Paul Hayley Guess – Arkansas Online

You might not expect to find 60,000 square feet of holiday wonder in a Des Arc warehouse, or consider a pilgrimage to the Prairie County seat a can’t-miss Christmas tradition. But five days a week through Dec. 5, hundreds of people will visit a former Van Heusen shirt factory to see what holiday magic Paul Guess has in store for them this year.
Guess, 50, has expressive eyebrows, an easy smile and a firm handshake. He’s the hometown mastermind behind Guess & Co.’s annual Christmas at the Warehouse Sale, a grand-scale holiday shopping experience grown over the past six years largely by word of mouth. He’s also the owner of LUX Fragrances — premium, scented candles hand-poured at his Des Arc factory — and his own Deck the Halls, Y’all brand of seasonal merchandise shipped around the country. New this year as an umbrella over it all is Paul Guess Live!, an online shopping experience broadcast through Facebook and paulguesslive.com.
He estimates 22,000 people, the most ever, will come to the warehouse this season, in a town with a population of roughly 1,700. Even with last year’s covid-19 precautions and entrance by appointment only, more than 18,000 shoppers showed up. To reach shoppers not comfortable leaving their homes, Guess got on Facebook and started livestreaming his merchandise. Sales were so robust, they sprouted the idea for Paul Guess Live! as a way to take this Des Arc experience to people anywhere in the world.
MOVING PEOPLE, NOT PRODUCTS
Guess is the youngest of four in a family that genuinely enjoys one another’s company. For 36 years his parents, Ann and Donald, ran the local Dairy Freeze drive-in; their business acumen and work ethic put all four kids through college. They still gather Sundays after church to share a family meal and work closely during the week.
Guess says his most vivid Christmas memories aren’t of presents but of his family’s holiday traditions and the feeling of love and trust that permeated everything. It’s those feelings he’s chasing in his businesses and that form the core of his character.
Of all the adjectives used to describe Guess, “reserved” has likely never been among them. He emotes like a champion. He connects warmly with others, makes jokes at his own expense, uses exclamation points like he bought them wholesale and gets misty-eyed talking about the things that matter most to him. He heads businesses that delight people, and that fact brings him endless delight.
“From a business perspective, I don’t focus on moving product, but on creating the full sensory experience,” he says. “When people pull up in small-town Arkansas in front of this building they think, ‘What am I doing here, where am I?’ But as soon as we open those doors, they know they’ve arrived at the North Pole.”
THE FULL SENSORY EXPERIENCE
Inside the warehouse is a larger-than-life shopping spectacle. Jingle bells three feet in circumference. Towering Christmas trees dressed in intricate splendor. Full-size glitter reindeer. Garlands of faux evergreen boughs interwoven with replica clove-studded oranges. Whimsical, moldable elf dolls and Whoville-esque Christmas tree sculptures. A holiday tablescape graces a dining set that’s also for sale.
The show floor flows from rustic farmhouse holiday decor in one corner to translucent ornaments glistening like ice crystals in another. Artificial snow floats through the air in one section; at a different spot, shoppers can pose for photos inside an inflated snow globe. An area emanating scents of the season showcases LUX candles. And because 75% of the merchandise was designed and manufactured by Guess’ companies, it’s sold at wholesale prices.
One new addition takes center stage, literally. In the middle of the warehouse, a large television set has been constructed. From 6-7 p.m. Tuesdays and Thursdays, a live audience watches Guess share his products, seasonal recipes and decorating tips in a beautiful white and lapis-blue kitchen. Mobile users can buy the specials available only during the show from their devices as it airs. “The technology is cutting-edge, and it’s a worldwide show, but we’re still country,” Guess says. “The set may look New York, but in the studio we’re straight up Des Arc. I think that’s the great dichotomy of it.”
DES ARC DREAMING
Guess’ focus has landed where it started: on his hometown. He dreams of making his Des Arc sale the size of the famous holiday market in Canton, Texas, to help more local businesses thrive.
