Servant Leader Shapes Legacy Through Industry Dedication
Where leadership is concerned, being asked is much better than asking, because the best leaders are servant leaders. As with any leader—especially those leaders who base their model on listening to others—when Manning Strickland, Sr. spoke, people listened. For over three decades, the founder of Strickland Fire Protection in Forestville, Maryland has called the members of the American Fire Sprinkler Association (AFSA) to action by asking the question, “How can we help?” whenever he learned of a need in the industry.
Strickland is a man who has served often and well. He served professionally as a member of the AFSA Board of Directors for 18 years—including two as Chair, and personally as the epitome of the American dream, the proud patriarch of three Strickland family generations who built the successful multi-million dollar Strickland Fire Protection in the D.C.-metro area from the ground up.
In recognition of his dedication and selfless devotion to the advancement of the industry, the American Fire Sprinkler Association (AFSA) has selected Manning Strickland, Sr. as its 2019 Henry S. Parmelee Award recipient. The Parmelee Award is the highest honor AFSA bestows upon an individual. It recognizes commitment, achievement, and excellence in the sprinkler industry.
“It’s not your ability; it’s your availability.” Strickland graduated from North High School in North, South Carolina in 1961. It was a small, rural school; there were only 27 in the graduating class. Straight out of high school, Strickland went to work at the Sunbeam Bakery making 85 cents an hour. No stranger to hard work, he quickly found himself working 18-hour days. So when his cousin, Tommy Wanamaker, came home to visit from the Washington, D.C. area where he worked for General Automatic Sprinkler wearing this nice little suede jacket and driving a new ‘55 Ford, Strickland noticed.
“Man, he just looked good. I said, ‘My goodness, man. If you folks ever have an opening up there, I’d certainly like to get in on that.’” Strickland recalled. “As a single guy, who had never been out of the state, I really got into the sprinkler industry by a good friend. I worked for General Automatic Sprinklers as an apprentice and moved up through the trade.”
In 1961, Strickland started as a fire sprinkler apprentice and began his studies with a four-year correspondence course administered through Pennsylvania State University. He recalled with a laugh, “That was before the internet, so we did everything on paper… We didn’t do anything online. It was no line except for the clothes’ line that people hung clothes out on. So, we had to do it all correspondence. And I’ll tell you, that was a struggle. When you work all day and then have to come home and do homework, but your raise was predicated on it.”
He continued his work at General Automatic from 1961 to 1983. Throughout his tenure he progressively took on more and more responsibilities, quickly moving through the ranks with his trademark good-natured smile. He spent five years as an apprentice, four as a journeyman, six as a foreman/area superintendent, and seven years as a general manager for General Automatic Sprinkler.
“Sometimes it’s not your ability, it’s your availability. I was always there and always willing to pitch in and do what I had to do. So, when the opportunity presented itself, I moved up to bidder and foreman and superintendent. Then the position became available for general manager for General Automatic Sprinkler, and they couldn’t get anybody who wanted to move to Washington. So, finally they decided they’d give me a shot.”
But as his family grew, so did his desire to stick closer to wife, Laura, and their four children. “I went to my father-in-law [in College Park, Maryland]. He said, ‘I’ve got a warehouse and I will give you free rent for a year, and you can give it a shot.’ I think I may have had about $10,000 in the bank. He said, ‘I’ll give you a $50,000 line of credit, and you just pay it off when you can and do whatever you’ve got to do.’”
So, in 1983, he founded Strickland Fire Protection. “We didn’t really have a business plan,” Strickland recalled. “In my mind, I thought I’d like to do about a half-a-million the first year, about a million the second year, and then build up maybe to a million-and-a-half about the third or fourth year. I’m telling you, it just came right along those lines. The first year we did like $490,000. The next year we did around $950,000. The next year we did about two million. We started with just my wife Laura, my son Jay, and me.”
Now 36 years later, the growing family business employs roughly 50 people, many of whom have a family connection. “We’ve always tried to treat everybody the way that we’d like to be treated – from clients to employees. We’ve always felt like our employees are some of the most important people to us, and our clients have to be the most important people to them. So, everybody’s got to take care of each other, and it’s a really true partnering, family-type business.”
Strickland, who retired to Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, is no longer involved in the direct day-to-day operations of Strickland Fire since his son, Jay, purchased the business along with grandsons Joshua and Micah. However, Manning couldn’t be happier in “retirement.” He loves spending time with wife Laura and family, as well as serving his church.
When he’s not spending time with family or exploring the area’s golf courses, Strickland serves as Strickland Fire Protection’s part-time director of business development. “It’s been a good run. I’ve truly enjoyed it. We worked primarily around the Washington, D.C.-area so, we’ve been in many places. We’ve been in the Capitol building, all up in the domes and the basements and areas that other people have never been in. And we worked in the White House and all the Smithsonian buildings. We’ve done some pretty unique projects and had some fun.”
