Episode 88: Patrick Sbarra
Patrick Sbarra is the co-founder and co-owner of Lamplighter Restoration, a home renovation company based out of Northwest Arkansas with a mission of crafting community. Read More
More About This Episode
Patrick Sbarra is the co-founder and co-owner of Lamplighter Restoration, a home renovation company based out of Northwest Arkansas with a mission of crafting community. Prior to this, Patrick’s career path led him from being a pharmacist to radio sales to co-founding New Creature Holdings, a company that still designs retail packaging, point-of-purchase, and merchandising displays for customers such as Coca-Cola, Disney, and Kraft. Patrick’s entrepreneurial expertise allows him to share great advice to students aligning with our EPIC values.
00:05 Matt Waller: Hi, I'm Matt Waller, Dean of the Sam M. Walton 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.
00:25 Matt Waller: I have with me today, Patrick Sbarra. Patrick is an entrepreneur, and one thing that I'll mention that's interesting about his career, which has taken a lot of turns... Although there's two things that are common throughout his entire career, and that is, one, he's been successful at many different things, but two, everything he's done has started with the letter R. [chuckle] He started as a pharmacist, RX, he was in radio sales and management, he's been in retail in-store marketing, he's been a real estate developer, and so listen and find out what he's gonna do next and let's hear a little bit about his very interesting career path. Patrick, thank you for joining me today. I really appreciate it.
01:18 Patrick Sbarra: Matt, it's always great to be with you. I always like myself better when I am with you. You just bring the best out of people.
01:25 Matt Waller: Well, thanks for being so positive. Patrick, your career has really covered a lot of different bases that to the naked eye would seem not terribly related, but you've told me before how they're related in your mind. And of course, you and I have talked about EPIC, or the values of the Walton College, excellence, professionalism, innovation and collegiality, and I know that when we have talked about that, it seems like we've really connected on those values. So would you mind just kinda starting out a little bit about being an entrepreneur and kind of your path?
02:08 Patrick Sbarra: Sure, Matt. I think that also, at least from my unique story, it has to go back to high school, living with my father. So here I am a 14-year-old ninth grader living with a 40-year-old single father. This is 1968, so we're going through all the '60s, '68 through '72. If you think about the time, you've got everything from Woodstock, and political unrest, crazy economy, so it's an interesting time for a father and son to spend time together.
02:42 Patrick Sbarra: I had to be responsible because he wasn't going to wake up and do my laundry and iron my clothes every day because he traveled a lot, but he was a loving father and a great example, and I watched him start his own company in his 40s, in his early 40s, so I observed an entrepreneur, and I always remembered him teaching me lessons about that. He would also remind me that the thing you're doing is just the thing you're doing, but who you are stays with you no matter what you're doing. I like to joke that I work for IBM, I'm in business for myself, IBM, and that I carry that with me, no matter where I'd go and just apply it to whatever you're doing.
03:22 Patrick Sbarra: So you have to go to college, right? At least where I grew up, it's let's get up and go to college. You need to select a career, and I was working in a pharmacy. Well, the owners of those pharmacies were great leaders and great inspirations and great mentors, and they taught me about caring for people and putting others first and being professional, so I went on to get a pharmacy degree by just watching those around me. You know, and pharmacy, much like all things in medicine, is, "Where does it hurt, and how might I help you? Where is your opportunity? How can I help you realize your opportunity? Where is there an obstacle? How might I help you remove an obstacle?"
04:03 Patrick Sbarra: And if you think about it, that carries through no matter what you do. Even in the role you have, you're asking everybody around you in your 360, "How can I help you, either remove an obstacle or leverage an opportunity?" So it started back there. One of my patients was in the radio business. He was in the broadcasting business. He also knew I had a love of marketing and media and creativity. He recognized that from all the times I took care of him from behind the counter and he said, "I'd like you to think about leaving pharmacy and getting into the radio business."
04:35 Patrick Sbarra: And so I left New York and went to Miami, Florida, in my young 20s... This is the late '70s... And started a career in radio, and then I realized, "I'm not in radio, I'm in sales. [chuckle] My job is to sell the commercials that go on the radio. I'm not in the actual... So I'm in sales." So just like you're back in medicine, you do a needs analysis. You do a diagnosis before a prescription. In medicine, a prescription without a diagnosis would be malpractice. So helping somebody with a solution to their marketing or media, it would almost be malpractice without a good customer needs analysis. That's what we would call it.