Tyler Cox is vice president at Farmers & Merchants Bank in Des Arc and Hazen. He has been Guess’ lender since the beginning and knows what drives him. “Everything Paul does, he does for this community and the people he employs,” he says. “He doesn’t care anything about the money. As his banker, I can tell you he gives away more than he keeps for himself, just because he loves this town.”
Cox says Guess has received offers for free warehousing in neighboring areas, but has no interest in moving his business. “Paul wants to keep employment here,” Cox says. “He could save a lot on the labor side by outsourcing, but he wants to care for his people. During the holidays, he hires just about every high school kid around here to give them some experience.”
“I believe in them,” Guess says of the students. “I want them to understand, yes, you’re in a small town, but you can do great things. You can be who you choose to be. I’m straight outta Des Arc, y’all! And I’m not ashamed in the least.”
Working at the Dairy Freeze was his first job, as well as his first job out of college. He graduated from Des Arc High in 1989 and attended the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville. Four years later, he headed home to put his bachelor’s in small business management to use. He helped manage the dairy bar for almost seven years, then started feeling the itch to try something new. “I felt called to do something bigger in the world,” he says. “I wanted to spread my wings.”
“LILLY RED”
His wings took him across the United States, working for Eli Lilly & Co for almost 14 years. He moved seven times. Living alone in major cities away from his everyone-knows-everyone hometown was a challenge, but Guess loved the company and ascended into upper middle management. “It’s a great company that helped me so much,” he says. “To this day, I bleed Lilly red!”
While at Lilly, Guess in 2009 was accepted into Harvard Business School’s general management program for executive education. Out of 125 students, he was one of only 13 Americans. He says working closely with so many non-Americans changed his life.
“I think I’m this big pharmaceutical executive, whatever,” Paul says with an eye roll toward his past self. “Then, the first day they say to us, ‘Unless you’re here to change the world, this program is not for you.’ And I thought, ‘Where’s the door? I’m in the wrong place!’ Only to realize four or five months later, that it was the exact right place; that program is what piqued my interest in international business.”
His last position at Eli Lilly was based in Little Rock. In 2013 when the company asked Guess to move again, he turned it down; he was enjoying being in his young nephews’ and niece’s lives. “There’s nothing more important to me than family,” he says, eyes shining as his voice catches. “And I knew I’d been missing out.” He says a senior vice president told him, “Paul, go back home and have the impact on your hometown that we know you’re capable of making.”
So, he did.
GUESS & CO. AND DECK THE HALLS, Y’ALL
Back in 2008, Guess had on a whim opened a pop-up Christmas store in Searcy in an old pizza joint, a fun venture outside the world of pharma. On leaving Eli Lilly in 2013, his brother suggested Paul start a holiday import and design business. Knowing nothing about either area, Guess taught himself, often studying bills of lading into the wee hours to learn where and how different items were made. He began cold-calling manufacturers that impressed him. “I knew nothing!” he laughs. “And they didn’t speak English, but they spoke enough to tell me, ‘You email.'”
Guess founded Guess & Co. and Deck the Halls, Y’all, traveling to dozens of factories across the globe and the states, mostly small family businesses. “You want to know who you’re working with, what their facility is like and the type of people they are,” he says. “We want a lasting relationship.”
Now, he can tell you by name who made almost every item he sells. Most are crafted by hand. The jingle bells are welded by a family in northern China. A Deck the Halls, Y’all collection is designed by a Conway artist on staff, Sarah Nabholz. He points out beautiful wooden trays made in Bentonville.
Also in 2013, a retiring Estee Lauder executive he’d known for years asked him to buy her candle business. “I told her no,” Guess says. “I said, ‘That’s too much! I can only do one thing at a time! I have a tiny brain!'” He changed his mind, though, once he realized he could move the factory from Marble Falls, Texas, back home to Des Arc.
