Lessons from Legends in the Home Building Industry

Introducing a new series from LD & Co: Lessons from Legends. In these periodic interviews we will talk with some legends in the home building industry. People who have not only survived, but thrived in this fickle, and at times quite turbulent, industry. First up, a good friend to LD & Co., S. Robert August. Lita and Robert have worked together and learned from each other in a myriad of ways over the years. Below is just a snippet of the conversation we had. There are many lessons for business and otherwise one can glean from our conversation. Please enjoy.

The S. Robert August Interview

In times of uncertainty, we find ourselves wanting to soak up as much normality and “steadiness” as possible. And what better way to do that than talk to the ever steady, enduringly successful industry tycoon, S. Robert August. We were able to sit down with the legend a few weeks ago to learn a little more about his history, to what does he attribute his steady success in a very unsteady industry, and what keeps him motivated even after decades of success in the industry.

The Backstory? 

LD & Co: Thanks so much for taking the time to sit down and chat with us. We realize you are quite busy, so let’s get right to it. If you had to say what you do in ten words or less what would it be? What is your personal elevator speech, as it were?

SRA: I make people happy. [laughs] I’m kidding. Sort of. Making others happy and successful is what we do at North Star Synergies. Our team is a marketing management sales consultation corporation specializing in the real estate industry. We work with all aspects of the real estate industry including builders, developers, lenders, real estate brokers, manufacturers, subcontractors, basically, anyone who works in the industry, we work with them to help strengthen their businesses to increase cash flow and profit.

LD & Co: That is quite an expansive clientele. Did you start with just home builders or…? How did the S. Robert August legend begin? We want to know the “backstory.”

SRA:  You could say I’ve been in business my whole life. I grew up surrounded by the family business which specialized in wine, spirits, and real estate. My great grandfather and my father’s uncle built the international business, and my father continued to grow it into an incredibly successful enterprise that lasted for almost 100 years.

LD & Co: What happened? Why didn’t you end up taking over the business?

SRA: Oh, that’s quite a story. However, without going into the details of family drama, when my father died, so did the business, in essence.

[Editor’s Note: a fairly lengthy (and incredibly interesting) discussion ensued regarding the history and nuances of S. Robert’s family’s business.]

SRA: However, while I didn’t inherit the family business, what I did inherit from my father, great grandfather, and other relatives, was that sense of entrepreneurship. I learned how to be strategic, work hard, and what it takes to grow a business. How important relationship building is and how all business boils down to the people.

Honestly, I learned so much more about business and business management from my family (and in-laws) than I did with my formal education. Which, by the way was fantastic.

Education and Destiny

LD & Co: Could you tell us a little bit about your formal education?

SRA: For my undergraduate work I earned a B.A. in Labor-Management Relations from Pennsylvania State University and a Master of International Management from the Thunderbird School of Global Management at Arizona State University in Phoenix, Arizona.

At the time, the undergraduate program was one of only two programs that focused on labor management relations. It was quite comprehensive, focusing not only on the business aspects but also the psychology, sociology, and economics of business. Further, after four years of practical business development, I returned to graduate school to immerse in the culture, second language, and business education and communication. I cannot describe how meaningful that graduate program was: it is not hyperbole to say it was life changing.

So, in addition to my incredible education I have also been very lucky. I was very lucky to be born into the family I was and lucky that I married my best friend, Penny. Penny’s parents were also third generation entrepreneurs. The real-world exposure I have had throughout my life has been invaluable.

LD & Co: So, it was inevitable then? You always knew that you would own your own business at some point.

SRA: Yes, exactly.

LD & Co: How did it come to fruition, this destiny of yours?

SRA: Well, it’s been a long, interesting, and windy road for sure. I have had the opportunity to work with some of the best of the best in the business. From hitting the pavement to sell for my father, to being a part of some of the biggest and most successful planned communities in the country, to small shops and international conglomerates, I have had the pleasure of working for a myriad of companies before deciding to strike out on my own.

[Editor’s note: more discussion ensued about Robert’s diverse and impressive professional experiences.]

