonna slow down and push the funds till next year in anticipation of a better environment’?
Ashley: Or maybe get into refurbishment?
Mike: So, about two years ago we started to go the rehab route and started looking at options there. What we’re finding is because of the strict building codes in the state of Florida, that it’s actually more cost-effective for us to take a house down to the slab and to the studs. So, building new is actually more cost-effective than to rehab a home. So, we’re actually doing a lot more demos now. And so, that’s an added expense to our budget that we didn’t anticipate a year or two ago. So, I would say of the 59 homes we completed over the last 12 months, probably ten to 12 of them were built on lots where we actually demoed a home. Obviously, with an older housing stock in Pinellas county, I think that that’s something else that will lend itself very well to Habitat, as we’re seeing a lot of dilapidated homes out there, homes that are not safe. We have families that approach us all the time about doing rehabs to their homes, and it’s just not conducive to the current building codes. And so, I think rehab, although we always look at rehab as an option, I think we will more likely continue to go on that direction where we’re doing more teardowns and building new.
Joe: So, what about doing that on… so, instead of a rehab just saying, ‘We’ll tear down your home and build it again’? That would essentially save the land cost, if they already own the land or are in process of paying that. Is that something you’ve explored?
Mike: Yeah, we actually just had a family down in midtown who came to us that has lived on this property for generations, and so it was something that… I don’t think they ever thought about moving, they just needed to improve their current housing structure. So, we went in and did an assessment of the home, thinking that we could probably put a new roof on it. And our fear was if you touched anything on the house, the whole thing would come down. And if you’ve ever watched Flip This House, or any of those shows on HDTV, you’d know that the more you get into a rehab, the more you find, and so they get pretty expensive over time. So, what we decided to do was we partnered with the family, they deeded the property over to Habitat…
Mike: We tore the home down and they went through our program and did the classes, did the sweat equity hours, and then we actually built them a new home on the property, and they now have a 30-year, zero percent interest mortgage on it, but they still have the memories of living on that property and growing up on that property. So, I think that that’s definitely another way we can partner with families.
Ashley: How come we’re not seeing more of Habitat or some like brands infusing to shows like that?
Mike: That’s a good question. So, we do have a couple of gentlemen on HDTV, they’re a pair of brothers, and I’m not familiar with their show, but they’re national spokespeople for Habitat, they just literally signed on last month to become spokesmen for us. I think the biggest thing is that there’s this continued misconception about the work that Habitat does.
Ashley: That you just give away homes.
Mike: Yeah, exactly. So, I can stand in front of a group of 200 people and talk about Habitat and how we do not give away homes, and 70% of them will walk out of the room and not take that into account, no matter what we tell them. So, that’s something that we struggle with from a messaging standpoint. And I think all non-profit organizations probably have misconceptions associated with their organization. Ours happens to be that people think we build homes, give them away to the needy, to the homeless and they’re free. And the families we partner with are some of the most hard-working individuals I’ve ever come in contact with. They don’t make enough to qualify for a traditional note, they make too much to qualify for any sort of Government assistance, so they get stuck in the middle there. And so, that’s where Habitat comes into play. So, our home owners, a family of four may make around $30,000 for the total family and if you live in Pinellas County, it’s very hard to live on that. And so, Habitat provides them with a zero percent interest mortgage through our program, and so they’re not in a place anymore where they’re paying maybe 50 to 60 percent of their monthly income towards rent. Our idea is to get them below 30% and so, at the end of the day, saving a significant amount of money while they’re also building equity and they’re contributing to the tax base with their home as well.
Joe: I like the idea. I think if you’re not gonna take the lead on tiny homes, then you should take the lead on the HDTV Habitat Show.
Ashley: I think you could, at least a local show, at least… start conceptualizing this now.
Joe: Yeah, educate and get attached… That’s telling a story and getting people to identify with the people that are actually receiving it, understanding them, understanding the process, that’s a big challenge. And if you can do that, entertain and inform at the same time…
Mike: Well, if you met some of the characters that we work with, we probably could have a reality show. And I think it would be a lot of fun, actually.
Ashley: I was gonna say, Mike, you probably don’t wield a hammer when you’re building, but I could probably see you doing demo all day.
Mike: Oh, that would be so much fun!
Ashley: What a stress release.
Mike: Yeah, just give me a hammer.
Ashley: Yeah, just get me on it!
Mike: Yeah, and get out of the way.
Ashley: Get out of the way… What’s interesting too, I would assume that if you’re dealing with the working poor, especially in this community, midtown and some other neighborhoods, the amount of single-parent households that exist, and now with the idea and the concept of multi-family homes, what a resource you’re giving potentially to a single mom who is working maybe multiple jobs to support a family, now access into a community, right?