Of all the places he has been privileged enough to work, Strickland says the most interesting job was the International Monetary Fund (IMF). “We installed 10,000 heads, and I think about the longest piece of pipe that we was used about five foot of pipe. It was honeycomb-type ceilings, and you had to core drill through each beam to get a piece of pipe in. At IMF, we were working with 140 different nations in that building. You’d go into an area, and they may have white carpet and we’d have to go in and envelope the whole place with plastic. Then, the big 4×4 lights in the center of these honeycombs would have to be taken down, and we would core drill holes and run the pipe up through the holes. Then the pipe had to be painted, and the holes had to be sealed. When we got through, everything was exposed, but you weren’t supposed to be able to see it. It all worked out really well.”
Simply put, Strickland says that fire protection is just a great industry. “There’s no doubt about it. I mean, it’s proven good for us. And again, I think it’s like anything else. You have to work hard. You have to be available. Ability is great, but availability is so much better.”
Updating AFSA’s Sprinkler Curriculum Joining AFSA is 1985, Strickland’s earliest memories of AFSA are the convention and the AFSA’s apprentice training curriculum. Strickland stated, “I wanted to be open shop. I wanted to run my own business. We were willing to pay our employees a good salary, and train them in the apprenticeship program. That’s basically what got me involved with AFSA was the apprenticeship program, because I saw the importance of well-trained employees.”
Strickland immediately got involved with committees in 1986 and over the years has sat on virtually all and chaired most of the AFSA National Committees, including the Apprentice & Education Committee whose volunteers oversee the development and maintenance of AFSA’s various training programs.
When the Associated Builders and Contractors (ABC) and the National Center for Construction Education and Research (NCCER) agreed to partner with AFSA on a sprinkler fitter curriculum in the early 1990s, the immediate task was to review AFSA’s existing Training For Excellence series to ensure every detail met the latest technology and NFPA standards, and to restructure the material to fit ABC/NCCER’s Wheels of Learning format.
“Early on, we spent a lot of time and effort on the apprenticeship program. Jack Medovich, Bob McCullough, myself, and the rest of the guys—we’d go and spend two or three days a week, rewriting apprenticeship programs and doing whatever we had to do. It was just the right thing to do.”
Each book contained 100-plus pages of technical information and instruction. Strickland recalled, “The apprenticeship books were in disarray and not really current with the new technologies and the new codes. We had four units —four years of books—that we had to go through line-by-line. John Denhardt was in there; so was Jack Viola… I can’t recall all the people who were there, but we just went through it line-by-line and corrected it.”
Since they didn’t have today’s convenient internet access, the people who volunteered for that project committed to a significant investment in time away from their homes and companies. In later years, Strickland joined the Executive Committee and was elected Chair of the Board in 2005 which left him unable to attend those meetings personally, but he always reinforced the efforts by supporting other Strickland Fire Protection employees, like John Denhardt, P.E., in their involvement with the Association.
Servant Leadership First coined by Robert K. Greenleaf in an essay he published called “The Servant as Leader,” servant leadership is an individual who focuses first and foremost on serving others.
Strickland was elected to the AFSA Board of Directors in 1992, and retired from the Board in 2010, including two years as Chair of the AFSA Board (2005-2007). The always-humble Strickland has spent much of his time at AFSA shying away from the spotlight, with exception of his famous Elvis impression, but he gives credit to the many who helped him along the way.
“I had some really good, strong mentors in the industry. Bill Kluttz, he was our main mentor out of Charlotte, North Carolina. Fred Thredgill was an on-the-job-training-type guy. I’ve been blessed with some really good strong mentors coming up through the trade. Then I was at the right place at the right time, and I believe just working hard and trying to do the right thing.”
Even when asked what career accomplishment stands out that he’s most proud of, he never mentions awards, like FPC Magazine naming him its Fire Person of the Year in 2018. He, however, prefers to shine his light on others, stating simply, “When I see my son [Jay] running the business, the grandchildren in the business, and our employees who have done well and prospered—I think that’s my biggest accomplishment—to have our children and all in the business.”
He continued, “All of them serve on committees, and Jay’s just been elected to the AFSA Board of Directors. It’s just a great feeling to see that you’ve been an example that they’re willing to follow. That’s kind of my best achievement. These awards, I’m telling you the truth, they’ve been shocks to me, because I certainly can think of a lot of people who are more deserving and have done a lot more than I have. All you do is just do the best you can, work hard, and trust in the Lord, and it will all come around to you. I believe that. My father had a saying, ‘You can’t out-give the Lord.’ You just do the right thing, and it’ll come back to you.”
Honoring a Legend Work hard he did. If there was a theme in talking with other leaders about Strickland’s AFSA and industry involvement over the years, it was his positive attitude and his willingness to help out whenever and wherever he was needed.
Willie Templin, 2011 Parmelee winner, American Automatic Sprinkler in Fort Worth, Texas, said, “Having known Strick for some 33 years, I have always looked up to him as an outstanding [AFSA] Board Member and Chair. I was always impressed with how quick he would volunteer to chair a committee or how often he would volunteer to be a hard-working committee member. His talent was for keeping God and family first, but he always had time to run a growing business while helping the AFSA. He is truly a good man with character and integrity and deserves to be given the Parmelee award.”
