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Business Observer Friday, Mar. 20, 2020 2 years ago

Insurance executive gives up CEO life for real estate venture

Not content to take it easy in retirement, a longtime insurance industry executive risked his nest egg on a real estate venture. One key to pulling it off? Knowing there are things you don't know.
by: Brian Hartz Tampa Bay Editor

Nearly a decade ago, John Tomlin faced a dilemma familiar to CEOs of companies that go through mergers: relocation or retirement. 

At the time, Tomlin was CEO of Tampa-based AAA Auto Club South, as it was known in 2011, when it merged with Dearborn, Mich.-based The Auto Club Group. He had begun his career with insurance giant Progressive Corp., which transferred him to Tampa in 1984. Five years later, he joined AAA and began his ascent up its corporate ladder.

When the merger occurred, Tomlin, now 64, was in his mid-50s. Tampa had been his home for nearly three decades. He didn’t want to accept another relocation. 

“They said, ‘John, if you really want to be considered [for CEO], you gotta be willing to move to Detroit,’” Tomlin recalls. “And I said, ‘Well, that's not an option.’ So I stepped back as CEO.” 

‘I know a lot about business and profitability and all those kinds of things, but I did not know near enough to run this.’ John Tomlin, co-owner of Tomlin St. Cyr Real Estate Services and Tomlin Commercial

Tomlin remained with AAA’s Tampa office until 2015, when he retired. He and his wife, Holly, who had recently wound down her business, traveled extensively throughout the U.S. and Europe for a few months. 

But after the excitement of seeing the world wore off, Tomlin, bored in retirement, faced yet another dilemma: what to do for a second act in his career. 

He found the answer in real estate. Now the brokerage he founded in 2016 with his wife and daughter, Allison St. Cyr, Tomlin St. Cyr Real Estate Services, has become one of the top firms in both residential and commercial real estate in the Tampa Bay region. In 2019, the company did $72 million in sales, up from $68 million in 2018 and $52 million in 2017. 

But how did a career insurance executive flip the switch so quickly and successfully to real estate? 

For starters, Tomlin says, he admitted what he didn’t know and relied on the expertise of others, particularly his daughter, who had been a Realtor with Coldwell Banker, and Mary Ann Porter, a veteran real estate agent who Tomlin brought onboard as the firm’s managing broker. 

“I knew I didn't know enough,” Tomlin says. “I know a lot about business and profitability and all those kinds of things, but I did not know near enough to run this.” 

Also, Tomlin says he didn’t jump into real estate blindly, another reason he was fully aware of his own limitations. “I didn't know what was happening at AAA,” he says. “I didn't know which way I would end up going. So I got my [real estate sales] license but didn't use it.” He followed that up with his broker’s license in 2016. 

Tomlin’s next challenge was finding office space. He handled that, and all the other startup costs, without any outside investment.  

“Holly, Mary Ann and I went out and did the search ourselves,” he says. “There were a lot of different buildings out there, but within our budget, you had to have a vision — you had to look in and see what the space could be, not what it was.”

The space they found, at 3907 Henderson Blvd., just west of the bustling Dale Mabry Highway commercial corridor in south Tampa, needed some work. “The outside was awful,” Tomlin says, “but we liked the location.” 

He paid $750,000 for the building — which had housed a law office and yoga studio before it was foreclosed on — and then spent another $350,000 on renovations. “It was a mess with nothing but weeds outside," he says. "We took the downstairs space down to the concrete floor and cinder block walls and just started over.” 

Now fully renovated and featuring the company’s colorful lettering and pineapple logo, the building is hard to miss. The business also has expanded following the December acquisition of Hohman Homes, Nico Hohman’s Tampa-based commercial real estate brokerage and property management company, now known as Tomlin Commercial. 

Tomlin St. Cyr Real Estate services has also established its own title company, Pineapple Title, so it can be a one-stop shop for property buyers and sellers. It’s a strategy that has paid off in the form of customer loyalty, Tomlin says, because clients like the low closing costs — usually around $695. 

“Nobody comes to closing having any idea what the costs are going to be,” he says, “and we see companies charging closing costs to both sides of $1,000 to $1,500. I don't think I've seen anyone who’s more competitive than we are in our pricing.” 

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