Mike: Yeah. Eighty percent of the families we serve here in Pinellas County are single moms. From time to time, we’ll serve a single dad, but the majority of the families we serve and partner with are single moms. There’s a huge need. That’s actually a passion of mine, is working with the fatherless. And I was with Big Brothers, Big Sisters before Habitat, and you know the lack of male role models out there is significant, especially when you look at the African-American community. And so, one of the things that’s so neat about Habitat and it just happens organically is that, as these families are working with us out on the construction site, you get to see some of the young boys in the families who maybe take a liking to the construction supervisors that work for Habitat and they build a bond. And it may be the first male adult in their life that they’ve really been able to have some sort of bond with, so… We talk all about changing lives, and we change lives in so many other ways than just building four walls and a roof.
Joe: Now, is that something that you address with the workers? Because obviously that’s an unusual position to be put in, unless you’re building Habitat homes regularly. So, with your background at Big Brothers, Big Sisters, is that something where you actually train them, or talk to them about how to interact in those situations, knowing that it’s a finite interaction?
Mike: Yeah, we talk about it all the time. We work really hard to make sure that each family should get the same, that we’re fair and consistent across the board, but we also realize that these families are coming from probably a place where they’ve struggled along the way, trust is usually an issue. So, any time that we can overcome that and build a bond with the families, I feel like we’re making some headway. One of the toughest things that we have in front of us as an organization from an HR standpoint is actually hiring construction site supervisors. And we have about 12 of them on our staff, and the reason it’s so tough is because I can go out and I can find somebody all day long that can build a house. What I can’t find is someone who can build a house and interact with volunteers, lead volunteers and do the same with homeowners. So, you have to have the patience, you have to have the understanding, you have to be okay with having to fix things after the volunteers leave sometimes, and then you also have to have the patience and understanding with the homeowners that we partner with. Nine times out of ten, if they show up to come and work on a house and they’re supposed to be there from eight to two, they’re gonna have things that pop up from time to time. They have three kids at home and they’re a single mom, well, stuff is gonna happen. And so, the empathy and the patience that we need from our site supervisors, they’re one of our biggest assets at Habitat.
Ashley: Have you had a staff around that in terms of recruiting a project manager or some other third-party participant to help facilitate between the construction staff and the volunteers?
Mike: What we really do is we really work hard to find potential site supervisors who have that personality of engaging with people. We can teach them how to build a house. We’ve actually hired a couple of folks as site supervisors who maybe we saw them swinging a hammer and we’re like, okay, their form is good, but maybe they don’t have the experience of building a house. We can teach them how to build a house. We can’t teach them how to interact with people and provide that high level of customer service, and beyond those six or seven hours every day that they’re leading volunteer crews and interacting with our families.
Ashley: So, if you think about recipients… or you call them partners? If you think about the – do you call them partners?
Mike: Yeah. Partner families.
Ashley: If you think about the partner families that are involved with the program, they need to have 360 hours of contribution, sweat equity in the project, they have to participate in seminars and classes…
Mike: Yeah, 20 classes.
Ashley: …to advance themselves and to set themselves up for success. You expect a considerable amount of buy in from your board to share your perspective and involvement perspective. So now, coming into leading double the amount of staff that you’ve had, talk to me about how you manage and how you’ve maybe dropped the hammer there.
Mike: [laughing] I think, again, it all goes back to what I said earlier about really surrounding yourself with strong leaders. I never pretend to be the smartest person in the room, and I never pretend like I have all the answers, and so I really lean pretty hard on my leadership team at Habitat, and they’ve really embraced it and stepped up. I’ve recruited a number of folks to come work at Habitat over the last few years that have been transformational in terms of what we’ve tried to do. And that ends up trickling down. I think at the end of the day, the thing that I preach to our leadership team the most is you gotta be carrying the Habitat flag. We can sit in our leadership team meeting, we can disagree all day, but when we all walk out the door we’re all carrying the same flag, we all have to be on the same page. And staff sees that, volunteers see that, donors see that and it’s the organization and the culture we’ve tried to build there, that we are an organization that’s trying to help families. At the same time, we’re a business. Just because we’re a non-profit. I feel like a non-profit is a tax status, it’s not a business model, so we can’t lose money, we can’t always run with no profit. And so, it’s really been a matter of culture shift for us. And it’s forced me to change and learn along the way as well, especially as a first time CEO. I’ve been fortunate that I’ve had a lot of mentors in my life that have helped, I can balance ideas off of. My board has been nothing but supportive, absolutely amazing board of directors that really allows me to run the organization, but then they’re there to be that advisement that may be needed from time to time.
Joe: With all the waves that you’re making, doubling the size of your organization in a competitive market, does Habitat national taking notice, or are people starting to make pilgrimages down here to see how you did it?
Mike: I think so, yeah. I get phone calls probably one to two a week from other Habitat affiliates asking, ‘How did you do this?’, ‘How did you do that?’ We’ve recently did a project with Lady Antebellum that came in town, and the band came and built with us on one of our sites, so… and that was all facilitated through Habitat International. So, when you’re one of the high producing organizations in the network, the national organization or international organization, they rely on you a little bit too, because they know that you’re gonna do what you say and say what you mean.
