Compassion tempers his pragmatism
Mike Gilbert loves the avocado, turkey and Swiss sandwich served up at The Steam, a diner on Emma Avenue in downtown Springdale. He’s been ordering it since the place opened in July of
“They were the first business to open downtown, and I went in there and introduced myself and told them, ‘You’re investing in downtown Springdale, and I’m going to support you and be a regular at your restaurant,’” says Gilbert, who is excited about the efforts to revitalize downtown Springdale. “Now, they don’t even bring me a menu. They know what I’m going to order.”
The diner hadn’t been open for very long before Gilbert started hearing rumors that the building was going to be purchased and turned into a bar.
“I was like, ‘Man, you can’t do that to those people,’” exclaims Gilbert. “They came down here before the master plan was passed, they rented that building, they gutted it themselves, they did all the work themselves. They were the first entrepreneurs to come down and plant roots on Emma Ave. I can’t let that happen to them.” So Gilbert bought the building. “I didn’t want them to get [forced out of the building],” he says, but, also, “I don’t want Emma to be a bunch of bars. I’ve got investments in Springdale; I want to protect them.”
This mix of compassion and pragmatism — and the ability to marry the two in a way that benefits the community — is what makes Gilbert such a natural in his current role at The Jones Trust, where he’s been chief operating officer since 2010. Established in 1994 by local philanthropists Bernice and Harvey Jones, the Trust is responsible for creating major Northwest Arkansas institutions like The Jones Center for Families
“God put him in the right place at the right time. I think the Center for Nonprofits is one of the things that I’m the most proud of that we’ve worked on as a facility, and he was an integral part of the success of that project. Every time I go by that facility, I’m so thankful for Mike Gilbert.” — Betsy Reithemeyer
and the Center for Nonprofits at the Shop in Springdale and the Center for Nonprofits at St. Mary’s in Rogers. The latter project is where Gilbert’s commercial past and nonprofit future intersected, where his life — and his mission — shifted.
INSPIRED BY ST. MARY’S
Gilbert was a shareholder and senior vice president for a general contractor in Little Rock when he was hired to help turn the old St. Mary’s Hospital in Rogers into a building that could house up to 40 area nonprofit agencies.
“They walked me through this building and shared this vision of the Center, and I thought to myself, ‘There’s no way they can do this, there’s no way,” remembers Gilbert. “Well, then I had to drive back to Little Rock, so I spent three hours thinking, and by the time I got back to Little Rock, I had figured out that, yeah, we could do this.”
It didn’t take long for Gilbert to make an impression on Betsy Reithemeyer, chief operating officer for The Jones Trust at the time.
“Mike just gives 100 percent to whatever he’s involved with,” says Reithemeyer. “He’s fascinated with business challenges and finding creative solutions that will bring the greatest return on the investment, whether it’s time or treasures. We would have people come in and say, ‘I want this and this,’ and he would say, ‘Tell me what some of the challenges are, what is the work that you need to do, what is the impact of that work.’ He could instinctively separate the want versus the need. He has a brilliant mind in that way.”
“[The project] involved a lot of construction work, a lot of engineering and systems changes and as much recycling of materials as could be done, and Mike pulled that project off perfectly,” says Jones Trust Chief Executive Officer Ed Clifford. “It sits there in Rogers on Walnut Street as the shining example of what you can do when you repurpose a building.”
During the course of the project, Gilbert met with every nonprofit agency that would be housed in the Center, which included national organizations like the ALS Association and the American Red Cross, as well as local entities like Saving Grace and Sheep Dog Impact Assistance. These conversations would have a profound effect on Gilbert.
“I had to learn about all of these organizations and who they serve and how they serve them and what’s important to their organization,” says Gilbert. “And in the course of doing that, I just learned so much about the community and the needs of different aspects of the community, and I realized that nobody is immune from needing help and support from some nonprofit organization. At some point in your life, no matter who you are, whether you live in Pinnacle or whether you live in a trailer out by the lake or anywhere in between, we all end up in need of help and support at some point.
“For me, I realized that I had spent the majority of my life really focused on money, on profitability and on personal wealth. And I realized I wasn’t the picture of community like those that I admired in the community. And it really made me dig down deep and examine my values as a person. It made me examine the values that I apply to my daily work. It really was a deep, internal personal change for me in a lot of ways.”
