University of Arkansas

Walton College

The Sam M. Walton College of Business

Episode 38: Lisa Barrentine

Lisa Barrentine is the President and CEO at First Preston HT in Dallas, TX. Lisa is an alumnus of the Sam M. Walton College of Business where she received her BSBA in Accounting. Lisa has an impressive accounting background, and is well-known for property management and real estate.



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Episode Transcript

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00:05 Matt Waller: Hi, I'm Matt Waller, Dean of the Sam M. Walton Mountain College of Business. Welcome to Be EPIC, the podcast where we explore excellence, professionalism, innovation, and collegiality, and what those values mean in business, education and your life today.

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00:29 Matt Waller: Today's guest on the Be EPIC podcast is Lisa Barrentine, President and CEO at First Preston HT in Dallas. Lisa and I discuss epic values, focusing on excellence and innovation. I was really curious to hear how she instilled excellence in so many people so quickly, as her firm grew from 30 people to 500 in less than a year.

00:54 Matt Waller: When I think about excellence, trying to do our best, did you... Sometimes, especially as an entrepreneur, you don't... If you work in a big company, you've got certain people you could say... Well, if you want to be excellent, you could say, "These people represent excellence." As an entrepreneur, you're more on your own, and so you don't have those same clear benchmarks, sometimes within your own company, but you have them outside or mentors. How did you...

01:28 Lisa Barrentine: Well, I have a business partner and have had a business partner for over 30 years. And we look at that as our faith, the faith how we were raised and the faith that we had drove that integrity and those values that we wanted to see in our company. I think we had different upbringings, but smaller towns, a different way of going about things. And so, there were many times that we were faced with, "Do we cut a corner here? Do we do something a little bit different?" That's not... Kinda right on the edge, and there were many times we had to go, "No, we're gonna do the right thing, and we're gonna... " Even if that was the longer road. So, I think that together as a team, we could balance that, and sometimes it... In anything you can say, "Oh, it would just be easier if I just took the shortcut." And usually, the shortcut didn't pay off as well as doing the right thing, so I would say that. And so, both of our families, our children kept us honest about what we're doing.

02:40 Lisa Barrentine: And then also, when we were really pursuing our business, we had an opportunity to grow very quickly in a very significant way. And when we made that decision to go after that work, we decided that it had to be more than just about making a whole lot of money, that we had have a purpose, a value-centered purpose that would keep us moving in the right direction, and that would make this worth it. Everybody wants to make money, but making money, developing a culture, being able to do good with that is a whole another level of commitment that we, at the time, didn't realize all that would come from that, but have now looked back at some of those decisions. And some of those value-centered decisions were important to future clients, they were almost more important to clients than the references. It was more about who we are as people and who we were as a company. They wanted to align with that.

03:53 Lisa Barrentine: People identify who they want to... Students do this, who they want to align themselves with. What do they want to be? What do they want their reputation to be? Same with companies. Companies look at you and say, "They work hard, they seem like good people, and they've got a great reputation." A lot of the things we did in the community were things that generated as much advertising or marketing. It was not the reason we did it, it's ultimately what came back from that. So, those connections and that commitment to just putting together your whole plan was not just purely business, it was how do you put your faith, your family, your whole being into doing something good.

04:46 Matt Waller: You were talking about excellence and operating with excellence, and really trying to do good, not just make money. That starts to define your brand.

05:02 Lisa Barrentine: Yes, it does.

05:04 Matt Waller: And your brand is something that is maybe one of the most valuable things you can have.

05:10 Lisa Barrentine: Yes. It is, and that and your people. I think we're a very service-oriented business. Our people were everything. So, developing that culture of integrating all the values in with the business and we were in a... Our major business was government contractors. We're doing some work that a lot of people don't wanna do. It's really hard and not real clean kind of a job, but what we learned is... It was in housing, so we centered everything that we were doing for good in housing, so then our people were very motivated to do things like to bring habitat houses out of the ground, to work on housing in their local areas. And so, it was great to take your experience outside and help others and take that excellence outside and show people that we really cared about our community. Once you start that, you start realizing there are so many other things you gotta do too. [chuckle] You just can't do the one thing.