Ashley: Was that through a board connection, or was that through HSN?
Mike: It was a partnership through HSN and Habitat International.
Ashley: Smart. That’s really smart.
Mike: Yeah, it was really neat, a different experience. It was like paparazzi on the job site, but I think everyone embraced it and had a lot of good fun with it.
Joe: Would have made a great episode.
Ashley: Joe is busy concepting this whole idea right now in his head.
Joe: Where is my GoPro? I’m in.
Ashley: I’m getting a great education on Habitat. From an international perspective, you spent some time in Nicaragua. Share with us some highlights from that.
Mike: It was an amazing trip. Habitat International is in 70+ countries around the world, and Nicaragua was a country that we identified there was a great need. They don’t see a lot of financial support, they don’t see a lot of volunteers coming in Nicaragua. On the flip side, you have Guatemala to the North that gets a ton of support, and you have Costa Rica, which everybody wants to go just to zipline and all that good stuff. So, those two Habitat affiliates do very well. So, Nicaragua is lost in the middle, right? So, we identified it as an organization that hey, let’s send some volunteers down. And so, we identify a country every year to partner with, and Nicaragua was this year’s partner, or 2017. And so, in November myself and 11 other individuals took a trip, a ten-day trip to Nicaragua, we had a couple of culture days on the front and a couple on the back, and then we built a home with a single mom with two girls over the course of about five days. It was the very first home, I found this interesting, very first home in Nicaragua where the restroom was gonna be inside the house, and so it was kind of a big deal for them. Typically, in the past, the Habitat homes had a latrine in the back with a wash station and a sink and that kind of thing. And so, when you go to the second poorest country in the Western hemisphere on a trip like that, it really puts a lot into perspective. The people relatively speaking do not have much, and yet they are just so happy, so happy to just be alive and spend time with their family and their friends. And it’s a different culture, it’s obviously a much slower pace than the hustle and bustle of the United States, but it was definitely a rewarding project, it was life-changing in a lot of ways. The way that you are able to bond with the family. I don’t speak any Spanish, I knew el banho and cerveza, so I could find the bathroom and a beer.
Ashley: Well done.
Mike: But to be able to bond with a family where you don’t even have the opportunity to really speak to each other, but yet you bond just in the support you’re providing them over the course of five days was really just an amazing experience.
Joe: That sounds like a two-part episode.
Ashley: Still in it.
Joe: Yeah, sorry.
Ashley: Take off the director’s cap, if you will.
Joe: Right. [laughing] I’m actually really curious about the ReStore, and can you talk about its evolution, specifically the vision behind the products and then, as it’s grown in success, are you expanding out the types of products that you offer?
Mike: Yes. So, the ReStore was developed probably about ten to 15 years ago on a national level as an opportunity to raise more revenue for the affiliates. So, it’s a programmatic arm of what we do, it’s not a separate company, not a separate organization. And we have two locations here in Pinellas County. We have our main headquarters, which is on the corner of 45 and Ulmerton in Clearwater, and then we have a second location we opened about two years ago up in Palm Harbor off of US19. The interesting thing about the ReStore is 100% of the proceeds go back into building more Habitat homes. So, it helps to fund a couple of houses every year with the proceeds from it. But it also, on the flip side, it actually is an environmentally friendly operation, because we’re keeping things out of the landfill, and so there are maybe items that are worthless to you or I, however there’s someone out there that could probably see some value in a product. So, what we do is we sell gently used and brand-new building supplies, building materials, furniture… pretty much anything you could find in the home, we would carry that at the ReStore. And so, we have amazing partnerships, and those partnerships have grown over time, and these partners donate product to us. And so, when you’re looking at redoing the bathroom, you can probably come at the ReStore and find tile, you can find a new tub, a new shower basin or a toilet, sink… all that kind of stuff we carry at the ReStore.
Joe: Has the mix been the same all along, or have you expanded? I can’t remember, it seems I thought you added appliances, or something, or have they always been there?
Mike: There’s been items we’ve backed away from a little bit. So, we’ve gotten a little bit more out of the furniture business. We really do try to focus more on the building supply piece, stuff that you would find at Home Depot and Lowe’s. There’s a lot of thrift stores and a lot of gently used stores out there, but I don’t know of anyone else that sells the building supplies at a reduced amount, and so in some ways we probably do compete with Lowe’s and Home Depot on some things, but at the same time they donate a lot of stuff to us, overruns or returns and that kind of thing. So, it’s really neat. I always tell the story that my couch in my living room is from the ReStore. It was a brand-new couch that was donated through American Signature Furniture, they said it was a scratch in there, I couldn’t find anything wrong with it. I finally found a little scratch on the wood base on the one side, so I turned the wood base about 90 degrees in and now you don’t even know. And I have a brand-new couch. So, I bought it at 60% lower than what I would have paid for it in the store, and I helped Habitat. So, that’s the neat piece of the ReStore.
