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Behind the Build: A Coastal Calling

Celebrating 40 Years of Long Beach Island Custom Homebuilding

For generations, the unique nostalgic magnetism of LBI has lured people onto its sandy shores. Many just visit for the summer, whereas others come to realize that they can’t bear to part ways with coastal living and wind up staying forever. It’s not just about the lulling sound of crashing waves, the sensation of sand between ones toes, or the amazing smell of salty air—it’s about a culture that centers around calmness amidst the chaos of everyday life, a haven that awakens our senses and reinforces a lifestyle aspiration that juggles just the perfect amount of work, play and charm harmoniously. And for one such Surf City native, Thomas J. Keller, of Surf City’s Thomas J Keller Building Contractor LLC, not only is he able to live this dream on a daily basis, but he has spent the last 40 years being an actual ‘dream-maker’ for those wanting to realize their own vision of building their own little piece of Long Beach Island.

Thomas J. Keller has earned a reputation for and is widely recognized as a leader in custom coastal homebuilding on LBI. His portfolio of completed homes span the island’s landscape from Holgate to Barnegat Light—and everything in between— all diverse in design, size and detail. In these past 40 years he has delivered more than 700 beautiful and unique homes from coastal cottages to waterfront masterpieces, all created and built to meet his client’s individual specifications and lifestyles. He is proud to call all homes over the past four decades as part of the “Keller Family of Homes” and based on the relationship Keller has with most of his clients over the years, the feeling is mutual. Down-to-earth and personable, with excellent insight into the Long Beach Island building industry, is how many describe him.

Since starting his business in 1979 in Surf City, Tom has always operated with an established office location on the island until present-day. As many business owners can attest, his success was not met without challenges over the years. He has quite literally weathered many a storm on the island including hurricanes, nor’easters, coastal flooding, navigated through economic downturns, and adapted to the ever-changing industry specific rules and regulations along with state and local laws. His greatest “storm” without comparison, however, was the loss of his 15-year-old son to a drunk driver in 1999. Until now he still shares with many the truth that “you can’t get time back,” incorporating that focus on the value of family time in how he conducts his business. (He was extremely touched when a couple he was building a bayfront home for at the time chose to name the lane leading to their home after his son.) Through it all, Keller points decisively to a deep and genuine gratitude for the people who he surrounds himself with—then and now. He and his team are quite the well-oiled machine, emphasizing working smarter to meet all objectives with quality and efficiency. One can truly sense the feeling that he has the best of all worlds. He gets to do what he enjoys, with the people that he enjoys doing it with, in a place that he loves.

Not only has Keller enjoyed being a dream-maker for generations of LBI families (and even for the children of many of his original clients!), but he’s fortunate to also be living the dream in his estimation. LBI being an idyllic place to grow up since the age of 4, he enjoyed all of its natural wonders during boyhood. Swimming, fishing, crabbing, boating, surfing and even his first job of clamming and selling to the local fish markets of the time. He acknowledges his hardworking parents who instilled in him important family values and an excellent work ethic. When Tom expressed interest in the trade as a high schooler, his father, a skilled craftsman and master welder, told him he would teach him to weld “only after” he earned his college degree. Having a love of all-things coastal and a deep appreciation of everything outdoors, he attended college and earned his Bachelor’s Degree in Marine Science & Geology. After graduation, he discovered his passion for building and decided to follow the entrepreneurial dream of starting his own business.

When asked about what it takes to run a successful business for four decades, Keller deflects away from himself and focuses more on his team and on the work, stating that “the work speaks for itself.” He credits his team of highly experienced, dedicated longtime employees, many who have been with him since the beginning, for whom he expresses daily appreciation with a simple thank you at the end of each work day. He praises his team of tradesmen, craftsmen, material suppliers and all the other professionals he works with, day in and day out, to make it all happen. He appreciates his valued clients with whom he has strong relationships, an extensive client base built slowly, over time, and with earned respect. And in a world full of social media #hashtags, likes, and followers, Tom can pride himself on the fact that many of his clients are still established through channels like good ol’ fashioned referrals or word of mouth by work well-done. Tom even shares how much he, too, has enjoyed talking with and even learning from his clients over the years, most of whom are business savvy and enjoy their own successes in life.

So, what are some of the basic principles that have made this 40-year successful business work? Tom shares that, “the business model throughout these four decades has been one of a deliberate focus on being the best in homebuilding—not trying to be all things to all people. Our commitment is to quality [no shortcuts], customer care and responsive service before, during and after the build; it’s important to be a good listener, to never become greedy and always have consistency in every aspect of our operation—we continually deliver on everything we say we will do. There is something to be said for developing and maintaining relationships with our clients that are built on such trust.

As the poet Rumi once said, “Wear gratitude like a cloak and it will feed every corner of your life,” and it is obvious that the more he expresses appreciation for what he has accomplished, the more likely he will have even more to express his gratefulness for. One can see that Keller is approaching his company’s 40th Anniversary as a time for reflection and much gratitude, with the focus on looking forward and moving ahead with vision and excitement. It’s not just about the total years but the quality of the years they are celebrating and we hope to see the Thomas J. Keller family celebrate many more, building beautiful coastal homes for families to enjoy for generations. And, based on his track record, we have no doubt that Thomas J. Keller will do just that.

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