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Conversation with a CEO Guest Mike Sutton Leads Habitat to National Recognition

By Keith Morelli

Mike Sutton

TAMPA (September 9, 2021) -- Mike Sutton has been with Habitat for Humanity of Pinellas and West Pasco Counties for nearly eight years and even though he oversaw a merger and brought national recognition to the affiliate, he’s just getting started. His passion for creating affordable housing for low- to moderate-income Tampa Bay region residents comes just at the right time.

The region currently is in affordable housing crisis, as home and residential prices skyrocket, putting out of reach many homes for many working-class people.

“When you look at the record number of people moving to Florida, it is creating a crisis,” Sutton said. “I  feel it’s only going to get worse. Right now, it’s so much cheaper to move to Florida. The state remained open during the pandemic and the economy continues to do well.

“At Habitat, we are seeing people being priced out of their communities,” he said. “So, it comes down to public/private partnerships to drive that conversation of how to deal with this. Now’s the time to step up and do something about it. Habitat is leading the charge.”

Sutton’s comments came during a Conversation with a CEO, moderated by USF Muma College of Business Dean Moez Limayem on Thursday afternoon. Sutton talked about his vision for the organization, its mission and many points in between. To view a video of the conversation, click here.

He said the nonprofit is looking at innovative ways to get people into their own homes, including building or refurbishing townhouses and condominiums. Also being looked at as a forward-thinking cost-cutting measure: 3-D printed houses.

During his tenure, Sutton built a program that is a recognized model across the nation. As CEO, he has grown the organization into the second largest Habitat affiliate in the country, out of more than 1,200, based on new home construction.

He has more than doubled the impact within the community, serving 60 families a year, from 25 just four years ago. He increased revenue from $6 million to more than $22.5 million annually.

Sutton, who grew up in Tampa and is a USF alumnus, said his Habitat affiliate went through a busy year even as the pandemic laid waste to almost everyone else.

“When the shutdown happened, we pulled together,” he said. “We had daily meetings, we felt it was important to have face time, even if it was virtual, to talk about what’s going on, what the morale was like. Those daily meetings built so much trust and collaboration and leadership.

“Last year was a record year for us,” he said. “We built 60 homes in our community. We’re on track in 2021 to exceed that. Our goal is to continue to serve families and carry on with our mission.”

The mission, he said, is simple: partner with low to moderate income families who cannot afford housing by offering zero-interest mortgages. In return, clients must be willing to donate 350 to 400 “sweat equity” hours to help build their own homes or other homes.

The formula works, he said. Many clients begin a life changing trajectory after moving into their own homes.

“It creates stability in the family. They are not jumping around,” he said. “Students do better and we’re creating intergenerational wealth through home ownership.”

When he took over the affiliate, he learned he was not the first choice of the staff, which had backed an in-house candidate. But his experience in fundraising and building sustainability proved to be the right formula.

“I told the staff back then,” he said, “‘Look, we’re going to take off here, you can be on the train or stay at the station, but don’t be on the tracks.’”

Since then, the Habitat affiliate has taken off. Private revenue increased by 150 percent in the past five years, banking partnerships grew more than 300 percent since he began and the staffing level jumped by more than  150 percent, now providing full-time employment  to nearly 70 employees.

Sutton oversaw expansion plans that included a resource center in the South St Petersburg Community Redevelopment Area, which opened in March 2018 and successfully led the merger of Habitat for Humanity of Pinellas County with West Pasco Habitat for Humanity in 2019.

Nonprofits are part of his makeup. Prior to his current position, Sutton served as executive vice president and chief development officer with Big Brothers Big Sisters of Pinellas County.

He said working for nonprofits is challenging and rewarding.

There is a stigma, he said, that working for a nonprofit means not earning much and working long hours. That may be true in some cases, but if someone has a passion for a cause, it’s well worth the sacrifices. He said his affiliate invests in people who are set on helping the community.

“We find ways to retain and recruit staff that are talented and who are going to take Habitat to the next level,” he said. “We want to attract the best people. We must be competitive with the for-profit sector.”

Sutton, who recently signed a six-year contract to remain president and CEO, said he looks for executives on his leadership team who are passionate about the mission and who can collaborate with everyone in the organization from the top to the bottom.

“Résumés are only so much,” he said. “I’ve seen some pretty amazing résumés cross my desk. But those who get the leadership jobs must fit the culture of the organization. I’ve spent seven-and-a-half years building that culture. When someone new comes in, I don’t want disruption, well some disruption is good. I don’t want negative disruption.”