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Sylvia McLain: Work Hard & Play Hard

Feb 19, 2018 10:25AM ● By Erin Holden

Realtor® and real estate developer Sylvia McLain has seen Lafayette grow immensely since her elementary school days of riding horses through her neighbors’ yards on Beadle Road—when it was still a gravel road. It has been interesting for her to see the growth of the community, and even more satisfying to become a part of that growth.  

“I love the growth and progress of our city,” she says when asked how she feels about the changes since her childhood. “The most important thing is how close-knit we are. I just have a lot of connections here. I was so connected in the area that it helped me be successful in my business.” 

Sylvia, in some ways, has lived multiple lives. Unafraid of change, she began her work life as a nurse, worked in the oilfield business, and then the equine business. Finally, she found her ultimate career niche working in real estate development and residential construction. What stands out most about Sylvia is her ability to not only roll with the punches but to welcome change into her life as a new adventure.

“I’ve never been afraid of change!” she says. “My career path tells that story quite well. I have been self-employed for most of my life.”

After graduating from Comeaux High School, Sylvia worked as a nurse for two years and then began working for her father. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) was established around this time, so her background as a nurse made her the perfect fit to teach CPR classes. As business began to boom, Sylvia’s role expanded to safety, sales, and human resources.

“I was raised in our family oilfield business, very close to my parents who built their business and family together,” she explains. “I feel fortunate to have been taught great work ethics by their example. They taught me to work hard, have respect for others, to be kind and caring, to never underestimate my own ability to do anything, and so many other characteristics that made me who I am today.”

She watched her parents (Lewis and Edith Carpenter) build upon their humble beginnings by working hard to make their business, American Well Service and Drilling, a success. She also learned it can be an enjoyable experience to work alongside your family. Working in the oilfield business with her father was a formative experience for her in this way.

“That’s where I learned my basic work skills,” she explains, and “the way my family worked together – cousins, aunts, people who had worked there for over 20 years and felt like family.” Building these connections are vitally important to how Sylvia operates. Faith and family are the most important aspects of her life. She puts her loved ones first and treats those who work for her like family.  

“Anyone who knows me will tell you that I have a passion for horses—I discovered my love for them at a very young age when my father built our first barn in the early 60s and brought our first horse home. My parents couldn’t keep me away from the barn and the horses—it’s my happy place. From my first Shetland pony, Princess, that Santa delivered when I was six, to having two top-ten AQHA World Show champions, horses have been a part of who I am for my entire life.”

After working in the family business for 12 years, Sylvia made another big career change and began working in the equine industry. She had been interested in horses since childhood, so the transition into the industry was not only a good business decision but a way to pursue her passion. It was during this time that Sylvia began volunteering with various equine organizations, eventually serving as the state affiliate secretary and board member for national horse organizations such as AQHA (American Quarter Horse Association) and NCHA (National Cutting Horse Association).

From 1999 to 2005, Sylvia was the director of Acadiana Fairgrounds (SugArena), where she managed events at the Pavilion and Casino Coushatta Resort. It was during that time when she met her (now) husband and business partner, Bryan McLain, when he expressed an interest in two lots on La Neuville Road she had carved out of her family farm. Sylvia says she was looking for a partner to help her develop the property and “was blessed with the best career change of all” when the two of them met.

Sylvia thinks back on this time as a busy one that is also full of fond memories, saying “My decision to partner with Bryan on developing my family farm into what is now Heritage Trace subdivision was probably the biggest decision of my life! It was a risky venture that required making a large loan and trusting a man I barely knew. I took the leap of faith and the rest is history! Bryan and I began our real estate partnership in 2002 and married in 2005. I am very proud and happy to say that both our business and our marriage have been a success and continue to grow stronger year after year.”

Bryan and Sylvia’s business partnership has also been a journey. During the first ten years of business, the two of them, along with their assistant, worked in a small 20’ X 20’ building—which is a testament as to how well they get along. According to Sylvia, it is their complementary differences that make them work so well as a couple and as business partners.

She also describes Bryan as having some characteristics that she respected in her father, who she describes as a hero to her. Like him, Bryan is a risk taker and someone who has been with her throughout these final steps in her career change.

Sylvia describes all the steps in her career as “building blocks” that have gotten her to just where she wants to be. When she and Bryan began their business with Heritage Trace, she was working 60 to 80 hours a week, still in the equine business along with her new responsibilities. For her, these are pleasant memories because she has always looked upon work as an extension of her life. The memories that she made and continues to make throughout her career highlight her approach to success – you have to love what you do. When you love what you do, you enjoy it too much to let the long hours get to you.

“You have to have a light heart about the challenge,” she explains, “and you can’t overthink it. You can’t be scared and start a business. You have to put in the hours. I’ve always lived my career, and my real secret to success is that I’ve enjoyed it.”

Just as her family did, Sylvia and Bryan have made a true family business with the two of them working together as partners, her oldest son, Cody, working as her associate realtor, and her youngest son, Jim, working with Bryan at McLain Homes. She couldn’t be more pleased that they are all getting to spend so much time with each other this way, saying that “our life is so rich with love. I am proud to say that we are still living in the house that Bryan built for me on that little piece of ground that was originally carved out of my family farm. One of the things I asked for early on in our marriage was that we not move from house to house like most builders. I wanted a house that our kids could come home to on Sunday afternoons that we all call home! In keeping with so many things, Bryan stood by his word and kept his promise.”

The most recent change in Sylvia’s career came when she decided to become a realtor, a suggestion from the realtor that she and Bryan had worked with for years, Teresa Hamilton from Van Eaton and Romero. Knowing Sylvia’s talent for marketing, she told her “you could do this if you went back to school and got your license.” As Sylvia puts it, her only “shoulda” is that she should have taken this step sooner. At 53, she went to real estate school and got her license.

“Although 2010 was a hard year in the real estate market, my business took off,” Sylvia says, “almost too fast for me to keep up with. After the dust settled on my first couple of years, I knew that I had finally found the profession that I would end my career with. I love this business – the people, the community connection it gives me and the satisfaction of helping others with one of the most important purchases of their life!”

One of the most important developments that came from working in real estate for Sylvia and her family is the McLain Company’s involvement in the St. Jude Dream Home. Her whole family gets involved in this fundraising event. She and Bryan have donated nine lots to St. Jude, Cody helps with marketing and media, and Jim works with Bryan on the construction end. 

When talking with Sylvia about her life’s work, it is inspiring to hear someone speak with such gratitude about giving back, treasuring the connections she has made along the way, and still managing to have a great time. She is still active in showing horses, loves what she does for work, and spends her spare time entertaining at her home. Sylvia also has four stepchildren: Jennifer, Matthew, Brandon, and Christian. She and Bryan have three grandchildren as well, so their home is often full of many loved ones with which to share their success.

“Bryan (my personal wine sommelier/chef) is always stirring something in the pots,” she says. “We add a lot of family, and a few good friends to celebrate life with. This always seems to end up with some guitar picking and singing in the wine room. I do believe in the ‘work hard, play hard’ attitude!”