Business People of the Year
2018 was a year of beginnings — a year where we began building upon our region’s strengths across so many industries at one time that one can’t help but be excited for what 2019 will bring. And leading that charge into the future are these eleven professionals that Biz New Orleans is honored to celebrate as our third-annual Business People of the Year.
Within this group are leaders seeking to grow our record-setting tourism numbers even further by transforming our downtown landscape, giving our airport a $1 billion facelift and creating an anniversary celebration felt across the globe. In healthcare and biotechnology, we’ve got young entrepreneurs bringing exciting new ideas to the market aimed at not just improving quality of life, but saving lives in ways no one has seen before. In sports we saw the loss of our beloved Tom Benson, but thanks to his wife, Gayle, his legacy is continuing as strong as ever. We saw one of this country’s fastest-growing business schools open a $35 million expansion, one of our top tech companies go public and Jefferson Parish celebrate its most successful year in decades.
Finally, just over four years after gracing our first cover as “Mr. Business,” we welcome Michael Hecht back as our CEO of the Year. Continually stepping up his game to bring Southeast Louisiana to new heights, he and GNO, Inc. were integral in bringing our region its two biggest successes of the year, projects whose impacts will continue to ripple outward for generations to come.
Here’s to our “Elevating Eleven,” and to a very prosperous and exciting new year.
President and CEO
“I’m actually in a slight panic about what we’re going to do in 2019 as an encore,” said Jerry Bologna, president and CEO of JEDCO (Jefferson Parish Economic Development Commission) when asked about the organization’s success this past year.
Bologna has every right to be nervous. Jefferson Parish has had an incredible year, arguably the best since Bologna took over as JEDCO’s CEO in 2000. The most high-profile win for the parish being the successful purchase of Avondale Shipyard, Biz New Orleans’ business story of the year for 2018.
“Since the closure of the shipyard was announced [in 2010], GNO, Inc. and JEDCO were working in tandem to find a purchaser,” said Bologna. “Once a potential purchaser surfaced, JEDCO negotiated the local incentives that made the acquisition possible. There were so many jurisdictions and approvals and parties involved. We acted very much like a concierge to put it all together.”
Avondale was just one among almost too many wins to count. Among the highlights include that in March, Fuji Oil announced it was investing $70 million in a new processing facility adjacent to Avondale Shipyard, and in May, U.S. Foods announced that it was tripling the size of its facility in Marrero to create a new distribution center and adding an estimated 83 jobs.
JEDCO has also been working on two big projects throughout the year. The first is the redevelopment of the 100-acre Elmwood Center, which has already seen new retail tenants. The 10-year phased construction of this mixed-use development will include 500 apartments, pedestrian paths and enhanced infrastructure. This year also marked the start of an extensive master planning process for the Churchill Technology and Business Park, a 480-acre site on the West Bank.
“It is a point of pride for our team, which has been hard at work alongside global design and architecture firm Perkins+Will all year to develop a plan that really fits within our vision for the future of Jefferson Parish,” said Bologna.
Speaking of team, Bologna is quick to praise JEDCO’s staff of 18, which he calls “one of the most dedicated economic development staffs in the country” and “one of the few accredited economic organizations in the state.”
How do you follow such a successful year?
“The positive momentum we’re seeing in our schools, in workforce development, that’s all just going to continue,” he said. “We’re going to keep experiencing a shift in industrial and warehouse to the Westbank and we’re going to continue to look at areas like Fat City and Terrytown in terms of housing and neighborhood revitalization.”
By Kim Singletary
Founder and CEO
Chris Meaux won’t soon forget November 28, 2018, which he began by ringing the Nasdaq opening bell in New York, surrounded by Waitr colleagues.
“It’s kind of the pinnacle for entrepreneurs, to go public and ring the bell on the stock exchange,” said Meaux. “It was one of the highlights of my career by far.”
Meaux’s career has been on a steep upward trajectory — the most recent bump spurred by the $308 million acquisition of Waitr by Texas billionaire Tilman Fertitta, owner of the Golden Nugget Casino, the Houston Rockets and Landry, Inc. (which counts restaurant chains including Landry’s, Morton’s and dozens of others in its portfolio), along with Landcadia Holdings.
