Eugene Lupario – Co-Founder, President & CEO, SVS Group

Eugene Lupario graduated from the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor and was a top pick to work for the E & J Gallo Winery right out of school. Over the course of the next eight years, he took on many roles during his tenure, including time at the winery’s marketing department in Modesto, California. In 1996, Lupario left Gallo to help found Silicon Valley Staffing (SVS) Group, where he is responsible for sales and recruiting efforts, and oversees the direction of the organization.

Lupario was inspired to join the San Rafael Pacifics after a meeting with team owner Brian Clark, and president and general manager Mike Shapiro. His responsibilities with the club include working with business partners while fostering relationships around sponsorships. But, his ambition for bringing professional baseball to historic Albert Park and the greater Marin community is what fuels his passion for the Pacifics. Following the Pacific’s championship inaugural season, Lupario bought the team assets from former owner, Brian Clark. As the managing principle owner, Lupario oversees day-to-day team operations and looks forward to providing Marin County with affordable, family fun.

Born and raised in Connecticut, Lupario moved to Northern California after graduating from Michigan in 1988 and married his wife, Janette Keaton, in August 1992. They have two sons, John and Andrew.

Tell me about your early career.
When I graduated from the University of Michigan, I had an opportunity to move to the San Francisco Bay Area. I quickly began work as a territory sales representative for the E & J Gallo Winery. I worked for the winery in a variety of capacities from the fall of 1988 through the summer of 1996. During those eight years, I worked in San Francisco, Santa Cruz, Sacramento, and ultimately, Modesto, the headquarters for the winery.

While most people leave the winery after a year or two there, I hung in there for many, thereafter. Part of it, simply, was that I was recognized and continued to climb the corporate ladder (I held eight jobs in eight years). I was also afforded the opportunity to meet really interesting and talented folks. My last assignment, I spent much of my time working closely with the family, including David Gallo (Ernest’s oldest son), as well as Ernest and his top lieutenants.

How did the concept for SVS Group come about?
One of the people I met at Gallo was my business partner today. Steve Allen worked for me for a year or so. During that time, we became instant friends. When he decided to pursue another career, we stayed in touch and never stopped thinking about what we might be able to do on our own. A few years after Steve left, he introduced me to his brother, who had started a staffing firm in Chicago. We took a road trip to the Midwest and fell in love with what Scott was doing.

On the flight home, Steve and I talked at length about how to take this idea and make it work for us. So, we went to the drawing board, brought in someone with some staffing experience (my cousin), and put a technology spin on it. Six months later, we all quit our regular jobs (I was still working for the winery), and we opened the doors to Silicon Valley Technical Staffing. Today, we use a d/b/a SVS Group, as it has broader appeal.

How was the first year in business?
The first year was rough. It was about a month into things when we started to realize what we had all given up. I was well-respected and well-paid at Gallo. Steve was making good money at the medical supply firm, and Quentin (my cousin) had given up a senior assignment at a staffing firm in San Francisco. While none of us ever looked back and wished we had stayed with our former employers, we all wondered how long we could go without getting paid.

To complicate things, my wife and I had our first child just a month before I quit my job. And Janey being a teacher, it is pretty tough to live off that for any length of time.

But honestly, we were young and aggressive and divided up the work that needed to be done: Steve and I did sales, while Quentin tackled the recruitment piece. Collectively, at the end of the day, we “ran the business.” Meaning, we paid the bills and did all the things necessary to have an office and business operate. But it was a tough few months. However, in mid-October, just six weeks into things, we received our first chance. Once we received that and placed people out to work, we were off to the races.

We set ourselves up well in that we placed strong technicians and the client appreciated the work and made an even bigger order almost immediately. This generated opportunities with other clients, and things just took off from there.

What was your marketing strategy?
We knew that there were a lot of companies offering the same services we were. So, for most of the customers we called upon, we were a “breath of fresh air.” For too long, our clients had little or no choice in who they could use. So, our goal was, and remains, to do a great job for each as they will become a source of referral for the business.

