Tom Kirkland had a dilemma. He was offered the job he really wanted in a great city, working for a major accounting firm. The only problem was that he had, only 24 hours previously, accepted a different job—one that he was much less enthused about. He thought about calling his new employer and rescinding his acceptance, but his father’s words held him back: “Son, you made a commitment. You should stick by it.”

“The first job of a leader is to inspire trust,” Tom Kirkland ’76 told students during a recent visit to Mays with his wife and business partner Melinda ’83. (view more photos)

After agonizing over the decision, he followed his father’s advice. More than 30 years later, he says he’s glad he did. “I believe in providence, not chance,” he says. “I think we are where we are supposed to be, and we are supposed to make the best use of where we are at that particular time.” Looking back, he says if he’d taken another path, he might not be where he is today, sharing the helm of TEKMAK Development Company with a great business partner—his wife, Melinda ’83.

Tom, who holds a degree in accounting from A&M and a law degree from South Texas College of Law, became interested in real estate development for a practical reason: when he would travel for business to the Round Rock/Pflugerville area, he’d have trouble finding a hotel room. Where others would have seen those “no vacancy” signs as an annoyance, he saw opportunity. Why not build another hotel? The idea evolved into TEKMAK and, a few years later, they did open a Holiday Inn Express in Pflugerville, but not before opening a Hawthorne Suites in College Station. Since starting the business 10 years ago, the Kirklands have overseen the development and operation of seven hotels and one student housing facility (The Tradition at Northgate).

From these experiences, Tom says he’s learned something important: trust is vital to an organization and to the marketplace. Society is “in a crisis of trust,” he says, lamenting that a small percentage of unethical businesspeople has ruined trust in the marketplace for the majority who deal honestly.

“As we move rapidly into an even more transparent, interdependent, global reality, trust is more career-critical than it has ever been,” he said, quoting Steven Covey’s book The Speed of Trust. Nowhere is trust more important than at the top of an organization. “The first job of a leader is to inspire trust,” he says. If your employees don’t trust you, then your organization cannot perform at maximum capacity.

He mentions Covey’s “trust tax” concept: as trust decreases, the cost of business increases. The opposite is also true: as trust increases, business becomes more efficient and inexpensive. He recommends that business professionals thoughtfully practice trustworthiness until it becomes second nature.

To become a trusted leader takes more than making ethical choices, though, says Tom. Trust is a function of two things: character and competence. “Character alone is not going to get you trust,” he says. “You must also have competence.”

“The minimum daily requirement has now become the maximum daily effort…Give the maximum daily effort. You’re going to be a lot more successful.”
—Tom Kirkland ’76

Another key ingredient to the Kirklands’ success has been their accountability to each other. Tom jokes that he’s a “Fire, ready, aim guy,” and that Melinda keeps him from making hasty decisions. Melinda, who earned a degree in management from A&M, serves as the purchasing manager for TEKMAK. Find a partner that “fills in your gaps,” that is, whose strengths complement your weaknesses, says Tom. And you don’t have to be married to your business partner to find that kind of relationship, adds Melinda.

However, “it is important to find a partner that supports your dreams,” says Tom, recounting how Melinda encouraged him to leave the stability of his job at a law firm to start building hotels—a business which he knew very little about. TEKMAK has seen some challenges (both mentioned the difficulties they encountered while building The Tradition at Northgate), but the Kirklands have remained a committed team while meeting these challenges.

Things don’t always go according to plan, says Tom. “You can do one of two things: you can quit and feel dejected and despondent, and feel sorry for yourself; or you can do the opposite and you can persevere. You can figure out how to make it work.” It’s obvious that the Kirklands have figured out how to do just that.

The Kirklands recently visited Mays Business School to guest lecture. The couple lives in Dallas and have two children, one of whom is a student at Mays.