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June 22, 2021 | Tom Ballard

PART 1: Michael Strickland’s entrepreneurial journey started at age 12

(EDITOR’S NOTE: This is another in our series of articles spotlighting some of the Knoxville area’s most successful and long-standing entrepreneurs, their paths to success, and the passions they continue to exhibit. Today, we begin a three-part series focused on Michael Strickland of Bandit Lites.)

By Tom Ballard, Chief Alliance Officer, PYA

Anyone who has spent more than a few minutes with Michael Strickland will quickly see that he has a deep and lasting passion for a wide variety of organizations and causes. Many of those involve the economic vitality of the community where he has lived since graduating from the University of Tennessee (UT), Knoxville.

Because of that multi-decade association with the home of the Big Orange, Strickland is heavily involved in many facets of his alma mater – everything from the athletics program to the Haslam College of Business, the UT Medical Center where he serves on its Board of Directors, and the President’s Council where we share membership.

We learned years ago that the Founder and Chair of Bandit Lites is a born salesman, a larger-than-life presence, and a person who not only relishes facts and figures but has the ability to recall them instantaneously. Those traits were clearly on display when we sat down with Strickland at the company’s headquarters off Western Avenue to talk about his 53-year entrepreneurial journey.

The year was 1968 when the then 12-year old student “borrowed” lighting from Dobyns-Bennett High School in Kingsport and began the company that has grown into a full-service design, management and producer of live events, theatrical productions, and live shows. Bandit Lites’ clients range from long-standing entertainers (Jimmy Buffett, Queen, Garth Brooks, Aerosmith, and the late Kenny Rogers to name a few) to newer ones like Jason Aldean, Gavin Degraw, and Carrie Underwood. The company also works with other organizations such as Boeing (the unveiling of the 787 jetliner) and the National Football League’s annual college draft spectacular.

As we learned very quickly during our conversation, the half-century journey that started for Strickland as a teenage entrepreneur had well-prepared the Kingsport native for a cause that he is championing today on a national stage. Simply put, it is the survival of the live events industry.

“We’ve been shut as an industry, not as a company, since March 13 of last year,” Strickland said at the time which was in the spring. That was the date that Live Nation and AEG, the two companies that organize 80 percent of live events around the globe, shutdown due to COVID-19.

While the rapid spread of the coronavirus came on very quickly and unexpectedly, Strickland was fortunate in the fact that he had prepared Bandit Lites for that sort of adversity. It is one of those lessons that is emphasized constantly by those who advise new entrepreneurs – cash is king.

And, for Bandit Lites and its employees, it has been a lifeline for the past year.

“I had saved money and had not spent our Capex,” Strickland says in reference to the money an organization or corporate entity spends to buy, maintain, or improve its fixed assets, such as buildings, vehicles, equipment, or land. “I own the buildings and equipment, so we haven’t had to layoff anyone since before COVID-19. We’re the only company in the live event industry in the world that has not laid anyone off.”

Strickland explained that, unlike Bandit Lites, the industry as a whole is characterized by gig workers or independent contractors. “Most of them are freelancers and paid on 1099s,” he says. By comparison, Bandit Lites employs people and provides healthcare coverage as well as retirement benefits.

That difference means that the Knoxville-based company is much better prepared than most to offer a full-range of its services as the nation begins to open-up to live events this summer with more vaccinations and less stringent restrictions on crowds.

Yet, Strickland has become a leading voice for the industry, regularly flying to and from the Nation’s Capital to advocate for the live events community as a whole.

NEXT: Why and how did Strickland take-on the cause for the entire industry?

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