Joe: What’s the strategy behind moving into that second store and possibly moving into a third? Is it financially-based or opportunity-based, do you already have one picked out for the next one and…?
Mike: Yeah. We actually are talking a little bit about a third store. We did a feasibility study about four or five years ago. We didn’t look at where the customer base was, we looked at where the donor base was. What we find are that our customers will drive to our store. Donors have to be within a two to three-mile radius of the store. And so, when we opened the Palm Harbor store, that was the thinking behind that one. The first store was, hey, let’s be centrally located in the County. We found the whole Sports Authority or Sports Unlimited building, and it was just perfectly centrally located. The Palm Harbor store is in one of the wealthier zip codes in Pinellas County, and so the idea there is we’re able to pull donations from those wealthier zip codes, but then again people will drive there to shop.
Joe: Got it. And do you have any kind of mechanism for picking up things and bringing them to the store?
Mike: We do, we have three trucks that operate five days a week, and that you can schedule a pickup. So, we’ll come to your home, we’ll come to your business and we will pick up your items. And so, we try to make it as easy as possible for folks that do want to donate.
Joe: And all this information will be in the show notes page for anyone listening to contact the Restore and get the pickup schedule.
Ashley: There are several ways to skin a cat, so driving philanthropic activity through the ReStore efforts, certainly through individual contributions, through foundations… very strong in the event space. In fact, half a million plus in revenue in the event space. And you’re notorious for this infamous gala where you have your sponsors participate in a contest, if I’m not mistaken.
Ashley: An interior design contest.
Mike: Yeah. There’s a lot of galas out there, and…
Ashley: Is it gay-la or gah-la?
Mike: Gah-la, gay-la…
Mike: It’s all the same, right?
Mike: So, it’s an event you put on a suit, it’s one of the only three events a year I usually put a suit on for. So, our event, it’s called The Blueprint, and the idea or the conception of it came through a woman by the name of Laura Fage, who is an event planner here in St. Petersburg, and what we really wanted to do is to design something that is different than your traditional black-tie event. Everything in the home centers around the kitchen table and around that dining experience. And so, we created a dining experience that we feel is like no other. And so, we bring in about 12 to 15 home designers, and they design these custom eating spaces that are all different depending on where you’re sitting in the room, and it’s really just a matter of trying to make it different, making the experience for the guests first class. And then, there’s a competition among the designers, and so we do give out an award for best dining space and runner up, and that kind of thing. And they get pretty competitive.
Ashley: I’ve heard that.
Ashley: Is it thematic, is it every year there’s a different theme?
Mike: Yeah. So, this year’s theme is band stand. So, we’ll have 13 dining experiences, and then we have about 20 tables in the middle of the room that are basic tables. But for the dining experiences, each room will be a different era of music, and so you’ll have the ‘80s room, or the ‘90s room and that kind of thing. Last year our event was a circus theme, old circus. It was really neat. We brought in one of the Wallendas who was our guest, and to kick off the event we do a skywalk over the Sundial, which you may have heard about.
Joe: Oh, yeah, I do remember that.
Mike: And one of the Wallendas walked across the world’s largest Sundial here in St. Petersburg.
Ashley: This is a reality show in the making.
Mike: Saying actually…
Joe: Episode three.
Mike: He walked from one side of the Sundial to the other, and it was a pretty windy day, it was probably one of the scariest 15 minutes of my career, but we…
Joe: No such thing as bad publicity, Mike.
Mike: I guess not. And here’s the ironic thing, it was one week after his brother and family fell, if you remember that happen. We probably got on one hand extra PR out of it, but it was very nerve-wrecking going into it, so… But everything went well, and Rick did an amazing job and then came to the gala the next month. And the year before that was a great gardens theme, which was pretty neat. We brought in P. Allen Smith, he’s a PBS show, a famous gardening expert, and so he was our guest that year. So yeah, the idea is to change up theme, to make it new every year, and Laura Fage does an amazing job planning it for us, and then our staff does an amazing job of bringing in the corporate sponsors and the supporters to attend.
Ashley: That shows your development prowess for sure. You have to invest in opportunities to engage your donors and to certainly thank them, and that sounds like that you’ve carved out some space to do that with your events.
Mike: Yeah, we’ve really tried, our gala was on when I was hired in 2014, both our gala and our golf tournament, so those were the only two events that we do at Habitat, both of them were on life support. The gala… we kind of got tired, and just like a lot of organizations struggle with that sometimes. And then our golf tournament was more of a friend-raiser than it was a fundraiser. But if you’re gonna allocate that type of time or energy towards an event, there has to be some sort of return. So, both events, you fast forward four years and both events are tremendous revenue generators for us. But at the same time, we’ve built the mission component into it, where we feel really good about putting on the event. It’s not just about the money, it really does give us the opportunity to educate the public and educate our attendees about what we’re doing in the community.
Joe: So, what’s… beyond the obvious, let’s say, what’s the hardest part about your job? What’s the thing that people wouldn’t expect to really be either gut-wrenching, or just way more difficult than you thought it would be? Does anything come to mind?
