Gene and Veronica Carbona

Name: Gene Carbona

Age: 57

Title: Owner, with Veronica Carbona

Business: The Barn at Silver Oaks Estate, Winthrop

About: A luxury wedding and event venue, where award-winning events and weddings are conducted

Website: www.thebarnatsilveroaksestate.com

What’s your biggest challenge right now?

As a business owner in Winthrop, in the state of Maine, in the United States of America, my wife and I have a pledge to our town, our state, our country and our customers that we cross every T and we dot every I. We follow all codes, all permits, all licenses. At the state level, the same thing. We have a business tax ID. We had to form a corporation.

What we’re finding just this past winter is that people who are sitting in their home could potentially say, “Hmm, I have a barn and I have a house and I’ve got a nice big yard. I’m going to hang up a shingle and I’m going to call myself a wedding venue. I’m going to make a lot of money. I’m just going to do it. I’m going to do it tomorrow, as a matter of fact.”

They do it sans any liability insurance, specialty insurance, any permits, any licenses, any anything. We are a member of a couple of different groups that meet in the state of Maine and sometimes in the totality of New England, wedding venue owners and managers and that sort of thing. It’s an issue that really is rearing its ugly head quite a bit. People are opening up event venues without any permits, any licenses, any fire suppression systems, no safety mechanisms in place, and without the knowledge of their municipality giving them code approval and planning board approval or select board or town council approval. They’re making us as other owners mad, and they’re making the neighbors and the other people in the town very upset.

I am going to be talking with (state Sen.) Shenna Bellows to try to get the word out about this. It’s about safety for Mainers. Sometimes on a Saturday we get 350 people at our venue, and we are the only wedding and event venue in the entire state of Maine that has a fully functional and compliant fire suppression system. (Code officials) made us put a sprinkler system inside the barn along with all the lighting and the doors, special panic doors and all of these specialty pieces of equipment that cost us a lot of money.

We’re seeing a lot of people just hang up the shingle and kind of do their thing and they get paid in cash or a check and they go about their merry way. They’re kind of hurting a lot of other Maine small business owners. At first we planned on doing nothing. We have a mantra, my wife and I, that we say, “All we can do is the best that we can do.” We can provide the best events, make our facility the most beautiful facility and just keep on keeping on.

Over this winter we’ve seen there’s about 100 new places that have popped up, and that’s a lot. That’s a formidable number, and they’re popping up I’m going to say all over New England. Hundreds. People think and they’re correct — they have a beautiful setting and a beautiful barn. And they’re not a true business. They don’t even have a business license. They don’t, again, in the regulatory environment, have a clue.

I just spoke with (Bellows) today and she wants to meet with me and get some details with regards to what is involved in becoming a small business owner first, then a wedding and event venue owner. What are some of the regulatory hurdles I had locally and at the state level and with the state Fire Marshal. I’m hoping that she’s going to be able to at least shine a light on this issue.  She’s a lawmaker and maybe she would be able to shine some light on the people who are in charge of the Fire Marshal’s office or the local municipalities and say: Listen, you guys have to be wary of what’s popping up in your town, and we need to regulate these people for a couple of reasons. Safety first and foremost, and towns can make money and states can make money on legal businesses.

 

Who influenced you the most in business? 

I had a 30-year career in the pharmaceutical industry that I retired from five years ago. So, I’ve got an advanced degree, a master’s degree from Notre Dame. I’d like to say that my professors influenced me, but it was my mother, my dear departed mom (Maureen Carbona).

I’m a junior, and my dad’s big Gene. My mom would say to me, “Little Gene, would you take $100 and spend it in its entirety to make $120?” At first I would say no, it’s not that much. And she would explain to me that if you did that 500 times during the course of the year, you’ve got $50,000.

Would you put good money after better money? A lot of people don’t have the gumption or the strength or the time to do that sort of thing.

We bought this old derelict property that had been sitting doing absolutely nothing for 25 years. It was a dream of ours. And we said if we do five or six events a year, we would be happy as a clam. 

My wife’s a surgeon here at MaineGeneral (Medical Center) here in Augusta. We’re not your average wedding venue owners. We’ve got both got advanced degrees, and we both know what we’re doing. And we are striving for that dream. Now we’re doing 35 events a year in a six-month span. We close right around Halloween.

The thing that we hold nearest and dearest to our heart is we have taken some local vendors — caterers, people who bake cakes, DJs, florists — and we have elevated their business exponentially. People who were on the verge of going on government assistance to feed their family or to put their kids in school are now making plenty of money and they’re making regular money with us. We feel so amazing about that because these are true examples. I can give you a dozen examples of people who were going nowhere, who are now winning awards locally through the Kennebec County Chamber of Commerce and our local chamber of commerce here in Winthrop. They are making a fortune now working with us on our coattails. 

