Hard Work, Strong Faith: UMobile Trustee Tommy Robinson Builds a Miracle

Tommy Robinson stood in the middle of a miracle.

After eight years of obstacles – Hurricane Katrina, the BP oil spill and a recession – the $245 million Phoenix West II was open. Nicknamed “the Taj Mahal of the Gulf Coast” at 32 stories and 1.9 million square feet, the beachfront condominium is Alabama’s largest residential building.

Tommy Robinson and his two partners, Gene and Tillis Brett, built it. Standing on the curved staircase rising from the lobby, with the brilliant bluegreen Gulf of Mexico filling the lobby windows behind him, Robinson said, “God made this happen.”

Meet Tommy Robinson, 79, a member of the University of Mobile Board of Trustees. He is a straight-shooter whose education in the college of experience has brought him to the top of his profession. It takes guts to say you’re going to build a Taj Mahal, and it takes grit to make it happen despite natural and man-made obstacles that devastated a region.

Robinson is a determined man who believes in two things – working hard and following God.

Those beliefs, and the actions that accompany them, enabled Robinson to build condominiums along the Gulf Coast, subdivisions, churches, manufacturing facilities and the 45-yearold Brett/Robinson Development Co.

Those ideals also built him a reputation for honesty, fairness and success.

“Your reputation means everything,” he said. “One of my theories of life is that nobody knows what you are worth except a few people – but it’s what you do in life, and did you accept Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior.”

Humble Beginnings

Whether standing on that stairway or sitting in his office surrounded by trophies from his African safari, Robinson is a long way from his childhood in Frisco City, AL, where an outhouse, pigs and chickens were part of his life. Although Robinson says he “barely made it out of high school” at Vigor High where he lettered in baseball, he had a knack for math and a strong work ethic.

At age 17 he married Elsie, and they celebrated 52 years together until her death. They raised three children, including daughter Deborah Nelson of Saraland who also serves as a UMobile trustee as well as a member of the board’s Executive Committee.

Robinson started out as a welder and pipe fitter who finished his shift each day at Courtaulds or Ingalls Shipbuilding, then framed houses and finished sheetrock in his off time. His skill and reputation landed him the important job of running the pipe coming off the nuclear reactor on the U.S.S. Snook and the U.S.S. Barb submarines being built in the late 1950s and early 1960s at Ingalls.

By age 23 he had $23,000 in the bank. By the time he was 27, he had saved over $80,000 and was getting tired of pipefitting and welding. Along the way, he had bought some land in Saraland, sold some lots, started building houses on the side, and took at look at the future.

“I was thinking about all those chemicals at Courtaulds, and how it turned the money that was in your pocket black after just 30 minutes of being there,” he said. The Saraland area was growing, people were buying home supplies, and he had an opportunity to invest his savings in a small hardware store.

He expanded the store, renamed it Coastal Home Center, and added inventory that would attract homeowners and homebuilders alike, including appliances from RCA and GE. An accomplished hunter, Robinson became the largest Browning firearms dealer in the Southeast for five straight years.

Within five years the business grew from $8,000 in inventory to $2 million. Robinson was supplying more than 30 builders a year with complete homebuilding packages. He invested in the building boom, providing construction loans to homebuilders and selling land for home sites.

“I treated people the way I want to be treated. I wanted to do this the right way,” Robinson said.

Then, at age 36, he sold the hardware business.

“It got to the point that I would see people at church turn the other way or go out another door, because they couldn’t pay me. I thought, ‘my heart is going to be scarred.’ That’s why I sold it,” he explained.

What came next set the course for the next 45 years.

“I was sitting at home, rocking in a chair on Christmas Eve, wondering what I was going to do with my life,” he said. That’s when Tillis Brett called.

Tillis and brother Gene had decided to leave the real estate company they worked for to start their own. Brett/ Robinson Development Co. had its beginnings in the question Tillis Brett asked Robinson that day: “Why don’t we build some houses together?”

“We started developing subdivisions together and the company kept growing,” Robinson said.