Ashley: Besides multiple pitches for a reality show, and diplomatically declining…?
Joe: You came with that very tactically about it.
Mike: You know, I would probably say it’s the balance of running the organization and the HR component. I want nothing more than our employees to love every day at Habitat. I take it personal when someone is not happy at their job. I wish we had more resources to be able to provide the most fun and enjoyable work experience that people could possibly have. So, that’s probably the number one – I don’t want to say drainer, but it’s probably the thing that keeps me up at night. When I went from being Development Officer to being the CEO, all of the sudden I had to worry about 55 lives. And so, ensuring that everyone has a safe place to work and a place that they know we’re gonna be there tomorrow, especially in the non-profit sector, that’s important for me.
Joe: Does that feel more like a struggle moving upwards, or more of avoiding a big negative? Is it more like your biggest worry is that something really negative comes out, or is it more just keeping a general level of happiness up for everybody?
Mike: No, I think it’s keeping the general level of happiness up for everybody. I think we do a really good job of bringing on good folks, we have a great team and… Yeah, I feel like when you walk around the office and you get to know some of our staff, I think people truly are there because of the mission, and it’s just making sure that people feel secure in their job, that they’re performing at a high level. We’re a fast-paced organization. Building 60 homes a year, that’s building a new one every week over the course of the year, and so in order to do that you have to be a high performer. And…
Joe: And you said HR, actually I think I heard you say PR, which is why I asked the question that way.
Mike: Oh, no, I’m sorry, I said HR, yeah.
Ashley: Is it safe to assume that you have some employees that have been at Habitat for quite some time, even decades, and some that are really new?
Ashley: That can create a little bit of a cultural moment.
Mike: Yeah, I would say the folks at work there have done a really good job adapting to the change and to growth, which is why they’re there. We definitely have had some struggles along the way, but people that buy into the direction of the organization, they end up overcoming that change and they adapt.
Ashley: That’s really it. I think that you talked about messaging externally, and all non-profits have it, it’s the continually messaging internally, especially when you have operations integrating with fund development, integrating with all layers of a non-profit. You’ve been really involved in strategic planning for your association at the highest level, it’s probably articulated and communicated and even planned on with your board support. And just making sure that continuously filters down and there’s rhyme to reason to why things are changing and why is this process going away, and why is this person now telling me to do this thing, and understanding the bigger picture. I think many non-profits struggle with that.
Mike: Yeah, you hit the nail on the head. If you wanna come talk to our staff, you’re more than welcome to.
Ashley: Would love to. And vice-versa.
Mike: But yeah, we’re always doing more with less resources, especially in today’s climate and environment, and so I definitely think that’s probably the biggest challenges, staying out in front in terms of communication. I try to always operate with an open-door policy, I will share anything with staff as long as it’s not confidential information. So, it’s typically back to that HR thing is pretty much the only thing that I wouldn’t allow a staff member to come in and ask me about, but we’ll be completely an open book to our staff when it comes to anything. And I’ll use as an example, a couple of weeks ago we found out that there’s a funding source we may lose here in the next couple of months, and I sat down with our entire staff and shared with them what we anticipate the impact being and how, as an organization, we’re gonna address that. But then we also gave everyone the platform to be able to contribute if they had ideas. And what came out of that conversation was pretty amazing, because we had a couple of individuals who came to me afterwards, were probably the ones that I would not have expected to, because they tend to operate in their own silo, and were very vocal and wanted to figure out how they, in their role, could help us to make sure the least impact as possible with the staff.
Ashley: Yeah, and any business that has a strong mission component, there’s an emotional quality to some of those conversations, whether somebody feels responsible for losing funding, or somebody doesn’t understand why your business model may be changing. I think that that is also a layer of sensitivity that a new CEO, not new anymore, but you slowly have to build for yourself, it’s understanding that this is quite personal for many that have gotten involved with your mission for a specific reason, right?
Mike: Yeah. My old boss at Big Brothers, Big Sisters used to always say, ‘It’s not personal, but it is.’ And that’s the truth behind everything when it comes to working with individual people. It is personal, it’s their work environment, they probably spend more time at work than they do with family.
Ashley: They may not be doing it for the paycheck? What do you think?
Mike: Yeah. So, there’s a lot of different dynamics that play into it, and so again, trying to be as transparent as possible with staff, I think those go a long way.
Joe: And that’s institutionally baked in it. Matt Spence shared a Dan Pallotta TedX talk where he covered a lot of the unfortunate double standards when it comes to non-profits versus for-profits, and you expect pay to be modest, or you’re not overpaying people to get the best talents, so there has to be some component of their soul in it. And so, whenever you do that, then all things you just talked about become heightened and even more coming into play.
