A LEGACY FORGED ALONG THE RIVER
How Paul Aucoin's tenure as Executive Director led The Port of South Louisiana to unprecedented heights
“So, what do you plan to do on Day 1 of the rest of your life?”
The question catches retiring Port of South Louisiana Executive Director Paul Aucoin a bit off guard, causing this usually gregarious leader to briefly pause and search for an answer.
The reason for the hesitation is simple: For Aucoin, this isn’t the end of his story.
It’s the end of a chapter – perhaps the proudest chapter of his distinguished and accomplished professional career.
“Well,” he soon says, speaking through a laugh, “I don’t think I’d be very good at watching TV all day, or feeding the ducks. Trust me, I’ll be out and about.”
Though he can’t go into specifics just yet, rest assured that Aucoin’s innate desire to tackle unique challenges will serve him well in his next business/civic endeavor, just as it did during his historic tenure shepherding the immediate day-to-day needs of stakeholders and the long-term economic future of the River Parishes at the Port of South Louisiana.
Incredibly complimentary of the job done by previous PSLA Executive Director Judge Joel T. Chaisson Sr., Aucoin said his main duty when he took over in 2013 was to maintain the Port’s reputation as a vital gem in domestic and international maritime commerce and increase the entity’s visibility in hopes of securing additional local, state and federal funding and attracting new industry (and the quality, high-paying jobs that come with them) to the region.
Quite frankly, he’s done that and more.
In less than a decade under Aucoin’s watch, the Port of South Louisiana has attracted more than $20 billion dollars in new investments from domestic and foreign companies and facilitated the creation of thousands of employment opportunities through expansions of existing operations along the Mississippi River or attracting new/relocating businesses to the 54-mile Port District.
RAISED ON THE RIVER
When Paul was a child, the Aucoin’s sugarcane farm in Vacherie spanned dozens of acres and featured three houses on the property – Paul’s mother’s place, his grandparents’ place, and his aunt’s place.
But, truly, Paul’s real home was a few steps off the estate – the banks of the Mississippi River.
“I spent all my time there,” Aucoin says. “We managed to build camps/treehouses along the river behind the levees so nobody could see. Those were our forts, our clubs, our hideouts. When you’re that age, having the Mississippi River as your playground growing up…it sparked your imagination and your curiosity because while you’d be out there, you’d see ships along the river, coming and going.
So you knew that there was a bigger world out there and this river could take you to that world.”
During the summer, Paul would wake up and pull shrimp boxes out of the water, hoping the overnight haul of “River Shrimp” were enough for his mother’s various recipes that night. The 15 children living on the farm would also water ski on the Mississippi and cause mischief by trying to playfully spray ferry passengers floating nearby.
Aucoin was truly a product of his environment, a River Kid.
But because public schools in St. James Parish only went through the 5th grade at the time, Aucoin eventually left home as a young adult and attended a Catholic Boarding School in Bay St. Louis, Mississippi, where he excelled both academically and athletically.
“I skipped ahead past the 8th grade, so I was young for my age when I graduated and perhaps wasn’t mature enough to know the right decisions to make as far as what to do next,” Aucoin said. “I had about six schools show an interest in me playing football. But a priest came up to me one day and said, ‘If you want to make something of your life, you better forget about football.’
“So I wound up at Loyola.”
Four years of undergrad and two years of law school later, Aucoin landed a job with a New Orleans law firm until fate brought him back to the River Parishes. At age 25, Aucoin suffered a fairly severe heart attack that changed his future outlook. In need of care and support, Aucoin moved back to Vacherie and started his own law practice out of a facility on his mother’s farm.
Aucoin managed to find cases, but had a tough time building a steady clientele since he hadn’t lived in the area for roughly 13 years. So, as Aucoin is known to be from time to time, he got creative.
Back then, the Louisiana State Bar Association strictly prohibited lawyers from advertising in any media outlet. No radio spots. No TV commercials. No newspapers. Such a violation was terms for disbarment. However, attorneys were permitted to run for political office. And what comes with running for political office? Well, publicity, of course.
So Aucoin ran for State Representative.
“Figured it’d get my name out there, you know?” Aucoin recalls with a bit of a chuckle. “Of course, I didn’t realize I was running against the Speaker Pro Tempore of the House, which goes to show how young and ignorant I was about politics.
“But a local paper wrote up a story about me, which is all I wanted to accomplish. I did not win the election but I achieved the goal: people knew who I was and that I could be of service to them legally. The rest is history – 48 years of practicing law.”