Turning Point: Relocating to Colorado

LD & Co: What brought you to Colorado and when?

SRA: Opportunity brought me here. I was hired to help a community north of Denver, in Westminster. At the time, most people thought it was impossible to sell upscale homes in Westminster. When I arrived in the late 1970’s, they were just getting ready to open. During my tenure, I was able to increase the sales proforma by more than 400% with mortgage interest rates increasing to 16%.

LD & Co: Wow. What was the secret to your success?

SRA: Collaboration. I got involved in the economic development council, the local HBA, and other trade associations. I was always thinking outside the box for ways to involve different community groups to increase traffic and ultimately sales. And it worked.

LD & Co: It definitely did! You’ve won so many awards in your career, and I’ve read that in 1983 you were the youngest person to ever win NAHB’s prestigious National Sales and Marketing Award. Congratulations! How did that feel?

SRA: It was wonderful. It was awarded at IBS in January 1983, but it was for all the work I had done with The Ranch (the community in Westminster) in 1982. It was this success that really propelled me to start my own business. I felt like it was time. And, with the support and encouragement of my wife (and biggest fan) Penny, I made the leap.

It was 1983 when S. Robert August & Company opened its doors. Because I had the knowledge and experience of running a business, it was successful from the get-go.

North Star Synergies

LD & Co: Why did you change the name to North Star Synergies?

SRA: After decades of success and working with some of the best in the industry I wanted to set up an exit strategy for myself. To do so I knew I had to make it more about the company than me personally. So, in 2011 I re-branded to North Star Synergies.

LD & Co: Makes sense. So, after all this time, accolades, and accomplishments, what keeps you motivated?

SRA: The hunt, the challenge. Every company is different and as such their problems and challenges are different. I love the idea of going in and devising the specific strategy that is going to help their company succeed. Helping a company achieve their goals (or better yet, exceed said goals) is incredibly rewarding.

LD & Co: Considering all your diverse relationships and projects you’ve worked on, is there one in particular, that you would consider “your favorite?”

SRA: That’s hard to answer because I have been involved in so many different projects and have had the pleasure of working with so many noteworthy people. If I had to pick one, I would have to say my work on The Ranch (the development in Westminster I mentioned earlier). It brought me to Colorado where I have raised my kids and made a life here. It was also this project that I was able to employ the techniques I had been learning and honing while in Pennsylvania. And because I was so successful it is the reason I won that NAHB Sales and Marketing Award way back in 1983. It was the launching pad to so much.

LD & Co: You’ve kind of already answered this, but I am going to ask anyway. To what do you attribute your long successful career?

SRA: There are a few things. Perhaps most importantly though is that you can’t rest on your laurels. You must always be willing to learn. Further, every company is different and as such all have a different culture. I like to say that we at North Star are ‘prophet’ builders. We help people realize positive change, break bad habits, and help them make money profitably while increasing cash flow.

I always strove to have a boutique corporation, I never wanted to work with everyone. We strive to deliver excellent product and service, and to always be at the top of our game.

Priceless Advice

LD & Co: From all that you’ve been exposed to from your family to school, to working with a myriad of companies, what would you say is the best advice you’ve ever received?

SRA. Don’t think you know it all. Be flexible. Be ready to make change because change is often necessary.

LD & Co: Great advice! Any further parting words of wisdom?

SRA: Be true to yourself and others. Everyone has something to contribute. By being your best, it will bring out the best in others.

What’s Next?

LD & Co: Fantastic advice, thank you. So, what’s next for you and North Star Synergies?

SRA: Pursuing international opportunities. I helped create the NAHB Global Opportunities Board which has been quite rewarding. Additionally, we currently have projects going on in Australia, New Zealand, Mexico, and Italy.

LD & Co: Ooh Australia…perhaps we should talk offline…

Thank again for sharing your invaluable your time and wisdom. For more information on the legendary S. Robert August (and North Star Synergies.com) please visit the website.

Robert & Sandra Petrovic, Executive Officer of the Eastern Idaho Home Builders Association at the 2020 IBS NAHB Spike Party