Mike: Yeah, Dan Pallotta really talks about the competitive edge, right? So, trying as a non-profit organization to bring in the best talent as possible, but yet we’re competing with the for-profit companies that can pay and offer so much more than a non-profit does, so we really do have to rely on these people who truly have a heart for the work that you’re doing. And so, because we don’t look at it like hey, we’re a non-profit, we can’t pay – we really do try our best to compensate competitively. Our board for probably the last six to eight years, we pay 100% of our health insurance for our employees, which is a nice little perk. And I don’t know even for-profit companies that do that. So, there’s a lot of things that we’ve tried to make it flexible. A flexible work environment right now is huge for people, so flexible and a very generous PTO policy, I mean there’s different things that we can do as an organization to attract talent and to keep them, but that’s a continuing conversation that I think so many people are having, especially in the non-profit sector right now, is how do we keep the best talent that we possibly can?
Ashley: And how you safeguard for turnover? Some turnover is going to happen, and so you identify the spaces where you’re likely to see that, albeit efforts around training, efforts around creating the best cultural environment possible, and being able to continuously work against that tide. It could be the nature of the non-profit space specifically that sees turnover in the way that maybe for-profit doesn’t.
Mike: Yeah, I would agree. And unfortunately, because the pay sometimes for a lot of organizations isn’t very high, people will leave a job for 50 cents down the road, and so I think that that’s where the organizations that we all work for really have to – that you gotta figure out how to invest in people, and maybe it’s not always about the paycheck, maybe there are ways that the training is huge, professional development, the exposure in the community…
Joe: Maybe some credit on this show would be a good one.
Mike: Yeah, there you go.
Ashley: We’ve dropped it.
Joe: I’m sorry.
Ashley: With that, absolutely. Training and investment in staff. We were talking, Joe and I, earlier about a conversation that we had with somebody who was very well accomplished in his career, now retired, and he explained the moments in his career when he experienced the most satisfaction and professional growth and was the best leader. And it was when he was able to get himself to a point where he surrounded himself with those that were smarter than he was, and then he created the space to sit and think. And at first blush I really wanted to judge that, I really wanted to look at that as inaction in a world of pure hustle and pure execution. But I see the brilliance in that, creating a moment to allow everything that you’re exposed to, to really integrate and give you that platform to start to vision what’s next. Do you create those moments for yourself? Are you finding that necessary now with everything that you’re asked to do, to find time to recede back in service to the growth of your organization?
Mike: So, I think I perform and I work my best under pressure. So, I actually enjoy the hustle and bustle of everyday. So, it’s funny, because I started this week looking at my calendar and I’m like, gosh, what can I move? What can I cancel? How do I create more time? But all things considered, weeks like this where I’m just jam packed and I have meetings and I’m out in the community and I have staff meetings, board meetings – those are the weeks where I produce at the highest. So, I’m probably a little bit of the opposite of this gentleman. I find my downtime on the weekends, I think a lot of people that I interact with think I’m an extroverted person, but if you know me in my personal life I’m the complete opposite. So, I find time on the weekends and in the evenings, usually later in the evenings, to really relax and just have downtime. I’ll find time of quiet, my faith is very important to me, so I do try to find some time everyday for that, but I think that when it comes to my work schedule and, really, that strategic thought process, I’m challenged by the everyday hustle and bustle of what we’re doing and carving out that time in that to really be thinking about the future. Just having this conversation with you guys today, I’m thinking about what Joe was talking about with the Tiny Houses earlier, now I’m like – okay, maybe we do wanna be the innovator in this area. So, you know, I don’t know, but…
Joe: Do it.
Mike: With a reality show, right? So yeah, that’s… The transition into the CEO role four years ago was probably more difficult from the HR piece and dealing with the staff than personally.
Joe: That piece of having you being the buck stops with you, does that grate – or what’s the right word? I don’t know. Does that press against your introversion more than the public speaking? How do you handle being an introvert and do this in a high-profile role, with lots of people in your…?
Mike: Yeah. If you talk to my family and friends, I think a lot of people will say… they can tell when I’m in work mode, because I’m on. And I just think that that’s my personality. I like to learn about people, I like to interact with people, and so it doesn’t feel awkward to me. Who I am in the workspace is who I am outside the workspace, just maybe a little bit more quieter or maybe a little bit more reserved. Where in the workspace, if I’m in a lunch meeting with 12 people around the table, I may be the one that has to dictate, or keep the conversation going on – in my personal life, if I’m having dinner with 12 people around the table, I’m probably the last one to speak. So, again…
Ashley: It’s a power move.
Mike: You think so? Oh, I don’t know about that, I just… I’m probably tired from talking all day. But no, I think, in all seriousness, yeah, it’s strange. This role over the last four years has really allowed me to get to better know myself, and that’s one of the things I’ve come to learn, it’s that I’ve recharged through down time and quietness.
Ashley: Well, it’s funny. When you talked about your pursuit, or your original pursuit of fundraising in the hospital space or the University space, those two spaces are the most notorious for being the most stringent, oppressive, structured, really the toughest fundraising gigs out there, from a measurement if you don’t hit goal, you’re gone, there’s no real flexibility, versus any other fundraising pursuit…
Mike: Yeah, don’t give me boundaries, because that’s probably where I fail.
