SPARTA – Tom Sergio isn’t exactly the type to wear a tie – at least not in his day-to-day 9-to-5. It’s one of the reasons he ditched his real estate career following graduation from Tennessee Tech with a finance degree. He figured he was much better suited – no pun intended – for construction. It didn’t hurt that he grew up around the business, when his dad was a building contractor in Wisconsin before moving the family south to Tennessee in 1980.
“I’ve done all kinds of different jobs,” Sergio said. “I sold real estate for a while. I milked cows on the farm.
“I realized what I really liked to do was build things,” he added. “To be able to walk away from a finished product with a sense of accomplishment.”
The move, meanwhile, had put the elder Sergio at a crossroads – even though he was semi-retired, word spread quickly that he had a building background.
“He was remodeling our house, and people found out that he did building, so he started doing a little bit of remodeling for this person and a little bit of remodeling for that person, and before you knew it, he was back into it,” Sergio said.
“When I graduated from Tech, we just kind of joined (together) and decided to go into business.”
Thus, J.A. Sergio & Sons was born.
In its infancy, the company, which incorporated in 1989, consisted of Sergio, his dad and his mom. Tom’s brother Jim joined in the early ‘90s; he still operates almost exclusively in the field. Later came brothers Don and Dave – who later left to operate Calfkiller Brewing Company full time. Today, Sergio has about 12 employees on staff and performs most jobs in the greater Upper Cumberland area of Putnam and White, even Van Buren.
“We have always done a little bit of everything,” Sergio said. “We started out with some remodeling, additions, things like that. Then we built several houses. As jobs came available, we never really backed away from them. We’ve done residential, commercial, industrial work. Dollar volume wise, we probably do more commercial work, but as far as sheer number of projects, it’s probably 50/50 (commercial and residential).”
Some of its most recent jobs include the renovation of the old Heritage Ford building for the Cookeville Public Works Department. Sergio & Sons is also remodeling the former Sylvan Learning Center on Veterans Drive – which it built nearly 20 years ago – into a doctor’s office. There was also a memorable residential project – they built a home on East Sixth Street that became the first solar house in the city back in 2009.
“We’ve grown a lot over the last 10 years,” Sergio said. “We’ve got quite a bit of work right now.” That’s not to say Sergio is entirely confident in a full-scale return to pre-recession building levels. While the company’s overall growth has been positive, there were a few years, admittedly, where it was flat.
“There were times when you took a job just to keep the guys busy,” Sergio said. “You had to step out of your comfort zone just a little bit. Through the last several years, surviving meant you were doing good. And we managed to do that (survive).
“It seems like this year started real strong,” Sergio added. “Housing looks good. Commercial looks like it’s backed off a little, but the housing market is still strong.”
Outside of work, Sergio is married and has three kids. He currently serves as president of the Home Builders Association of the Upper Cumberland (HBAUC), which also named him 2013 Builder of the Year, largely, he said, for his contributions to the non-profit group. He did urge young builders – like he was himself when he first joined HBAUC in the late ‘80s – to get involved in their trade organizations.
“That opened up a lot of doors and allowed me to meet a lot of people,” Sergio said. “It’s an all-around good thing. Any time you’re able to get with others and talk about what you do, it’s good, because we’re in competition, but we’re all friends, too.”
He attributes the success of J.A. Sergio & Sons to preparation – and its ability to adapt over the years.
“Part of being a general contractor is you end up learning a whole lot of different things. We normally end up doing (everything) ourselves,” he said. “You’ve got to do what you say you’re going to do, but you also have to look far enough down the road to prepare for the hard times. We’ve always been willing to do whatever it took to keep eating, so to speak.”