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Kingsport native coming home to share business success story

Sharon Hayes • Dec 6, 2009 at 12:00 AM

KINGSPORT — He left Kingsport years ago to pursue his education and grow his business. Now Michael Strickland will return this week to his hometown to share his success story in hopes of inspiring others to pursue excellence in their own business ventures.

Strickland will serve as the keynote speaker at this year’s KOSBE Awards ceremony, beginning at 5:30 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 10, at The BANQ in downtown Kingsport.

Strickland is founder and chairman of the board of Knoxville-based Bandit Lites, one of the biggest companies in the entertainment lighting industry. The business has worked with some of the world’s top stars, and Strickland has received various awards through the years, including being named the CNN/USA Today National Entrepreneur of the Year in 1999.

The company has offices in Knoxville, Nashville, San Francisco, London, Hong Kong, and Taiwan, employing more than 300 full-time people and 200 part-time workers.

And it all started right here in Kingsport.

‘Bandit Lites’

Michael Strickland grew up in Kingsport and attended Robinson Middle School and Dobyns-Bennett High-School.

As a kid, Strickland loved music, but he couldn’t sing or play an instrument.

“I really love music, but I don’t have the ability to make it,” he said, adding he was kicked out of a boy’s choir at age 8.

In 1968 when he was 12, Strickland and his sister attended a rock concert at the Dobyns-Bennett Dome, and Strickland knew he wanted to be in the music and entertainment business.

Strickland brokered a deal to provide lighting for the next concert, and he and his friends “borrowed” lights from a theater on the other end of the school to put on the show.

“I just wanted to get into concerts,” Strickland said. “Obviously at 12, I had no idea it was going to lead to a career.”

He continued providing concert lighting through his school years until he graduated from DB in 1973.

He then moved the business to Knoxville and attended the University of Tennessee, obtaining a bachelor’s degree in business. He also attended the UT College of Law.

Through the years, Bandit Lites’ client list has grown to include various well-known stars, such as Garth Brooks, Amy Grant, Dolly Parton, Jimmy Buffett, Crosby Stills & Nash, WWF, Blondie, Alan Jackson, Moody Blues, Keith Urban, Queen, Van Halen, Lord of the Dance, Kenny Rogers, Alabama, The Judds, Quiet Riot and Twisted Sister.

The company has also worked big-time events, including the Statue of Liberty Rededication in 1986, Olympics ceremonies, Super Bowl XXIX Half Time Show, NASCAR awards, Dove Awards, MTV Music Awards, Woodstock 95 and 99, and presidential inaugural balls for Presidents Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, George H. Bush and George W. Bush.

Strickland said he probably would have become a lawyer had it not been for the Dobyns-Bennett Dome. The Dome didn’t have any poles that would obstruct views, and it had air conditioning — a novelty for concert venues back in 1968.

“Bands loved it,” Strickland said. “I loved it.”

Coming home

Strickland lives in Knoxville with his wife, Nicole, and two children, Chase and Cole. He rarely returns to Kingsport these days. His parents are deceased — his father, Thomas Strickland, worked as a research chemist at Eastman, and his mother, Marion, was a teacher in the Kingsport city school system. His brother Steven and sister Susan have moved away.

But he had many friends growing up in Kingsport, and he still comes back occasionally to see them. Strickland played football and basketball, was an Eagle Scout, and was twice president of his Junior Achievement companies.

And while most of his friends from the company’s early years went their own ways, some folks from Kingsport are still working with Strickland. Brent Barrett is vice president of business development; Mike Golden is vice president in the Nashville office, and Eric Shafferman is lighting crew chief.

Strickland said he’s looking forward to returning to Kingsport this week, and will speak at the KOSBE awards ceremony about his start in business, and how others can succeed.

“I hope it will inspire someone out there,” Strickland said.

The KOSBE Awards are handed out each year by the Kingsport Office of Small Business Development & Entrepreneurship. The awards will be separated into five areas of competition. One award will be presented to a young entrepreneur under age 40; one will be given for a new business in operation for at least 12 months but not more than 36 months; one award will be presented for business excellence for a company employing less than 10 people; one will be given for business excellence for a company employing 10 or more people; and one “Impact Award” will be presented to an outstanding individual and small business advocate nominated by one of the competing businesses.

Tickets are $25 per person. For tickets or more information, contact KOSBE at (423) 392-8801.

The title sponsor of this year’s KOSBE Awards is Southeast Community Capital. Additional sponsors include Citizens Bank, Clark & Company Development, GTS Refreshment Services, Integrity Capital Management, Kingsport Times-News, Leinbach Building Services, Pal’s Business Excellence Institute, Plastic Surgery Center of East Tennessee, Triten Insurance & Financial Services Inc., Urban Synergy, and Wilson Worley Moore Gamble & Stout PC.

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