05:16 Patrick Sbarra: And then when we launched our companies later on in 1999 and also 2011, it was always, "In whose service will we be in? Who are we going to help?" So the theme across all of it is as long as we're helping others achieve their goals, it will take care of us. The best way to get what you want in life is to help somebody else get what they want in life, and we always pursued a higher purpose. When we launched New Creature in '99, which I know you'll get around to, I said, "Why do we exist? We exist to help other people sell more stuff, and those are the people who are suppliers to Walmart, and Walmart. How do we help them both sell more stuff?" That's what they're trying to do. Of course, they wanna sell more stuff. Their higher purpose was to help people live better. "Save money. Live better" was their higher purpose.
06:08 Patrick Sbarra: And then when we launched Lamplighter Restorations, which built some beautiful homes and town homes, in... And, right now, downtown Bentonville. My partner and I said, "What's our real purpose? We don't wanna build homes. It's not about brick and mortar. Let's craft community." In fact, I owe that line to my partner. We're in the business of crafting community.
06:31 Patrick Sbarra: So example, right now, if you go where The Momentary is in downtown Bentonville, right there on Sixth Street, around Austin-Baggett Park, you'll see some beautiful homes coming up, but reality is, we're crafting a new community around an older neighborhood that had once just gotten old. We're just fortunate enough that there's a nice Momentary next to us, so we sort of enjoy the crafting of the community as the higher purpose, but it's all helping others is the theme, and then earning trust along the way, so people will trust you. Even if you move on to a new enterprise, "Oh, he was the guy who did X and he did it well with professionalism and excellence, and he was very collegiate about it, very collaborative about it, so maybe we can trust him as he goes on to something new."
07:25 Matt Waller: Well, I've seen some of the before and after pictures of your properties in Bentonville and, wow, you totally transformed those properties. I'm sure there were a lot of people involved but... And I know that you say for Lamplighter Restorations, your tag line is "Crafting community." And just looking at the photos, I can see how that would be the case with these. Would you mind speaking to that a little bit, Crafting community?
08:11 Patrick Sbarra: Yes, and as you said, it takes a lot of other people. I need to give some credit, actually a lot of credit to my partner, Todd Renfroe. He has a really good eye, and I have a fairly good eye too... His is really exceptional though... So we could pull up and see an old home or an old street or a park, and then we'll sort of look at each other and say, "Do you see it?" And he goes, "Yeah, I see it." But he is the master of the day-to-day execution, the details of putting in to, not just the buildings, but everything from when you drive up the street... It starts a block ahead of time... So that as you're pulling into that block on the way home at night, you say to yourself, "I like me as I'm pulling into this neighborhood."
09:03 Patrick Sbarra: So we go, "How do we pull that off? How do we craft that community?" Well, certainly one part is the physicality of it, how does it look and feel and play out, but also it's how do we collaborate with those around us? For example, in our new community, there was an old restaurant in downtown Bentonville called The Station, and then he had to close that Station down because he lost his lease and then got to a station in life where he didn't wanna really keep it going, so we offered, "Can we buy The Station from you and move it over into our neighborhood, so that when people walk out their front door, they can get a hamburger or they can get a coffee?" It's part of the neighborhood, that neighborhood store.
09:44 Patrick Sbarra: And then after a year or two of trying to operate it ourselves with my partner Todd, we then sold it to Carl Garrett, a great guy in downtown Bentonville. You may know Carl. He launched Tavola, he launched Table Mesa, he launched Mirabella. So now we're collaborating with another community-minded entrepreneur. He's renamed it Table at the Station, so to keep some continuity, and then right next door, even when The Momentary was announced... Now we started to work over there, even before the Kraft Factory was going to be announced as The Momentary.
10:20 Patrick Sbarra: We had no idea what the Kraft factory was gonna be, but the second it opened, they were gracious enough... Lieven Bertels called, came on over. He's the Director of The Momentary. We spent a lot of time discussing the neighborhood, "What can we do together to bring life into the neighborhood, to give it a sense of place?" So all the players in that neighborhood are proactively reaching out to one another. We're not just a carpet bagger developer from out of town who's buying land, building a lot of houses and chasing a dollar. And the money will land where it lands. If you do it well with professionalism and excellence, and the other two, and a little innovation, dose of collegiality, it's gonna all come together. The EPIC values are the ingredients that make it work.
11:10 Matt Waller: Over the course of your 45-year career, you've had lots of epic successes and experiences, but anyone who's succeeded as much as you have has faced some big challenges. A lot of times when we see people like you, it's easy for young people to look and say, "Wow! He has really had the life, just one success after another," but if you live to be over 30, you know that life is just full of challenges that many times make you wanna quit.
