A Conversation with Richard, Evan and Jordan Carbotti @ecarbotti

Friday, January 31, 2014

Today's post is the first in a series of guest posts and interviews by colleagues and friends who have generously agreed to share their hard-earned wisdom here on Think Splendid while I am working in Africa for the next two months. As I was putting these together this past December, I reached out to Richard Carbotti and his sons and co-owners in his business, Evan and Jordan, to speak about running a family-owned business in a competitive market. This is the last interview Richard did before he unexpectedly passed away last week on January 21st.

I'll be blunt: if you work in the special events industry and don't know who Richard Carbotti is, you haven't been paying attention. It is as simple as that. He was a pioneer in special events and paved the way for many who specialize in event styling and design today to be able to charge what they're worth in order to do what they love. He was expensive and opinionated and never apologized for either.

He was also exceedingly kind. I first met Richard many years ago at an event we both spoke at. To quote Maya Angelou, "People will forget what you said . . . but people will never forget how you made them feel." Richard Carbotti embodied this. I can't remember what he and I talked about that day or in the subsequent times I saw him, but I will never forget how he made me feel: welcomed, important and that my voice was valuable. It is also safe to say that my company would not look the way it does today if not for Richard's influence.

The Carbottis have set up a Facebook page where you can leave a memory or note about Richard. If you would like to send a gift, donations, in lieu of flowers, may be made to the Anthony Quinn Foundation, a non-profit organization that promotes art education in the overall improvement of social, economic and cultural systems and for which Richard served as an Advisory Board member.

Evan, Richard and Jordan Carbotti

Can you tell us a little bit about the story behind your company, Perfect Surroundings, and how it came to be?
Richard: To be honest I was a cocky young guy working in one of the famous Newport mansions as an Interior designer. I had attended Parsons in New York and thought I had everything planned out. One day on a ladder putting up some wallpaper the owner of the mansion came to me and told me to get off the ladder to meet someone that wanted to talk with me about a big gala/event. I got off of the ladder reluctantly because, well, I was an interior designer, and didn’t know about or want anything to do with some "special event." Well, it turns out in the other room sat Ted Turner and Queen Elizabeth’s decorator, and they wanted me to design the Prince Andrew’s Ball for the British syndicate promoting that year's America's Cup. It is truly a right place in the right time scenario. I scrambled to find flowers, rentals, antiques, and lighting in a place where “special events” meant nothing and had no real resources. I spent too much money and made nothing, but the event was a fabulous success. I didn’t really know what I was doing, but had a pretty good eye, and as a result landed in Town and Country, which launched my company, Perfect Surroundings.

I never expected or dreamed that event design would be my direction or passion. Soon after that event, both Special Events and Event Solutions magazines connected me to key talent and helped me create industry partners around the world. I was fortunate to meet people who had been involved in the industry before me and truly became mentors in many ways, as well as great friends and colleagues (John Daly, Carol McKibbon, Mona Meresky, Tim Lundy, Andrea Michaels, Patti Coons, Cher Przelomski, Sheri Pizitz, Audrey Gordon, Jackie Bernstein, Rob Hulsmeyer). I have to mention each one of these people because I owe them everything for introducing me to what this emerging industry was all about, and for offering me exposure through speaking engagements and interactive workshops around the country. Without the guidance and enthusiasm of each and every one of those individuals I would not have grown so heavily involved and fascinated with the world of special events. I eventually joined the first ISES International Board of Governors and later helped form other regional chapters in New England. I really credit such affiliations in helping me grow and build my business. Almost two decades after all of this, my sons joined me full time and have helped reinvent and rebrand the company with their creativity and great pulse on design and their surrounding world. The three of us, along with our dear friend and designer, Dwayne Ridgaway, speak around the country and love each opportunity to share our ideas, process, and experiences with amazing people, such as those that subscribe to ThinkSplendid.com. As a teacher of art, design, advertising & marketing, graphic design from grades K through graduate level, education is something I find to be an essential part of my own personal and professional growth.

You've mentioned before that each of you have defined roles within the company. How has this helped you in terms of vision and growth?
Within our company there exists both structure of defined roles yet a shared sense of responsibilities. That just seems to be the inescapable nature of the family business aspect. We are a close family and thus involved in all parts of each other's lives, so although there are distinct roles each of us play, we are all constantly sharing our ideas and offering constructive criticism -- or not-so-constructive criticism.  Again, just the nature of the family business! For example, in general, Evan handles most communication, creative copy and proposals, Jordan formulates design concepts, ideas, and layouts etc., Dwayne designs and handles floral design/tablescapes, and Richard as President and Design Director essentially overseas everything and guides everyone in the necessary directions relevant to each project. He also creates renderings and detailed design boards for each event. This, however, is a good example of where roles overlap. During the inspiration or design board's creation, we are all there drawing, cutting, gluing, printing, writing, designing, sketching, researching etc so we are all onboard with each event’s design, aesthetic, layout, schedule, etc.

