Bulletin from the Big Easy: Giant Killers

I returned Friday from the Northshore Business Conference, sponsored by the Southeastern Louisiana University Small Business Development Center, where I was privileged to be invited as the keynote speaker. (The event brochure may be downloaded here.)

The event took place Sept. 25 in Slidell, LA, a fast-growing town located north of Lake Pontchartrain, which makes it a bedroom community for both Baton Rouge and New Orleans. The area is enjoying a modest economic boost due in part to the displacement caused by hurricane Katrina a little more than three years ago.

Conference delegates represented regional retail, wholesale, service, finance and other trades. Especially considering the duress some of their businesses had just suffered due to the one-two punch delivered by hurricanes Gustav and Ike, I was grateful for their attendance.

My talk delivered a snapshot of current economic, retail, consumer trends; discussed where they are leading the industry; and proposed how independent retailers – “Giant Killers” – might position themselves for success within that competitive landscape.

Preparing for and attending this conference was a learning experience for me. In particular, I’d like to relate two brief anecdotes about the flexibility and resilience of businesses in Louisiana’s North Shore that are worth at least a second thought.

First is from an area fencing wholesaler who attended the conference and was evidently engaged and enthusiastic throughout. At the break he described how post-Katrina re-development had caused demand for fencing materials to boom. His business had grown considerably and he had expanded his facilities. Some retail competitors were not so lucky, however, so home and business owners were coming in to his warehouse searching for materials and parts which had become harder to find locally.

“We are being pushed into retailing,” he said, expressing some regret that his newly enlarged warehouse did not have a showroom area set aside for the walk-in business. The good news: some of the parts now in greater demand bring higher margins. The bad news: the new direct-to-customer business adds complexity, expands his assortment, and requires longer weekend operating hours. Talking to this energetic and positive business owner, I had little doubt that he would rise to the opportunity.

The second anecdote involves Folse Seafood, a retail and catering business operated by Jerry Folse and his son Jay out of Gonzales, LA. I was impressed by some press coverage I uncovered while researching my talk, and decided to give them a call. The answering machine indicated that the shop was temporarily closed following Gustav and Ike, but gave another number for Jerry, which I dialed.

To my surprise, Jerry answered his cell phone from the cab of an 18-wheeler. He and Jay were caravaning in two rigs toward one of the oil refineries in southwestern Louisiana, on a catering job. It seems the 2,000 workers laboring around the clock to bring the refinery back on line needed to be fed, and Folse Seafood had thousands of pounds of frozen shrimp and house specialty crawfish bisque that could keep the hungry workers nourished.

“Our power was out, and I knew the merchandise in our freezers would eventually go bad,” Jerry told me. “I sent ten emails to contacts I had at the oil refineries and other businesses along the Gulf Coast and six of them responded ‘yes we need you’.”

He booked a month’s worth of catering business at facilities in Louisiana and Texas, closed the retail location, loaded the trucks and hit the road. I asked Jerry if he was worried about the consequences of closing his doors for so long and the certainty of his answer impressed me deeply: “Our customers will come back to us in late October when the new crawfish season begins.”

Both these stories tell us something about the resilience and ingenuity of independent business owners in the face of extraordinary circumstances. I can hardly imagine a chain retailer responding to local challenges with these levels of commitment and creativity. Hats off to these “giant killers” and their peers across the Gulf Coast who are battling their way back to prosperity with grit, smarts and heart.

© Copyright 2008 James Tenser

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