From a marketing standpoint, most of what we did was use the Yellow Pages and call companies and try to obtain a meeting. Once we’re in front of the customer, we knew we had a chance to land an order. We had some slick brochures and pamphlets, but mostly, it was Steve and I just getting out and introducing ourselves and our service. Remember, this was 1996, at the very early stages of the Internet.

How fast did the company grow during the first few years?
With only four months to operate in our first calendar year (September through December), we had revenue of $300,000.

By the end of 2000 (4 years and 4 months later), we were a $15.5 million operation. So, growth came quickly. In fact, there were several occasions whereby we wondered if we were growing too fast. Would the dollars keep coming in, in support of the increased payroll? Ultimately, we connected with some wonderful bankers, established strong lines of credit, and we pushed things to the limit, enabling us to achieve our growth goals.

How do you define success?
Great question! To me, it is measured in three ways: Did you help someone achieve one of their goals? Meaning, did you help someone find a job? Or did you help a client meet a goal by supplying them with the right person(s)? Lastly, did you have fun and make some money along the way?

If the answers to all of those questions are yes, well then, I think you can look back on that platform and say you had done well and were successful in your endeavors.

What is the key to success?
Find something you enjoy doing and then sort out how to make a living doing it. While I am not going to pretend to be that altruistic and suggest I got into the staffing world because it was so important to me to find people work, I will say that I have an incredible desire to develop companies and figure out how to make them operate efficiently and profitably.

What is the greatest lesson you’ve ever learned?
Do not make decisions based on money alone. Oftentimes, when decisions are made like that, they become regrettable. You have to think several steps down the road. Even as a young company, you must anticipate the challenges and possibilities of what you do now and how that can affect you later. If we consider what we want to be and what we want our firms to look like and stay true to that, you may find yourself leaving money on the table in the short-run, but enjoying things much greater, for a good deal of time.

What are some quotes that you live by?
“Go to work every day as though you are interviewing. Prove that you deserve to be there.”

What are some of your favorite books?
Into Thin Air remains one of my most favorite recent books. I’m also currently reading The Boys in the BoatEye of the Needle by Ken Follett is still up there for me.

But the book I read and was so disappointed with when I finished it was Endzone by John Bacon. As a University of Michigan graduate and rabid fan of all things Michigan, I read this in a single night. I wish it were 1,000 pages longer.

Tell me about one of the toughest days you’ve had as an entrepreneur.
One of the hardest days I experienced occurred on July 4th, 2003. It was well after the Dotcom Bubble had burst and our business was tanking. There appeared to be no end in sight. I was with my family in Los Angeles, celebrating my son’s 7th birthday. But on this day, our banker called me (yes, on the holiday). We had not missed any payments to the bank, but we had a large balance owed. She took it upon herself to tell me that she was going to come take my house and that she did not care what that meant to me.

Needless to say, I was scared and taken aback by her bold phone call. And as hard as I tried, it is a memory I cannot get out of my head. Obviously, a lot of time has passed since. Today, I try not to forget about it, but rather use the memory to help push me forward, but to also learn how to NOT treat others. For example, we have clients who sometimes fall behind in their payments to our firm. Rather than just kicking them to the side and turning them over to a collections agency, we do our very best to work with them as they may be going through a rough patch.

When faced with adversity, what pushes you to keep moving forward?
See notes above. But more than that, I employ dozens of recruiters, operations people, and business development folks. It is so important to me to see these folks achieve the financial and career success they sought out when coming here.

What advice would you give to young entrepreneurs?
The best advice I can give is to put your everything into what you are doing. If you are going to do something on your own, go for it. Hedge your bets and try not to do too many other things outside of your primary objective. Once you have established the business, then you can think about hobbies or other businesses. But in the beginning, stay focused, work hard, be smart by taking cues (pay attention to what is happening around you), and go.

This interview was conducted for research purposes by Jason Navallo for his upcoming book, Underdog.