I mention the above details because it is this collaborative process and transparency within our own company that allows for what we think is the most creative and customized experience for our clients, as well as a consistency in our product which is essential for growth. Clients get someone dedicated to sharing/writing the narrative of their experience, someone devoted to color, texture, patterns, and lighting, an expert florist/chef/food stylist in Dwayne, and a classically trained artist and educator with an understanding of design, art fundamentals and development, and culture around the world. We are proud of the combination of various talents and strengths within our small group, and feel that when we let one another do what we each do well, a more complete design and overall event is the result for our clients. The added benefit of speaking our minds, brutal honesty, awareness of each other’s strengths and weaknesses, and frequent family dinners, allows decisions to be made quickly yet thoroughly. Our growth and evolution comes from our shared vision with unique and individual lenses.

Richard, as founder, what was the most challenging aspect of "passing the baton" to your sons when you brought them on board in the company? How do you feel other companies can best handle this type of transition?
I think the transition in any situation or for any organization or company is about understanding where you came from, where you are, and what will be necessary in order to realize potential you see for yourselves in the future. I think I had to help them understand the foundations on which they stood, but I had to learn and accept that the means and methods of achieving the same kinds of results was and is changing in a way they can keep up with faster. I had to drive home why certain things needed to be done in particular ways, but then had to balance that with the reality that they were and are often more aware of how things are evolving and developing within their generation’s powerful influence. The difficulty doesn’t lie as much in the letting go of control or responsibility, as it does in being a father wanting to ensure a certain comfort level and understanding for his sons regarding goal-setting and certain foreseeable challenges. My sons possess strong individual passions and abilities. They work together extremely well. So, in any company or organization, a person in my position of "passing the baton" needs to be flexible and embrace new ideas, approaches, perspectives, and technologies.

What three pieces of advice would you give others working with family in business?
1. Allow each member to express and discover what he feels he best brings to the table and excels at. This will help define roles, stimulate creativity, and promote the productivity of individuals who understand and enjoy the ways their efforts lead to accomplishing goals.

2. Seek out opinions, help or perspectives from people outside that family circle. Get a feel for how your family business dynamics appears to others looking in so you can better adapt to situations and accommodate various types of clients.

3. Allow each member at certain times to take a leading role on a particular project/event. Everyone needs the opportunity to lead and be the delegator at times. This ensures a common understanding of all other roles, and allows different approaches and methods to be attached do particular circumstances. For example, we have allowed each of us to be the point person for certain brides so we can determine who is best for that particular kind of event. Of course, clients and personalities are all different, but this approach can offer your team a good baseline for each member's strengths.

Evan, you've also started a 501c3 non-profit called Spero, which cultivates young philanthropists and advocates youth charities. What role do you feel social responsibility plays in today's professional culture?
The world is getting smaller in so many ways, yet many communities are seemingly growing further apart. I would say social responsibility is important because of the ways it nurtures creativity and forward-thinking in both those to whom we offer help, as well as those giving aid.

I have learned from many years of watching my parents give back to local communities that social responsibility connects people to the creative and motivating parts of themselves. This, to me, has always seemed to be important in any professional culture. Being socially responsible promotes the cultivation and nurturing of the creative minds that change the world and build the future. At Spero, what we have found as young professionals, is that our efforts spark a kind of social consciousness that allows children the opportunity to explore, play, learn, create, share, and travel. They learn how to problem solve, work through daily challenges and express individual ideas and thoughts while working among the ideas and goals of many others.

I think social responsibility, then, is what bridges gaps, grounds us, and makes connections in a world that needs much more of that. It generates more awareness, and a sense of community with a broadened scope of the world that surrounds us. And as focus broadens and others are aforded more opportunity and a sense that people care, I think a better world is formed. To me this isn't not really idealistic, it just makes sense. To generate a healthier, more creative, and more productive professional environment or world in general, we need to pay attention to and support those that might follow—we need to recognize that a sense of social responsibility is not just essential for the survival of future generations, it is essential in our current gaining of clarity and perspective that will grow our businesses and lead to success. Just as a great athlete makes his team better, a good professional should make his community better.

Think Splendid will be offering insights and perspectives from Splendid Guests for the months of February and March while I am working in Africa

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