Weathering Storms

Described today as a “full time, full service company,” Brett/Robinson Development Co. is an industry leader in real estate. The business serves as developer, sales force, construction and management company.

Since Robinson and the Brett brothers joined forces in the early 1970s, they have developed 30 subdivisions and built 19 condo projects along the coastline of south Alabama, plus numerous other projects. To give an idea of just a portion of the company’s impact: during 2013 Brett/Robinson sold over $132 million in real estate on the beach and $20 million in Saraland.

He takes pride in the company’s reputation for its pay-as-you-go approach to building the Phoenix projects that line the beach. That philosophy has allowed them to keep construction costs down, bills paid, and succeed with every project they undertake.

Along the way, the partners weathered four recessions, numerous hurricanes and a devastating oil spill.

There were times, Robinson said, that he thought the ambitious Phoenix West II might be their Waterloo. There were weeks they weren’t sure they could meet Friday’s payroll, and decisions made to sell capital to put into the project. Those worries were forgotten on Feb. 22, as former Alabama Gov. Bob Riley joined in the official grand opening celebration with all but two of the 358 units sold.

“Each recession has made us stronger,” Robinson said. “When I look back, those four recessions have been the most exciting times of my life. We had to reach down deep for strength to do what needed to be done, and during those times I am quite sure we mentioned the name of God more than once.”

Do the Right Thing

Robinson said the secret to his long partnership with the Bretts is simple.

“We always strive to do the right thing toward anybody who buys from us. And how can you be mad at your partners who always want to do right by everybody? We’ve got the right people with the right attitudes, and we put the Lord first in all our decisions,” he said.

A lifelong Alabama Baptist, Robinson was serving as chairman of the building committee for First Baptist Gulf Shores when he met his second wife, Deborah, who chaired the finance committee.

“I’m a lucky man,” he said. “God gave me two great ladies in my life, both Christians.”

His interest in the Baptist-affiliated University of Mobile began as the college was being founded and his friend, Mobile businessman Jay P. Altmayer, made the first major donation of land. Another friend, Massey Bedsole, was a member of the school’s Board of Trustees. Robinson watched the campus grow as he was building most of the homes in the adjoining College Woods subdivision.

He liked what he saw.

Sold Out to God

“What I like about the University of Mobile is what I hear about God. That’s what this university is all about. The president is certainly sold out to God, and he has a vision for the school,” Robinson said.

Also, Robinson is “a huge fan” of Dr. Roger Breland and his work as executive director of the Center for Performing Arts/School of Music and School of Worship Leadership.

Robinson said he believes in helping young people achieve their goals and make the most of their talents. Most of all, he advises them, give it everything you’ve got.

“If you are not willing to work hard, you will be mediocre and you will have wasted your time going to college. I believe if you work hard, you will be successful,” he said. “You need to have character and love the Lord – and work hard.”

Nothing, he said, is easy. But this is America – and you can do anything if you work hard enough.

“I was a nobody,” he said. Now, he’s the boss.

“Most people who work for me say I’m the best boss they ever had, but I know when to be tough, I know how to be fair,” he said.

With his 80th birthday approaching, Robinson said there is still more work to be done.

“We’re on the offensive,” he said. “We are talking about building more homes in Saraland, maybe another subdivision. We would like to build at least 10 more towers on the beach. We have the customer base and the knowledge. We know that 75 percent of people’s portfolio is in real estate and it needs to be treated seriously and professionally.”

As for retirement?

“I didn’t know there was any such word,” Robinson said with a laugh. He said he likes to stay busy “so my financial statement is where I can keep giving to the Lord and taking care of my family, because that’s what I love.”

About the Author

Kathy Dean

Kathy Dean uses her passion for storytelling and "playing with words" to share the stories of people, place and purpose that make the University of Mobile unique. As associate vice president for university communications, she manages media relations, edits the TorchLight alumni magazine, and oversees university communications. A former award-winning journalist, she is a two-time recipient of the Baptist Communicators Association grand prize for feature writing. Kathy and her husband, Chuck, live with three extremely loud miniature schnauzers.