11:52 Patrick Sbarra: Oh, definitely. And my other friends or colleagues who would be considered successful, when we sit around and speak to ourselves, we tend to think of every time we face planted ourselves [chuckle], think the mistakes we made, the zigs when we should have zagged, the calls, if we could re-do the call again. So you don't have these epic successes without a number of epic failures along the way. And those could be a business failure where you invest in a certain space or a new direction or a new unit of your business, and after you've put 10,000, 100,000 a quarter of a million dollars, a half a million dollars into it and realize it's not going anywhere, and you gotta back out of it, you go, "Well, that was an epic failure. What I could have done with those resources."
12:45 Patrick Sbarra: And we always think about if we were to play it over, but there are no regrets, the epic failures though, that might be regretful. It's a different kind of failure. For those are the mistakes we made with people, meaning maybe the way we treated an employee at one time or an associate at one time, or a customer at one time, maybe something we did or didn't do or said or didn't say.
13:17 Patrick Sbarra: When we look back on those, and again, when my successful friends, if we're sitting around, being transparent with one another, we go, "I really could have done better by person X 10 years ago who worked for me, giving them a better leg up or a word of encouragement, or maybe I was too harsh on that particular person." So usually when we sit around and talk about the epic failures, they tend to be relationship-oriented, but I think that's true in life too, when most of us look back. Should I have taken that job? Yes, no, should I... Could have done that job better? Sure. Should I have invested more in that. Sure. Should I have invested less than that. Sure, but when we really look back and go, I coulda shoulda woulda treated that other person in a more epic way, in a more personal, intimate, passionate, understanding, empathetic way. But sometimes in the moment, the stress of the moment or the situation robs us of our patience and our kindness and our discernment in all the things, we pray for now, but you're right, you're right. Along the way, you have strategic failures and business failures on the way to having many successful ones, and at the same time, you make so many wonderful successful relationships too. Colleagues and mentors that goes to that collegiality part of epic, making friends and connections way before LinkedIn or Facebook ever came up.
14:55 Patrick Sbarra: When we just made friends and networked with each other and called one another, like a good doctor would go down the hall and go for a second opinion. So we have a lot of friends we'd go to for second opinions, I'm struggling with this and you triangulate. What might you two think? Or I'm succeeding with this. What do I need to look at? Where's the land mine I'm gonna step on? Things are actually going well. What do I need to look out for? Working back in the pharmacy, I was at Spencer pharmacy in little downtown Scarsdale, New York, very similar to being on the Bentonville Square, and Spencer Pharmacy is on one side of the square, and there's another pharmacy diagonally on the other side of the square, and you think they would be competitors, and I guess technically they are.
15:40 Patrick Sbarra: But when one of us ran out of a bottle of penicillin, we'd call the other and say, "I'm low on a bottle of penicillin." and one of us would walk over to the other and hand them a bottle and then say, "You owe me one when yours come in." And you're always back and forth, or if one of our patients needed something delivered and your truck or your car was already out on the road, you might call the person across the street, say, "Are you going by Mrs. Jones house this afternoon?" "Actually, I'm going there in an hour." "Would you please deliver the pink Amoxicillin that I just shook up for her?" "I'd be happy to." So that was embedded in me at a very young age, and I've always tried to be that way. Even today, we reach out to the fellow developers in Bentonville that all share the same dream, and we help each other with resources, and, "I need a concrete man. I need a roofer. I need an electrician, I'm struggling with water. How can we both fix this street together?"
16:32 Matt Waller: So Patrick, one thing I'd like to talk to you about just briefly, you've had tremendous experience, and what you're doing now with Lamplighter Restorations is really visible. There are some things you can do, for example, providing great customer service as a pharmacist or doing a great job in radio sales and management, it's not really clear to everybody else what kind of service you're providing, or what kind of epic delivery you're making, but when you are a real estate developer like you are with Lamplighter Restorations, you can physically see the impact in some ways that becomes a billboard, if you will, for your work. So I would imagine if you were to pivot into something else, that's something that's quite visible. Some of the great epic service, you've delivered as a pharmacist, decades ago is not as visible today, even though it provided the stepping stone to get to where you are. So if you were to pivot going forward, what might you do?
17:49 Patrick Sbarra: You bring up some great points, and it's part of why we like the... And enjoy the Lamplighter Restoration real estate, because you can see your work, feel it, touch it, smell it. And it'll still be standing five years from now, 20 years from now, 30 years from now, my grandchildren will walk by that and go, "Grandpa Papio help put that up," that'll be fun. But you're right. How will they see? Maybe what we did in the past, and then I'll leap to your future and your question. When you go back to maybe the 15 years I spent at New Creature from '99 to '14, what you really see is more like a teacher or a professor at the university sees. I would bet the professors at your university, the biggest reward they get is five, 10, 15 years later, when one of their students writes them a letter or an email or a phone call, and they say, "Professor Matt, my life has been so good and been so transformed and it wouldn't have been this way if I hadn't spent that time with you or the time with you in your organization."