 

How do you overcome obstacles?

There’s an old saying, I don’t know who said it, but it goes, “Boy, wouldn’t this be a great job if it wasn’t for those darn customers, you know?”

So we both were newbies to the hospitality industry, and we did not realize that when we started. We thought the event was its own sort of animal. Right? It’s not the event that is its own animal. It’s the mother of the bride, the bride, the bridesmaids, the mother of the groom. There are hundreds of personalities that show up at our venue every single Saturday or Friday, because it’s usually a two-day event, rehearsal and then the wedding.

In the beginning and our first year, it was very new to us and it was unbelievably stressful. We knew the customer is always right, and you’d have to have a smile. But it was draining us. It was so draining to try to take care of, let’s say, 250 people’s requests, not for a glass of water or some butter for your bread. (It’s), “I don’t like the attitude that the baker gave me.” Um, OK, great. (We’d say), “Well, tell us what happened and we’ll try to make it right for you. Was your cookie stale?” “No, it was the attitude of the baker.”

Veronica, my wife, and I are very good at adapting. Every answer to every single question is always a yes at this point. It’s not that the customer is right. The customer might be wrong, but every answer to every question we give is now, “Yes, we can do that for you, and I’m sure you’ll understand that there is an extra charge for that.”

Somebody might say the tent company sent a 40-by-40-foot tent, but they wanted a 40-by-45 tent. “‘Can you make that happen for me?” Absolutely. We can do that for you immediately, but you would understand there’s a $1,300 charge for taking down the old one, putting up the new one, delivering it.

It takes care of everything. We’re good at what we do. But you’re always going to get those people with these out-of-this-world requests. And we’ve learned to smile.

We go to continuing education every year. It’s called Wedding MBA. It’s usually in Las Vegas and I think 6,500 people go. Last year, when we went, we learned that any question that gets asked is always answered with a huge smile. Absolutely, yes, we can take care of that, and you’ll understand that there is an extra charge with that. So, the out-of-the-world requests from guests, parents, family, brides, grooms — I could give you a hundred examples of things that people ask for, and you just wouldn’t believe me.

 

When did you know your business was established?

I imagine the first award we won. We won our local Chamber of Commerce’s Entrepreneurial Award, the Winthrop Lakes Area Chamber of Commerce. A lot of those members were also people who work with us.

I’ll have to say that it was right away because when we bought the property, we had a full year to work it, and we knew that that second year was when we would start to do events. We were about six months into it. My wife has got a very busy schedule, and I retired, and she said, “Gene, you’re taking care of everything.” I build everything, I maintain everything. And here we are six months in. And Veronica said, “Gene, start doing tours. Reach out to these girls in the way you know how to and start doing tours.”

And I said, “Are you out of your mind? The barn, there’s dry wall on the floor and insulation and it’s not even close. There are bare, there’s holes in the ceilings still. It’s not ready.” And I said,”When we go on date night, would you go with your hair greasy and no makeup and no shoes on? Would you go?” And she goes: obviously not, but she said, “Women will see through the fog. It’s men that see something that needs a lot of work, and they’ll shy away from it.”

It was brilliance in its best display. And 99.9% of my tours are the bride and her mother. She said, “Trust me that they’ll see through the fog, watch what happens.”

So I started doing tours immediately, and mothers and daughters started writing us checks. We filled up two years on our calendar in six months. Immediately, and it was beautiful. We didn’t expect that. And we said, my goodness, is this going to continue to, are we just a flash in the pan? And as we made more money, we reinvested 100% of what we made back into the business, new infrastructure and just made it better and more beautiful. We’re continuing to stay two years in advance. We’re booked to two solid years in advance.

 

Where will your business be in five years?

It’s a great question. We were just talking about that the other day. This is a family-run business. We’ve got three sons, so it’s my wife and I and our two sons. One’s in the Army down south. So the other two sons are 18 and 10 and they’ve been working with us since Dante, my little one, has been 5 years old. We do everything ourselves. We bring in seasonal labor, we bring in, you know, college girls and college boys to help us with busing tables and waiting tables and all that sort of thing. I think this is something that we’re really gonna want to keep in the family for many years to come. It’s a tremendous piece of property.

We have a 10-year plan and at the exact seven-year plan is when we build a lodge and a restaurant. Right now we’re a wedding venue. We don’t have any sort of lodging. We’re a huge, huge 10-acre piece of property with a beautiful barn with a lower reception arbor and a bar down below on the lake. Our hope is that in a couple of years from today, we start construction on a lodge so the families can stay maybe 25 to 50 people max, nothing too large. Maybe a restaurant in conjunction with one of our high-end caterers that would have the resources to help to fund that and just make the business even better. And perhaps at that point, (we’d go) year-round.


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