LUX Fragrances has grown five times larger since then. When Guess bought the company, workers were pouring candles by the order. Now LUX produces 5,000 candles per day, each wick still meticulously trimmed with scissors. LUX products are carried by Neiman Marcus and other premium retailers.
Locally, Guess sold candles from the factory lobby before moving the holiday sales into a tent in its parking lot to accommodate demand. Each year he’d only announce the sale on his personal Facebook profile. But each year, long lines would show up, often buying his candles and decor right off the trucks. Needing more space, he bought the derelict shirt factory. The Christmas at the Warehouse tradition was born.
Each season kicks off with a series of VIP preview parties to benefit a project or nonprofit. Cox says the first year the profits bought 300 new computers for Des Arc schools. This year’s beneficiary — from the sales of 1,800 VIP tickets — is the Miss Arkansas Scholarship Fund. Guess says he chose the scholarships because he’s a deep believer in getting more women into leadership positions.
Dennis Horn of Little Rock is president of the Miss Arkansas board and Guess’ longtime friend. He says Guess has for years supported the organization with in-kind donations, but this year is one of the biggest scholarship sponsors.
“Paul’s always been big on empowering women through our pageant, but also the women he employs,” Horn says. “Now he’s gotten to a point in his career where he’s giving back not only to his local community, but to the state of Arkansas through these cash scholarships.
“He’s crazy talented, more than he even knows,” Horn continues. “I think he can do anything, and he just continues to grow.”
HUMAN CONNECTION
Guess’ success is built on human connection. As he goes through his businesses, he warmly greets employees by name, receiving big smiles in return. He gets up at 4:30 a.m. every day of the year to maintain relationships with his overseas partners. And he earns their loyalty.
Marvin Achoy, an illustrator based in Manila, Philippines, works for Guess full time. “When I hired Marvin, I made a promise to him that his children would be able to attend university,” Guess says. He shares a photo Achoy sent him. In it, small legs are visible sitting in their father’s lap as he holds up a tablet playing one of Guess & Co.’s Facebook Live videos. “They were so proud to see their father’s work being shown in the U.S.,” Guess says. “That means something to me.”
Guess sums his endeavors up, waving an arm wide to encompass the showroom and all his team members. “We make wonder, right here in Des Arc,” he says. “And in doing that, we’ve made some of the best friends in the world.”
SELF PORTRAIT
Paul Guess
• DATE AND PLACE OF BIRTH: July 11, 1971, Little Rock
• MY HAPPY PLACE IS: Turks & Caicos.
• MY FAVORITE HOLIDAY CAROL: “Silent Night”
• MY OTHER TALENT BESIDES BUSINESS: I’m a professionally trained singer.
• MY BUSINESS INSPIRATION CAME FROM: Harvard Business School.
• FAVORITE DES ARC-AREA ACTIVITY OUTSIDE OF WORK: I love driving country roads on a Sunday afternoon.
• MY PET IS: A rescued dog named Missy.
• THE ARKANSAS ACTIVITY I RECOMMEND IS: Everybody has to go to a Razorbacks football game.
• MY MANAGEMENT PHILOSOPHY IS: Trust is initially given; it can be won or lost.
• THE WORLD NEEDS MORE: Morals and values.
• MY PERSONAL DECORATING STYLE IS: Traditional and classic.
• THE MOST TOUCHING CHRISTMAS GIFT I’VE RECEIVED WAS: My grandmother’s china.
• FROM MY PARENTS’ GENERATION, I LEARNED: Work ethic.
• MY BUCKET LIST INCLUDES: Making my ventures in Des Arc as big as the holiday market in Canton, Texas, and help other local businesses as a result.
• SOMETHING THAT WOULD SURPRISE PEOPLE TO LEARN ABOUT ME: I was president of my graduating class from the Harvard executive education program, but only made an 18 on my ACT.
• THE ONE WORD THAT SUMS ME UP: Relater
Print Headline: Paul Hayley Guess
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