From corporate exec to landscaping and he’s never felt better
When I see Joe Sbardella, 66, shoveling mulch into a wheelbarrow for landscaping, it’s hard to imagine him as the company president he was a few years ago.
Joe ran a national division for DSW’s parent company, which has one of its 500 stores on Providence Place.
It was a great job.
Today, like most days, Joe has a humble job and is currently gardening a house in Bristol.
It’s his own business, a little smaller than the billion dollar company he worked for.
It’s called “Old Man with a Truck”.
You’d think that would make this a case-from-Olympus story.
Joe will tell you that working with his hands has made him his happiest in years.
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Corporate stress had left him 230 pounds overweight with high blood pressure and pre-diabetes.
He’s now under 200 and sleeps through the night, which was rare when he ran a fashion department.
He’s doing less than a third of what he used to do, but he’s more proud of the landscape scratches on his arms than his previous salary.
Joe recalls how some of life’s worst blows, like a sudden discharge, can open better doors.
He was in his home office in the Touisset section of Warren when he was told he was on his way.
It was exactly one year ago, March 25th.
He had been asked to join other executives for a conference call at noon.
Joe thought it was COVID affecting sales.
Instead, all callers were told that they were on leave. It was clearly a step towards closing his department.
After 40 years in the clothing business, he had been fired.
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His family was dependent on his paycheck – his wife, a retired special needs teacher, now looks after their elderly parents.
And being a division president doesn’t always mean you’re rich.
Without the job, Joe couldn’t just pay his bills.
At that moment he signed up for unemployment and then called the Bank of Newport to defer mortgage payments. He remains grateful for how they worked with him.
Joe Sbardella was raised in Bristol by a draftsman father and waitress mother whose hard work inspired him to become a paper boy at the age of 10 and a busboy when he was a teenager.
For the first time since then, he was out of work at all.
As a URI biology student in the late 1970s, he initially planned to become a doctor, but when he didn’t get into medical school, he tried an entirely different path.
He moved to Newport Beach outside of LA to surf and make money as a crew on a day tourist sailboat.
There is a famous scene in the movie “The Graduate” where a friend of the Dustin Hoffman family gives advice in one word: “Plastics”.
Young Joe Sbardella got a version of this when a charter customer told him to think about the clothing store.
Work hard and he could make $ 30,000 a year – an unimaginable amount for a long haired 23 year old surfer deckhand.
Joe pulled on his only suit and searched for openings in LA’s showroom-filled Apparel Mart. After a few months, he got an entry-level gig that was sent to Dallas to show samples for clothing stores in remote cities.
Instead of working on a slick, slick playing field, Joe proved to be a natural seller in the apparel industry by being competitive and honest. Over time, he rose through the ranks with Izod and then rose to vice-president with Manhattan Industries, one of the most important shirt sellers at the time.
Bristol’s Joe Sbardella was past the big days, commuting from Greenwich, Connecticut to his corner office on Broadway and 40th.
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He rose again to the position of division president at Designer Brands, which owns DSW.
That kept him on the streets to target chains like Macy’s, Saks, and Nordstrom, but he could be based in Rhode Island.
He’s still grateful for that. It’s a big reason he took the job. Joe missed home.
Then, a year ago, his president’s title ended on that call.
Joe’s home in Touisset has peaceful views of Mount Hope Bay.
He often looked out and wondered what to do next.
Despite being unemployed, something felt right. For the first time in decades he was truly home.
“This is my stuff,” he says. “This place made me who I am.”
Joe had long been his own handyman and gardener.
Something told him to do that, here in the East Bay among his people.
I asked why not be a business consultant. Or find another VP job. Former colleagues still tell him about companies that are looking for department heads.
But now that he’s not there, Joe has viewed these jobs as too bottom line – at least he was finished, with accountants over his shoulder and near-impossible goals from above. This has led to high blood pressure and high weight.
He now liked the idea of a job and what it would do for his health.
In Joe’s case, there was another poignant turn. He had three children but lost his daughter Lindsay to Addison’s disease eight years ago at the age of 27. Joe still senses her presence and senses that she wants him to lead this simpler, local life.
So he got a truck and told his wife he hoped to make a few hundred dollars mowing the lawn.
But he placed local ads, word got around and by midsummer 2020 Joe Spardella had a new career.
Although paying bills isn’t as easy as it was before, he will tell you that working with his hands is better currency for his community.
“I went from sitting in boardrooms to crawling in the dirt with someone who told me I had missed a weed,” he jokes.
He actually welcomes some of it – the part where he connects with people. Joe has elderly clients lonely after losing a spouse and is happy for his company. And he, while he works, for her.
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Almost everyone who hires him asks why “Old man with a truck”?
Well, says Joe, that’s him.
When I see it shoveling while mulching, it barely looks old.
Or stressed out at all, as he was all the time.
It was tough when that door closed on him a year ago.
But a better one opened.