Feeling a civic responsibility to the River Parishes, Aucoin has worn many different hats and served on various boards advocating for a variety of causes. Aucoin has been a member of the St. James Parish Economic Development Board, the Attorney General’s Ad Hoc Committee on School Safety, the River Parishes Community College Foundation, the River Parishes Tourist & Visitors Commission, and the Dr. Martin Luther King Scholarship Committee.
“What stood out to me, even going back to when I met Paul 30 or 40 years ago when he was a young attorney, was his ability to interact and connect with the public,” Judge Joel T. Chaisson Sr. said. “He had this sense of civic responsibility that never left as he grew professionally. He always had a connection to the place where he was from and the communities within and surrounding St. James Parish.
“Paul has been a participant in his community, not just a resident of his community.”
A NEW OPPORTUNITY
In 2012, Chaisson reached out to Aucoin to gauge his interest in serving as the Port of South Louisiana’s executive council. Despite having limited knowledge of the maritime industry, Aucoin said yes.
Roughly one year later, Aucoin took over as the Port’s Executive Director after Chaisson chose to retire.
“My staff and the directors of the various areas of the Port made my transition as smooth as possible, so that I could hit the ground running and we could continue and build on what Judge Chaisson had done during his time as Executive Director,” Aucoin says. “There was always an expert to advise, always the proper information to make the right decision — the decision with the best interest of our stakeholders and their workers in mind.”
Aucoin entered an enviable situation and was wise enough to capitalize on those Good Times. From 2012 to 2013, the Port’s total throughput of commodities rose substantially in almost every category, including whopping tonnage gains in Coal/Coke (267 percent), Sugar/Molasses (124 percent) and Wheat (51 percent.). Businesses within the Port also benefited from the low cost and high supply of natural gas – the “feedstock” of most industrial operations (regardless of product) within the 54-mile stretch known as the Port District. Throw in the geographic advantages of the Mississippi River, easily this state’s greatest natural resource, and Aucoin quickly recognized he was in charge of an “in-demand” location.
All he had to do was let the world know about it.
“You know, when I stepped into the Executive Director’s job, the Port of South Louisiana was already the largest tonnage port in the Western Hemisphere, which is a tribute to the men and women who made that possible before my arrival,” Aucoin says. “But I also wondered, ‘Why does nobody know it?’ I certainly didn’t know it. The largest tonnage port is in our backyard? That word needs to spread.”
Adopting what he calls a ‘Squeaky Wheel Gets The Grease’ approach, Aucoin made a concerted effort to raise the Port’s profile by soliciting sit-downs with officials from some of the wealthiest industrial corporations in the world and sold them on all the benefits of setting up shop in south Louisiana. At the same time, Aucoin established relationships with local leaders, state politicians and U.S. Congressmen and Senators representing the Pelican State to tirelessly tout the Port’s importance not only in the worldwide supply chain but national security, as well.
“Besides practicing law, Paul has always had a business mind, and that business mind has served him well as Executive Director of the Port,” Chaisson said. “To do this, you have to be outgoing and not only be willing to engage with all types of people but to really enjoy engaging with all types of people — from hourly workers, to foreign and domestic investors, to lawmakers and policy makers. That’s a talent, and Paul has that.
“The opportunities out there are unlimited, but they don’t just come to you unless you get out and seek out these people.”
While Aucoin was figuratively waving the Port of South Louisiana’s banner, he also had the foresight to simultaneously raise funds for infrastructure improvement projects — multiple additions to Globalplex, the renovation/modernization of warehouses, improvements at the airport, the construction of the railyard leased to Dow Chemical, and dozens of other upgrades — needed to facilitate all this economic development.
A LASTING LEGACY
But for all the growth, all the numbers, all the new jobs created, what Aucoin says he’ll miss most about his day-to-day duties with the Port are the small moments and the people who were a part of them.
He shares an anecdote from a few years ago, when Aucoin emceed the ribbon-cutting of Building 19 — a once-old warehouse now newly renovated. Searching for the right words to describe the structure’s transformation, he oddly called Building 19 “beautiful.”
“Trust me, I never thought I’d use the word beautiful to describe a warehouse in my life,” Aucoin says. “But there I was.”
There are stories like this that make Aucoin smile, and there are stories of resilience that, as he looks back, make Aucoin nod his head in gratitude.
“We’ve proven we can handle anything as a Port,” Aucoin says. “High water, tariffs, hurricanes, a global pandemic – we can handle it. Not that it’s easy, but the people who work in the Port District are special people. They believe in the community, believe in the work, and have proven time and time again that they’re a strong bunch.
“I can’t thank them enough for that.”