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Business Observer Thursday, Mar. 4, 2010 11 years ago

Rise Up

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A dramatic increase in annual revenues during a recession sure is nice. But the recipient, Gulf Coast construction veteran Tom Wessel, wonders how long it will last.
by: Mark Gordon Managing Editor

Tom Wessel's self-named construction firm was one of only a few Gulf Coast contracting firms to gain revenues in 2009.

In fact, the company grew 51% last year, from $5.3 million to $8 million. The seven-employee firm also moved into a new headquarters in Lakewood Ranch in 2009.

But don't be deceived by the growth, Wessel says. Last year was one of his toughest ever and he thinks 2010 will be even more of a struggle. While Wessel is optimistic on at least three pending bids for work, he realizes those bids could be denied because clients continue to wait out the recession — a familiar refrain in the region.

“A few years ago we were too big to take on some smaller projects,” says Wessel. “Now we are doing everything we can to keep our people busy.”

That is from a company that only two years ago had $19 million in annual revenues and 13 employees.

Back then and in the early 2000s, the company's project list was a combination of office, banks and church work.

It included the John Cannon Homes headquarters in Lakewood Ranch, a three-story, 58,000-square-foot building, and the downtown Sarasota headquarters for the Bank of Commerce, a 23,000-square-foot building. Tom Wessel Construction also built the clubhouse and sales center for the Lake Club in Lakewood Ranch.

Now the company survives almost entirely on church work.

Its mainstay project right now is the Bayside Community Church, a 54,000-square-foot complex on State Road 64 in eastern Manatee County. It includes a 900-seat worship center and 24,000 square feet for a youth area. Phase I is expected to be completed by April.

The Bayside project is worth $7 million, Wessel says, and is the main reason why the company was up 51% in revenues last year.

Still, that job was years in the making. Wessel's firm has been a member of the National Association of Church Design Builders for more than 18 years.

Membership in NACDB, says Wessel, is a strategy play, not just a way to connect with an industry-lobbying arm. For one, the association is a de facto barrier to entry for competitors in the niche of church building because there are only a few other NACDB members in Florida. Moreover, many religious organizations look to the association for help in selecting contractors.

Wessel also works closely with Don Lawson, who runs an architecture firm with an office next to Tom Wessel Construction. Lawson is well known for his work with churches. (See Review, Oct. 1, 2009.)

Wessel, unlike some of his competitors, isn't a career construction man. He actually began his business career as a CPA in Columbus, Ohio. While there, he picked up many clients in the construction industry.
One of those clients was John Cox, who moved to Florida in the 1980s and later bought Halfacre Construction, a local firm.

Cox lured Wessel and his wife to Sarasota on vacation in 1987. The couple loved it so much they never returned to Ohio; Wessel instead became Halfacre's chief financial officer.

Wessel decided to launch his own construction firm in 1992, with a focus on clients in professional fields including doctors, dentists, and bankers. The firm also regularly earned work from FPL in its early years.

The company was especially successful early on in the medical office field, Wessel says, partially because he brought a professional business-to-business approach at a time when not many competitors thought that way.

Wessel now hopes to strike a little bit of that medical magic again. He recently mailed 700 personally signed letters to doctors up and down the Gulf Coast, pitching his firm's services.
“When you are starting out you will do anything you can to get by,” says Wessel. “That's where we are now.”

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