Ashley: I feel like most people have to push and nudge into those roles, but you were going after it.
Mike: I think at the time that’s what I…
Ashley: You just didn’t know what you didn’t know.
Mike: Yeah. I’m a big USF fan, went to school there and I always saw myself as I could go raise money for USF, that would be awesome. I’m passionate about the school, have season tickets for football and basketball, I could do this. But yeah, I don’t know, now looking at it in terms of what I know now, Habitat is where I wanna be, I love it here.
Mike: I love the Tampa Bay area, I’ve fallen in love with Pinellas County. As someone who grew up on the Hillsborough side, my pride and my loyalty is on this side of the bay now, and…
Ashley: He’s been converted.
Mike: I have been, I know. I used to come over to Pinellas County to go to the beaches on the weekend, and I remember the Baywalk was built, checking that out and seeing what that was all about. But now that I’ve lived on this side of the bay, I rarely go to Tampa, typically to the airport or to a sporting event.
Ashley: So, let’s get into it really quickly, Mike when he’s not in full work mode.
Ashley: Baseball fan, baseball aficionado?
Mike: Huge baseball fan.
Ashley: Talk about that.
Mike: Gosh, I guess it probably all goes back to my childhood, I went to my first baseball game when I was eight years old at Yankee Stadium, the old Yankee Stadium, and just fell in love with baseball. It was also the first sport I played when I was a little kid. And until I was eight years old I actually lived up in the New Jersey/Pennsylvania area, and so my dad took me to a couple different stadiums. So, I went to the Vet, to the old Shea Stadium, to the old Yankee Stadium… And I think part of it was I fell in love with these massive buildings, right? So, being able to go into a stadium, I was just like in awe. And even to this day, I love architecture and…
Ashley: I was going to ask you about that.
Mike: Yeah. And I don’t know anything about architecture, I just…
Ashley: But can you help yourself now? If you go into a home, you’re just like, ‘We need a bathroom here, this needs to be completely torn down’? ‘Where did they get this couch, was it the ReStore?’
Mike: Oh, absolutely not. [laughing] Absolutely not. I…
Joe: Okay, so you’re not in work mode when you go to houses.
Mike: No, not at all. I think I look at stuff, like buildings and older buildings especially, and I just have an appreciation for wow, this is really cool.
Ashley: Got it. So, back at stadiums, you really…
Mike: So back to stadiums, yeah. So, I fell in love with going to the games, and I think it was probably the one bonding thing I did with my father on a regular basis, was go to sporting events, and so kind of fell in love with it. We moved down here, spring training became the norm, and I spent almost the entire month of March as a little kid going to Blue Jays games in Dunedin, we had season tickets for the – you know, spring training season tickets there. It was just something that, at an early age, just was inside me. And so now, when I plan vacations, I try to plan them. I typically take two weeks off from the first couple weeks of July every year, so start of our new fiscal year and so try to forget the previous year. And I typically build in some sort of sporting event during my trip. So, this year we went up to Chicago for fourth of July, but the main driver for me was the Rays were playing at Wrigley. So, we went up, went to the game, we went to San Francisco after that for about five days.
Mike: Had to hit a Giants game while I was out there. So, for me, that’s the driving force behind everything I do, is sports. And I find some comfort and relaxation behind it, but it also is my opportunity to forget about the day and just… I really try to sink myself into the game and really watch.
Joe: I went to one (habitat) dedication last year, and it was the Rays’ house, so got to interact with them. Did you get anything interesting coming out of that interaction baseball-wise?
Mike: Yeah, the Rays have been a great supporter of ours over the last couple of years, they’ve built a house each January for the last couple of years. The cool connection there is I actually went to high school with Kevin Cash, so to me it was kind of like, ‘Oh, cool, Kevin is coming out to present the keys,’ I thought it was pretty neat. The Rays have been a very giving organization, despite the attendance and despite that lack of revenue for them, they’ve found ways to invest back into the community and support organizations. We’ve been a fortunate partner of that. We’ve also partnered with the Lightning in a number of different ways. And we also have done a number of projects with the former Bucs running back. We have a couple of projects coming up in the summer time with him, and we’ll involve a number of former NFL players and stuff. So, I’d love tying in the sports component to anything that we do at Habitat. We had some of the USF football players out working on a house in midtown a couple of months ago. And so, for me anything that involves sports is definitely a passion.
Ashley: Was that ever a theme at one of your gay-la gah-las?
Mike: That’s a great idea!
Ashley: You haven’t done it yet?
Mike: No! But that might be the next one.
Joe: You should come on this show more often.
Joe: You’ll just basically have the next five years sorted.
Mike: I’m telling you, 2019 might be the sports theme, yeah. I might be the only one there, but, you know, that’s okay…
Joe: Some people are growing in somewhere.
Ashley: The Rays will definitely sponsor that, the Lightning will sponsor that, no doubt.