FORGED IN NOLA
Gilbert’s successful 30-year career in the construction world started in his hometown of New Orleans at the side of his father. When Gilbert’s father retired from his job as a NASA engineer, he started a construction company in partnership with a friend.
“When Dad was working on estimates, I was working
on estimates right next to him,” he says.
In 1993, Gilbert made a big move after finding himself divorced in New Orleans.
“New Orleans is not a good place to be divorced and wallowing in selfpity,” says Gilbert wryly. A Christmas visit with his brother, who had moved to Fort Smith, convinced him to switch environments. But he got a rocky start in his new home.
“I couldn’t find a job anywhere,” he says. “I went back to a company called SSI, and I interviewed with them again. I said, ‘Look, I know you don’t have any project management positions open. So just hire me as a laborer, and I’ll wait until there’s an opportunity to prove myself to you.’”
Gilbert’s self-confidence was well-placed: It wasn’t long before he was able to show his skill in the arena of project management by revising a change order, previously denied by a client, and having it successfully approved. His career in Arkansas established, Gilbert would soon pursue bigger opportunities in Little Rock — but not before making a connection that would alter his life dramatically.
Gilbert says he was standing with a colleague on a balcony in his workplace when he looked down and spotted Cathy Fritschie, a talented stained glass artist, speaking with the receptionist. He was immediately smitten. “I stalked her. I did,” says Gilbert. Enlisting the help of mutual friends, he began showing up to events and places he knew she would be in attendance.
“One night, he needed a ride home from a restaurant, and our friend asked if I could take him,” remembers Cathy. “Later, when we got in the car, I kind of jokingly asked if he thought our friends were trying to set us up. He laughed real big and said, ‘Hell no! I’ve been trying to orchestrate this for weeks!’ It was a complete surprise to me.”
“That kind of broke the ice for us,” says Gilbert with a laugh. “So that was probably January, and we got married that August.” The couple had three sons between them, and, today, they have six grandchildren.
In Little Rock, Gilbert continued to see his star rise through a combination of his sharp business acumen and incredible work ethic. When he looks back through the lens of his current position, however, he says he sees that something was missing.
“Today, my definition of success doesn’t have anything to do with money,” he says. “My definition of success, today, is seeing people recognize opportunities that they didn’t have before and being able to act on them. And it’s important
to me that I help to shape or influence the environment that exists for that to happen.”
When Gilbert and his team finished renovating the Center for Nonprofits, Gilbert had every intention of returning to the world of commercial construction. But he discovered that he was having trouble forgetting about the nonprofit initiatives he had been exposed to through the project. So when Reithemeyer approached him to come on board at The Jones Trust, he took the leap. But while his heart was sure it was the right decision, his head still had some reservations.
“You know, I’m a construction guy,” he says. “I [had] just finished this project, the Trust has these assets down in Springdale and there’s probably a couple of years worth of work for me. I can come in and get all of their facilities in tiptop shape.” But after that, he remembers, he couldn’t help but wonder, “‘What do I bring to the table? What do I do that brings value to the Trust?’”
He needn’t have worried. The past seven years have shown that Gilbert’s assets stretch far beyond those in the construction arena.
Clifford points out Gilbert’s ability to identify areas of need in Northwest Arkansas — and find pragmatic solutions.
“There was a significant disturbance in downtown Springdale, and everyone was worried about the downtown, including those of us at The Jones Center. There was a group of Hispanic youth who stood up at a citywide conference on that disturbance and said, ‘We want to make a difference in downtown Springdale. We want it to be something special.’ So Mike grabbed on to that and mentored them at The Jones Center. Today, this group [an art collective known as Stitches] is part of a new alliance in our new center.”
That new center — called “The Station” — opened earlier this year. Dubbed a “collaboratory” by one of its partners, the Teen Action Service Center (TASC), the building will also house Washington County Juvenile Court evening reporting counseling, Stitches and the University of Arkansas’ Entrepreneurial Programming and Assessments.
Gilbert says the genesis of the idea that would become The Station came when TASC executive director Madi Hutson mentioned to him that Springdale youth were more highly represented in the juvenile justice system than were teens from other parts of the region. When he investigated, he discovered that the probation process requires juveniles to report to their probation officers
on the south end of Fayetteville.