Fellow Past Board Chair and honorary Life Member, Don Becker who was awarded the 1999 Parmelee award and is now retired in Dallas City, Iowa, acknowledges the Church Deacon and former Sunday school teacher as a “prayer warrior,” stating, “Manning and I shared in the growth of the organization for five or six years on the Board. He said the opening prayer before the Board meeting. He is constantly in prayer for AFSA, as am I. I pray for the success of AFSA and its members every day.”
AFSA Immediate Past Chair Michael F. Meehan, president of VSC Fire & Security, Inc. in Virginia Beach, Virginia, said, “When I think of Manning Strickland, I see a man of integrity, faith, and family. His business practices are very simple—work hard, be honest, and give back. The success of his life, his family, and his business are a true reflection on his steadfast belief in these golden rules. Manning’s natural instinct is to be cheerful and to see the good in people and it is no coincidence that Strickland Fire has a lot of loyal and longtime employees and customers.”
AFSA Board Director Don Kaufman, president of Kaufman Fire Protection in Albuquerque, New Mexico, said, “His faith, family, and ice cream come in that order. Manning is the ultimate gentleman. He’s so much a professional; he’s always so positive. Everything he’s done for AFSA, it’s always been what’s best for the organization and the members. With Strick, it’s never ‘me’ or ‘I,’ but always ‘us’ and ‘we.’ He just keeps giving, never asking anything in return. No matter how busy, Strick will always give you his time. He never tells you what to do, but gives you a lot of thoughts.”
Strickland served locally as Chair of the Chesapeake Bay Chapter of AFSA from 1991 to 1992. AFSA Second Vice Chair of the Board Jack A. Medovich, P.E., senior vice president of Fire & Life Safety America (an ECFP Co.) in Richmond, Virginia, who chaired the AFSA Chesapeake Bay Chapter immediately after Strickland, said, “Manning has volunteered his time and resources for the betterment of the industry. His reputation in the D.C.-area is extemporary. He is a top-notch, not just in business but as an individual.”
AFSA will present Manning Strickland, Sr. with its 2019 Henry S. Parmelee award, during the general session Thursday, October 3, 2019, at AFSA38: Convention, Exhibition, and Apprentice Competition at the Manchester Grand Hyatt in San Diego. To learn more about the Parmelee award, or to nominate someone year-round, visit www.firesprinkler.org/awards.
Henry S. Parmelee Award Recipients
- 1983 John M. Rhodes, FM Global Research Corp.
- 1984 William J. Meyer, Central Sprinkler Corporation
- 1985 C. B. Hall, American Automatic Sprinkler Co.
- 1986 Harold L. Black, Central Fire Protection, Inc.
- 1987 Edward J. Reilly, Ed Reilly Associates
- 1988 Richard T. Groos, The Viking Corporation
- 1989 Ron Coleman, Chief, Fullerton Fire Dept., CA
- 1990 Frank J. Fee III, Reliable Automatic Sprinkler Corp.
- 1991 Dr. John M. Bryan, University of Maryland School of Fire Protection Engineering
- 1992 W. D. (Dave) Hilton, Chief, Cobb County Fire Department, GA
- 1993 J. Frank Riseden, AFSA President 1983-1991
- 1994 Haden B. Brumbeloe, Publisher, FPC Magazine
- 1995 Edward H. Smith, H.F.P. Corporation
- 1996 Tom Waller, Viking Fire Protection of the SouthEast
- 1997 Chester W. Schirmer, Schirmer Engineering Corp.
- 1998 Tom Siegfried, Retired Chief, Altamonte Springs, FL
- 1999 Donald D. Becker, Midland Automatic Sprinkler Co.
- 2000 Robert L. McCullough, AllSouth Sprinkler Company
- 2001 Buck Buchanan, Central Sprinkler Corporation
- 2002 Frank M. Winiecki, General Sprinkler Corporation
- 2003 Jack Viola, H.F.P. Corporation
- 2004 Lowell Gillett, Fire Engineering Co., Inc. (retired)
- 2005 Joe Hankins, FM Global (retired)
- 2006 Art Cote, National Fire Protection Association
- 2007 Tom Groos, The Viking Corporation
- 2008 William E. Corbin, Mutual Sprinklers, Inc.
- 2009 Lloyd Ivy, AFSA Director of Membership (1986-2008)
- 2010 Marty Giles, VSC Fire & Security
- 2011 Willie Templin, American Automatic Sprinkler, Inc.
- 2012 Bob Rees, Sunland Fire Protection
- 2013 Russ Leavitt, Telgian Corporation
- 2014 James Golinveaux, Tyco Fire Protection Products
- 2015 George Wagner, Worsham Sprinkler Company
- 2016 Steve Muncy, AFSA President (1991-2016)
- 2017 Robert (Bob) G. Caputo, Fire & Life Safety America
- 2018 Kraig Kirschner, AFCON
- 2019 Manning Strickland, Strickland Fire Protection
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Nicole Duvall is the director of communications & social media for AFSA.