“We thought it was important to go public, and we have the right partners to do that with Tilman Fertitta and Landcadia,” said Meaux.
Meaux launched Waitr in 2015 as an on-demand platform to connect local restaurants and consumers. Since its inception in Lake Charles, Louisiana, Waitr’s services have expanded to 40 markets and 235 cities. In 2017, the company took more than 4 million orders.
Today, Waitr has more than 400 corporate employees and 9,000 total employees, including drivers. Meaux said he is proud of the impact the company has had on their lives, as well as those of Waitr’s 7,700 restaurant partners.
“In some cases, we are 25 percent of their business,” said Meaux of their restaurant partners. “Waitr gives them access to tools they’ve never had before. At one time in my career I was a restaurateur. I know how hard it is to set yourself apart, to grow your business. Waitr has been a catalyst to help them find new customers.”
As a publicly traded company, Waitr has plenty of room to grow and access to capital to enable that expansion. Meaux said his vision for the company extends beyond food delivery to creative technology solutions for restaurant and food service operations.
Despite Waitr’s rapid growth, Meaux is committed to maintaining the company’s Louisiana roots (its headquarters are in Lake Charles). One clear sign of this commitment? This fall, Waitr partnered with Tony Chachere’s to include a lagniappe packet of seasoning blend in its New Orleans delivery orders.
By Rebecca Friedman
New Orleans Saints,
New Orleans Pelicans
Through commemorative patches and helmet stickers featuring the initials and a silhouette of Tom Benson doing his signature Benson Boogie, the New Orleans Saints and New Orleans Pelicans continue to honor the memory of their late owner, Tom Benson.
But no one is honoring his legacy more than his wife, Gayle Benson, who became owner of both teams when he passed away in March. With franchises in two of the world’s most popular professional leagues and a horse-racing stable competing at the highest levels, Sports Illustrated recently named her “the most powerful woman in sports.”
In April, Benson saw the Pelicans sweep the Portland Trail Blazers to win their first playoff series sweep in franchise history and advance to the conference semifinals.
In May, her horse, Lone Sailor, made a “Run for the Roses” in the Kentucky Derby, and later that month, she led a delegation aimed at awarding New Orleans the 2024 Super Bowl. Her fellow owners needed just 60 seconds to unanimously award the event.
In August, she announced the return of Dixie Beer to New Orleans with an 80,000-square-foot brewery, tasting room and museum in New Orleans East.
In October, she was ranked No. 298 on the Forbes 400 list, an annual ranking of the wealthiest Americans. The magazine ranked the Saints as the world’s 48th most valuable sports franchise with a value of $2 billion and valued the Pelicans at $1 billion. With an estimated net worth of $2.8 billion — equal to media powerhouse Oprah Winfrey — she is the lone Louisianan to make the Forbes list.
In addition to the teams, Benson owns three local automotive dealerships — Best Chevrolet, Cadillac of New Orleans and Mercedes-Benz of New Orleans. Alongside all of her responsibilities, the renowned philanthropist is continuing to contribute to the local community in the health and wellness, education and arts sectors, most notably through the Gayle and Tom Benson Cancer Center at Ochsner Medical Center.
“This year has truly been a blessing and I could not be prouder of what we have accomplished,” Benson said. “The Saints claimed the 2018 NFC South title for the second year in a row and the Pelicans are in the thick of the hunt for another playoff berth.
“Our farm in Paris, Kentucky continues to be a leader in the thoroughbred breeding business, selling one of its Quality Road yearlings at the Keeneland Sale for over $1 million,” she said. “As I look back on all of our accomplishments this year, I am inspired to achieve even greater things for our fans and community while continuing to give back to the community as much as possible. With success comes the responsibility to invest in our community and to make a lasting impact on those around us.”
By Chris Price
Freeman School of Business at Tulane University
Tulane’s A.B. Freeman School of Business, one of the country’s fastest-growing business schools, welcomed 2018 with a bang: the opening of a $35 million expansion that includes 80,000 square feet of new and renovated space on Tulane University’s Uptown campus.
The expansion was designed to address a range of strategic goals. The physical plant accommodates what Solomon calls the “tremendous, unprecedented demand for business education” the school has seen over the last six to eight years, while its design reflects the vision for a contemporary learning environment built upon openness, collaboration and community.