Joe: Yes, no doubt. Yeah. And speaking of the Rays, I do want to give – I’ve become a last year fan of Brian Auld’s.
Joe: I’m on several communities with him, and he has got a great mind, and he’s not afraid to be contrarian and to speak his truth, and it’s been a great thing to watch.
Ashley: I also see parallels between you and Brian, if I – with all due respect. And there’s a playful quality to you, right? There’s an accessible quality to you, I can see you mentoring youth. I still think you probably should. I don’t think you should let that go yet, I think you could be a really positive influence. I’m just giving you more advice. You could be a really…
Mike: So, first off, don’t tell Brian you compared me to him, because I don’t know how he’d like that. But the second thing, I do still mentor my – I had a little brother I was matched with when he was eight years old, and he just turned 17. So, he was home… He moved away a couple of years ago to go and live with his mom, he was raised by his grandparents, and he was home over the Christmas break. We actually went to a USF basketball game, and it was just so cool to catch up with him, and…
Mike: He is probably – outside of my work career, he is probably one of the most proudest things that I have going for me, just to see him becoming this young man who wants to go to college, he wants to go to USF, which I can’t help but to think that was influenced a little bit by me. But to see where he was at nine years old, where he couldn’t even look a person in the eye when he was talking to him, teaching him how to properly shake someone’s hand – and to see him now, and the confidence he has, and just how smart he is, and he’s so witty. That’s probably the piece I like the most, is I can joke around with him and he gives it right back to me. In a very respectful way, though. And so, I’m extremely proud of him. And that, as someone who has no kids, he’s probably the closest thing I do have, and in terms of that, and there’s definitely a sense of pride there. So, I definitely see myself, any time I have the opportunity to mentor someone in the office, or mentor someone, if it’s a child or what have you, I love that.
Mike: I wouldn’t be sitting here talking to you guys if it wasn’t for people that invested in me, and I credit my entire career and my life to the people that have really invested in me.
Ashley: Well, that’s a good segue to – we always do a shout-out at the end of this show, an individual or organization that needs some love.
Mike: Oh, geez. A person or organization that needs some love?
Ashley: Do you wanna provide some clarity, Joe?
Joe: Yeah, a person or organization that needs some love.
Ashley: [laughing] I think Joe in the past, he said, ‘a person, place or thing otherwise known as a noun’.
Joe: A noun, so…
Ashley: It could be personal life, professional life, it could be a colleague, it could be a mentor, it could be…
Joe: The only add-on is it’s someone who does not get that attention naturally, right? That just maybe deserves a little more than they’re getting, or just you appreciate them in a way that the world may not.
Ashley: I think Jeff Brandes talked about the spouses of those that are involved in the legislative process, so you could even funnel down…
Joe: Sorry, can’t do that. Can’t talk about politicians’ wives, sorry.
Mike: I do not wanna talk about politicians’ wives.
Ashley: That’s already been taken, it’s already been claimed.
Mike: Yeah. You know, there’s a person that’s definitely been a huge influence to me over the last four years, and was really there to encourage me when I was going through the application process at Habitat, which was not short by any means, it took about nine months from the first interview to the time I was hired. Her name is Nancy Ridenour and she is a CPA here in Pinellas County with PDR. She’s very involved in North County and a number of different organizations, she actually does the audit at Habitat, so she’s very familiar with the work that we do. But I see her as a mentor and as someone who I can always bounce ideas off of. It’s challenging sometimes, when you’re the CEO of an organization. I have to manage up and manage down, right? So, I have a board of directors that I have to manage up to, and I have 55 staff members I have to manage down to. And so, sometimes it’s lonely, sometimes you’re stuck in the middle and it’s like, who do you talk to? There’s certain things I won’t go to a board member about, obviously, and I definitely, when I have an HR issue or something, I can’t talk to staff, I don’t have a peer. And so, having folks like Nancy, and there’s a few other folks too that I can bounce ideas off of, it goes a long way. So, I would say Nancy right now has been very instrumental in my career. Carol Hague, who is the President and CEO of the Clearwater Regional Chamber, which I’m on that board. There’s a few other folks, Ed Droste, one of the founders of Hooters is a big mentor of mine; Bill Brand, who is president of HSN, who, Joe, you’ve met before. So, I would say those four individuals have probably impacted my life and my career very significantly over the last few years.
Ashley: Well, congratulations for the last four years. You actually managed out with Joe and I today in terms of helping to facilitate some of our nuttiness, but… Great conversation, thank you so much.
Mike: Hey, thanks for having me, this has been a lot of fun. Appreciate it.
Joe: Appreciate it.
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About the host
Ashley Ryneska is the Vice President of Marketing for the YMCA of Greater St. Petersburg and a founding Insight Board member at the St. Petersburg Group. Ashley believes meaningful conversations can serve as the gateway to resolution, freedom, and advancement for our city. Her passion for storytelling has been internationally recognized with multiple media accolades.