From the time he was a little boy digging seven-foot-high foxholes in the dunes around the Wabash tracks in Gary, Tom Sourlis had a fondness for working with his hands, his head and his heart.
“I was always interested in making things,” says Sourlis, 65, founder and chairman of Mortar Net USA in Burns Harbor. “It didn’t matter what it was. I built birdhouses, model airplanes and forts with my friends. I liked shaping materials and I still do – my alter ego is a glass artist.
“I am an inventor and artist type. Really an idea guy much more than a business man. I can do business and have done it through the years, but it’s always been a venue for ideas.”
After attending the Illinois Institute of Technology for architecture, the Gary native volunteered with AmeriCorps Volunteer in Service to America (VISTA) nad joined the battle against poverty on the frontlines.
After his time with VISTA, Sourlis, of Highland, took over his father’s tuckpointing business in 1972. In 1992, he invented Mortar Net, a product that prevents mortar droppings from clogging weep holes designed to permit water to exit a building wall. Today the product is found in more than 4,000 specifications on cavity wall construction in North America.
The success of Mortar Net enabled Sourlis to channel resources into nonprofits such as TradeWinds, the Crisis Center, Parents as Teachers, the Legacy Foundation and the Porter County Community Foundation.
DAD, MOM AND MONOPOLY
Sourlis’ father, John, started the tuckpointing business in 1947 but closed it temporarily after having a heart attack. Sourlis bought his dad’s truck and revived the company under his dad’s tutoring.
“He taught me the business,” Sourlis says. “The fundamental stuff – be honest, work hard, do your job and show up. My dad did every job right and most of them came in on time and were profitable.”
David Bochnowski, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of Peoples Bank, said Sourlis has stayed true to the lessons passed from father to son. “As business man, Tom is incredibly ethical and very forthright,” he said. “He delivers on whatever he says he’s going to do.”
Sourlis Masonry Restoration entered the Chicago market, working on projects such as the Chicago Water Tower, the Rookery and several buildings designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. In 2006, he sold the company because of the popularity of Mortar Net.
Life lessons were also handed down from his mother, Helen, and Aunt Olga Brinkman. “They were huge influences in my life values and how to live,” Sourlis says. “I have a sensible work ethic. I don’t overwork and I’m productive.
“I’ve always been involved in business, arts and sports. I can trace back to when I was 7 years old. We played in the alley and I was always making something. I played strategy games like chess. We’d play Monopoly for days on end and I always liked building an empire.”
CONNECTED TO NATURE
Among Sourlis’ passions is the environment. “I’m disappointed in how humans treat nature in general and how disrespectful and how disconnected we seem to be from it,” Sourlis says. “Our environment is going to be here forever but we are here temporarily.”
He has made a strong commitment to a “green” culture. Recycled materials with low volatile organic compounds are identified and promoted for use within the company’s product lines.
Sustainability is an outcome of Mortar Net solutions since the useful life of masonry buildings is extended by reducing the susceptibility to moisture damage and insect infestation. The products have a significant environmental impact, explains Mortar Net President Gary Johnson.
“The ability for a building to last a long time without replacement is environmentally friendly,” he says. “You’re not tearing it down and hauling it to a landfill and using energy and new materials to replace it.”
Sourlis has a large vegetable and flower garden as well as beehives to produce his own honey. In 1974, he began making stained glass windows and lampshades which are all driven by his enduring, reverential connection to nature.
He has an almost 40-year fascination with glass lamps beginning with Tiffany style and moving into more organic, contemporary and sculptural forms.
Works created at Sourlis Glass Studio are exhibited in the Lubezink Center for the Arts in Michigan City; Lake Street Gallery in Gary; Arts and Artisans in Chicago; Local Color Gallery in Union Pier, Michigan; South Shore Art Center in Munster; and MergeArts in Hammond.
Barbara Young, President of the Porter County Community Foundation, has a reminder of Sourlis in her office: a glass lamp crafted by Sourlis that she bought at a nonprofit silent auction.
“He’s an incredible entrepreneur and approaches philanthropy with the same kind of innovation,” Young says. “He wants to give people a helping hand but not a hand out. He supports them in a way the helps them grow on their own. He enjoys seeing them become more self-reliant.”
Bochnowski agrees Sourlis’ success hasn’t prevented him from giving of his time and resources. “He rolls up his sleeves and goes to work in his business life and does the same in his community endeavors,” he says.
Sourlis’ favorite organization is Nazareth Home in East Chicago, a 24-hour foster home for medically-compromised babies and children from birth to age 6. He says Nazareth has found homes for 150 children over the last six years. “Their lives would have been miserable had they not been saved."
“It tugs at my heart and my practicality. What better thing could you do than put your resources into something that makes the world a better place? They take a potential disaster – a child that has no chance of a decent start.
“To take those kids and give them a more level playing field and an even start, I can’t think of a bigger way to change the world. It is so complete in its success of what it does.”
Bochnowski agrees Northwest Indiana is blessed to have Sourlis, also a world-class rugby player, on its team.
“He is an unsung hero,” he says. “He’s unpretentious and humble but impactful. Those are traits we should honor and cherish. He’s made a difference in so many lives and organizations because he stepped up with his time, talent and treasure.”