“This doesn’t work for a lot of the Springdale families that we’re dealing with,” he says. “They’re primarily plant production workers, and they can’t get off of work. Or if they do, they’re afraid someone else will take their place on the line, and they’ll lose their job.
“I asked the question — ‘So how do you fix that?’ — and Norma Frisby, the director down at the juvenile program, said, ‘Well, one of the things that we dream about having is an evening reporting center where the probation officers work from noon to 9, and students report there and get education and training.’ So I’m sitting there, and this just lights a fire in my brain.”
Gilbert had been working with Hutson and TASC to move a TASC center into Washington County. He was also seeking a permanent place for Stitches. The Jones Trust just happened to have a large office space vacant on Emma Avenue. It seemed a natural fit to link these programs — all aimed at servicing the teen population in Springdale — in one space. Gilbert’s talent for marrying pragmatism with compassion had struck again. His enthusiasm for the project quickly won support from The Jones Trust Board, the Washington County Quorum Court, and the United Way.
More recently, he’s been working to link the teens who frequent The Station to full scholarships to study diesel mechanics at Northwest Technical Institute.
“There’s nothing magic in what I do,” insists Gilbert. “All I do is figure out who are the right people to be working together on a project and try to put them together.” For example, when the school district asked to use the Center for Nonprofits’ cafeteria for the free lunch program for kids, Gilbert partnered with the Northwest Arkansas Food Bank to provide a low-cost meal to the adults who accompany them.
NOT ABOUT THE MONEY
Gilbert can try and simplify the “magic” that he creates, but there’s no escaping that these projects must begin with a clever idea, something born out of empathy and practicality; must proceed with a budget-conscious plan; and must culminate with community support. These are the areas in which Gilbert’s talents shine.
“I’ve never met anyone that had more of a genuinely collaborative nature for solving problems,” says John T. McIntosh, executive director of Fort Smith’s 64/6 Downtown initiative. “His ability to draw people together in the same room, be it two or 20, to collaborate or be creative with a new endeavor, is a genuine skill set that I admire.”
“He always says that he just surrounds himself with people who are ‘stars’ and that’s why people think he is so great, but that’s not true,” notes Hutson. “People are drawn to Mike because his passion for the community and its youth shines so brightly.”
As for his pragmatism, Gilbert says the business experience he carries with him has proven to be invaluable in his current position.
“A lot of organizations that I interact with in different capacities are so mission-driven that they can’t say ‘No,’” he says. “It’s really easy for me to put the business hat on and say, ‘We can’t do that.’ That doesn’t mean that I’m not going to start working on how to accomplish that eventually, but today, we can’t do that. We’ll put ourselves in jeopardy, and if we put ourselves in jeopardy, we’re not of service to anyone. We have to be able to understand what our dreams are, but we also have to understand what our capacity is. We are in the business of serving our community.”
“[Mike] is building in different ways now,” says Cathy. “Intangible, but in ways that can help change lives. How to provide opportunities for kids that they otherwise might not find. How to help meet the needs of some of the most vulnerable. How to help grow the community. He’s gotten very creative in his thinking and much happier overall. He sees the ‘big picture’ quite differently now.”
“The very first time I took my wife to New Orleans, we went to a palm reader, and the palm reader and I got into a disagreement,” says Gilbert.
“She told Mike that he loved what he did, and it wasn’t about the money,” says Cathy. “He laughed and insisted that no, it was indeed all about the money.”
It took him a few years, but he finally concedes that the palm reader was correct.
“Money doesn’t build a community,” says Gilbert. “Money doesn’t change the lives of the kids in our community. Giving them opportunities does. Effort does. Work does. Engagement does. I mean, you have to have money to do that, but money can’t be the driver, and it was for me for a long time.
“Now I realize that I’m primarily driven by what goes on in my heart, and what I think about other people.
“I’ve never had a fiveyear stretch in my life where I’ve had more fun.”
“He has an absolute and total love for downtown Springdale. When I began to paint pictures of downtown Springdale, he immediately got the vision and began to work hard to integrate the Jones Center and the Center for Nonprofits as part of that.” — Ed Clifford