Mike Gil­bert

Com­pas­sion tem­pers his prag­ma­tism

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - PROFILES - LARA JO HIGHTOWER

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

2015.

“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.

SOME­THING MISS­ING

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.”

COL­LAB­O­RAT­ING

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.”

NWA Demo­crat-Gazette/ANDY SHUPE

NWA Demo­crat-Gazette/ANDY SHUPE

“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

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