18:52 Patrick Sbarra: Now only you see that and the world doesn't see that. But as George Bernard Shaw said, "I'm just a fellow traveler pointing the way." So in the past, what you saw was transformed lives, and the few that called you back or wrote you back and said, "Thank you for the leg up, thank you for the education, I've done well, I've moved on. I'm a better professional, I'm a better husband, I'm a better father, I'm a better person for the five years I spent with you." So that's what we see in those other jobs, and by the way, even in Lamplighter, some of the joy isn't really coming from the building, it's the relationships we have with our subs. So we develop those relationships so when we build the next house or town home, they love working with us because of the nature of the relationship.
19:44 Patrick Sbarra: Again, so moving forward, I would say again, whose lives would we be transforming on the next thing if ever we were to do it? Between you and I, just for the fun of it, I'd love to have a company that restores old 1970s sports cars: Alfa Romeos, BMWs, old Porsches. But I'd also be thinking in terms of whose lives would be transformed while we're doing it? What would be the higher purpose? So whatever that would be next, if there is a next, but that would be a fourth act in my life. I'm in my third act right now. [chuckle] Is there a fourth act? I hope there would be.
20:26 Matt Waller: So Patrick, if you were to give advice for our graduating students, advice for young professional entrepreneurs, what would it be?
20:40 Patrick Sbarra: Earlier I said to you, "Don't chase the dollar, chase a higher purpose." Find a purpose that you're throwing yourself into and do it with epic values, professionalism, excellence, innovation and collegiality, and it will lead to where it needs to go to, but the pearl of advice I'd probably give to these young entrepreneurs and students is, choose your mentors well, and be proactive about choosing a mentor. Some of them will come naturally. Could be your father, could be a coach from high school, could be a professor from college, and then you have to nurture and develop those mentors. In a company, it might be somebody in the same company who's a few years further down the line, and they will guide you and lead you down. So that's somebody in the company.
21:36 Patrick Sbarra: Then you might have a mentor that's in the business, but not in your company, so that's somebody you can talk to sometimes a little more transparently. And then maybe the most important of those mentors is somebody that's not in your company and not even in your space: A father, a professor from school, a coach, a pastor, even a former boss from another space. 'Cause they'll tend to ask you more Socratic questions. They don't know your space that well, so they'll be trying to help you peel the onion back. What's the root cause of your problem? What are you worried about? What does success look like?
22:12 Matt Waller: And I agree with you. That's a great method. How do you do it in a way that people don't feel like you're interrogating them?
22:20 Patrick Sbarra: Yes, it's not the Spanish Inquisition. Well, you have to listen to them. When they call you, they're calling you because they have something on their mind. Usually that's how it starts. They're calling you and they wanna run something by you, and that might be a problem, it could be an opportunity, or they could be in mid-gear, they're shifting in their mid-gear. The first thing is you just listen to them out. They'll give you five, 10, 20 minutes of it, and then you're listening for some triggers in there.
22:54 Patrick Sbarra: And then you would say back to them, "John, earlier in the conversation, you mentioned you were struggling with X. Tell me more about that X, and why is that really bothering you?" So you're using what they gave you to help them. Or for example, they'll say... I'll give you one... "I have this employee and they keep coming in late, and it's bothering me." And I'll go, "Why does it bother you?" They go, "Well, you know, people should be here at 8 o'clock," and I'll go, "What's wrong with being there at 8:15?" And then I'll go, "Is this person performing well?" "Oh yeah. This person's performing... It's my best performer. My most productive employee." And then I'll go, "Yes. And so what's wrong? Why is it bothering you?"
23:40 Patrick Sbarra: So you see, you sort of take them through an algorithm of dissecting and getting to the root, and then they might say, "Well, really, it's not the person. It sets a bad example for others." "Oh, okay. Do you think the others are being impacted by that? Yes, no?" Now this is all before the current flexible hours and Zoom. Nobody's checking in on that right now are we? But they'll give it to you as they describe the problem or opportunity. They're gonna give you the thing that you can ask the very next question on, so it doesn't sound like an inquisition. It just sounds like a conversation. It's back to that, "Where does it hurt and how might I help you?"
24:19 Matt Waller: Patrick, this has been excellent, and what great advice for our students. I hope all of our students take this advice. It's wise, it's needed, and thank you, Patrick, for taking time from your busy schedule of building a great community in Bentonville to talk with me. I really appreciate it.
24:39 Patrick Sbarra: Matt, it's always good to chat with you. Iron always sharpens iron, and I know I'll have a better day for the time we spent together today.
24:50 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.