06:26 Lisa Barrentine: But yeah, that excellence was in everything we did. It was like, "Do the right thing, even when it's really hard. Find different ways to do things that maybe people haven't done in the past and kinda get around the, 'That's not how we do it,' kind of scenario." And entrepreneurs don't like that. You tell me that and I'll say, "We're gonna find a new way to do it because [chuckle] now you've challenged me." But I would say that the excellence we looked for was just in everything that people do. It's from the computer work, the field work, the relationships with our clients and all the stakeholders in the areas that we work in. It's really just trying to be very respectful. And that was... For us, that seemed normal and what you should do, but in the business that we were in, and that we are in now, it's not always the norm. Twenty years ago it was not the norm, it was a very fractured business.

07:36 Matt Waller: Well, Lisa, creating a culture of excellence in a service firm certainly can give you an advantage, but it's easier said than done. How do you get people to really adopt that? How does that become your culture?

07:51 Lisa Barrentine: Well, I think the way that we... We grew really fast. We went from 30 people to over 500 in the course of about eight months, and so, it was a drinking from the fire hose kind of scenario. And I always...

08:09 Matt Waller: You went from 30 people to...

08:10 Lisa Barrentine: 500 in a very quick time. And it was...It's crazy.

08:13 Matt Waller: Was that at the beginning or in the middle?

08:15 Lisa Barrentine: It was in 1999, so we had been in business about 10 years. So, we grew so quickly. And I always tell people, I say, "There's some advantages of not knowing that you could fail." I would know now how much harder that is than I knew then. I was a little bit green, and that was helpful. So, I think that's really good for students to hear. Sometimes what you don't know can help you, because I didn't believe we were gonna fail and neither did my business partner and we had people that were all over the nation that was working with us. We stayed in contact with them from the top. We were very grassroots company. Everything we did was out touching a house across the nation in about 40 states, and so we had to be able to get that communication from the top all the way to that field group. We just had to look for ways to improve communication. In '99, computers and networks were not what they are today, so you had to really be very creative. You had to just constantly talk about what those values were, constantly drive it home, and just impress upon your management team. And so we met at least quarterly somewhere with our management team and just drove that home, we had weekly calls, we stayed very connected to each other.

09:51 Lisa Barrentine: The other thing is, we were doing something no one had ever done. It was a new process. And I think we all kind of... My business partner is a great storyteller, so she told stories of pioneers and how they were gonna settle the West and that was really what we were doing. We all had all kinds of things like that we identified with. And you started to hear not only our staff but our vendors that worked with us saying things like that, great stories in history and trying to make it be about what we were doing. It was something somewhat historic and that hadn't been done before. "We can do this, we're crossing the mountains, we're gonna settle on the other side, and how do we get there? The Indians might get us. What do we gotta do to get there?" And so, it was very much aligning us together. And I think that we were very successful in doing that, is aligning the people to the task and knowing that we were all going into battle together, not just trying to do this individually. Now, it's a lot easier to communicate than it was in '99, but still people block it out. Now, it's easier to block a lot of the technology stuff out, whereas before, it was less technology, more one-on-one. But I still think that one-on-one is critical in building teams, just gotta have that relationship.

11:20 Matt Waller: So, Lisa, would you mind giving a brief overview of what your business is?

11:24 Lisa Barrentine: Okay. Well, I interviewed with my business partner for an accounting job in her very small asset management firm and we just clicked. I had been off after I'd had my first child. The company that I was with was bought by Baker Petroleum and moved everything to Houston. So, I've just been off for a few months and I was looking to get back in and I thought, "This seems like an easy job to do. How hard could this be?" I soon figured out that the United States government had work for single-family homes nationwide that had been foreclosed by FHA. And once FHA receives them, then they hire contractors to market them, manage them and market 'em. And so, we found some small contracts, and as we always did, we said, "How hard can it be? This is the work we do and... " So, we learned on a very... What was supposed to be a very difficult portfolio of houses. And again, we didn't know 'cause we had never done this work before so we had this difficult portfolio of houses, learned how to do the property management, the valuations, the sales and the closings.

12:50 Lisa Barrentine: So, essentially, we started marketing ourself as for the US government. We were kinda reshaping that program to for they were returning homes to home ownership. So, it's a bad story that's turned into a great story because now you have a new home owner living in that community. We'd been in this boutique business in real estate asset management for 10 years at that point, and now we're starting to see it to become an industry. And ultimately, about 2008, it became a huge industry. So, our experience in marketing and sales was what drove us.

13:24 Matt Waller: Thanks for listening to today's episode of the Be EPIC podcast from the Walton College. You can find us on Google, SoundCloud, iTunes, or look for us wherever you find your podcasts. Be sure to subscribe and rate us. You can find current and past episodes by searching BeEPIC podcast, one word, that's B-E-E-P-I-C podcast. And now, be epic.