Solomon and his colleagues are continually refreshing the school’s curriculum to ensure “a Tulane and Freeman School difference” designed to set the school apart from other top programs and offer students leading-edge business learning. They have accomplished this in part through programs that tap into the city’s unique offerings.
“Connectivity to the New Orleans business community is in our DNA,” said Solomon. “Our students get out into the city and it provides a wonderful learning laboratory.”
One example is the Albert Lepage Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation, which helps students develop the skills to be successful entrepreneurs and nurtures the city’s growing entrepreneurial ecosystem.
“More and more highly-qualified young women and men are coming to New Orleans to study business, many of them with ideas about being entrepreneurs, and this gives New Orleans a chance to capture them longer term,” said Solomon. The Freeman School recently finalized a partnership with Idea Village to co-lead New Orleans Entrepreneur Week (NOEW), which will give students a new way to explore entrepreneurship in real-life settings.
In early 2019, the Freeman School will expand its footprint with the Stewart Center CBD. Co-located with the New Orleans Culinary Hospitality Institute (NOCHI) the facility will offer several customized programs, including: entrepreneurial hospitality, designed to help students develop the skills and knowledge needed to succeed in industries (hotels, restaurants and beyond) that rely upon customer experience; an executive MBA; and non-degree educational programming to serve local startups or established businesses.
Solomon’s outlook for 2019 is nothing but positive. “It’s a wonderful time for Tulane and the Freeman School.”
By Rebecca Friedman
High Level Speech and Hearing Center
This month marks Lana Joseph’s third year of running her own business, and in that time, she has experienced a level of success that the Marrero native never could have expected.
Noticing a clear need for hearing services in her home town, the audiologist opened the first location of High Level Speech and Hearing Center on Jefferson Highway in January 2016.
In its first year, her business took in $300,000 and served over 5,900 patients, approximately 5,000 of which were from Orleans Parish. Joseph said that quickly made her realize she needed a second location in New Orleans. In 2017, her revenue grew to $1.5 million, providing her with the momentum to take action.
On January 15 of this year, High Level Speech and Hearing opened its second location at 4219 Magnolia Street. Through both locations, two doctors of audiology and 12 speech therapists, the company served approximately 20,000 people this year, increasing revenue to around $2.3 million.
An estimated 40 million Americans have trouble speaking or hearing due to a communication disorder. For Joseph, one of the biggest ways she sees her company making an impact is with pediatric patients.
“A huge portion of our work is with children and we’ve really been focusing more on partnering with schools, especially in disadvantaged areas,” she said. “When problems go undiagnosed, they can create learning and self-esteem issues.”
Joseph learned the need for speech and hearing services at a young age. A speech disorder resulted in years of teasing until she was successfully diagnosed and treated in the seventh grade. Now, her company frequently partners with schools, daycare centers and nursing homes, bringing screenings to those who need them most.
Personally, Joseph had a big year as well, which included being named to Gambit’s “40 Under 40,” becoming a finalist in the 2018 Millennial Awards and inducted into the inaugural class of Next Up NOLA, a New Orleans-based talent research program. As a little icing on the cake, she also got to serve as rap superstar Drake’s audiologist at his concert in September.
Joseph’s real reward, however, she says lies with creating satisfied customers.
“All of the five-star reviews on Facebook, Google and HealthyHearing.com, that’s what we value,” she said. “That feels so good.”
By Kim Singletary
Mark C. Romig
President and CEO
New Orleans Tourism Marketing Corporation
President and CEO
2018 NOLA Foundation
New Orleans Saints (as well as the Allstate Sugar Bowl and Bayou Classic)
During the citywide year-long celebration of New Orleans’ Tricentennial, it would be possible to think just for a moment that Mark Romig had cloned himself.
As president and CEO of the 2018 NOLA Foundation, in addition to his “day job” of president and CEO of New Orleans Tourism Marketing Corporation (NOTMC), Romig was in every curve of the city attending and speaking at a range of events. From Mardi Gras royalty to actual royalty, Romig worked with hundreds of people to represent our city’s 300th birthday.
“There are many women and men in our community who should be recognized for passion and focus in their respective careers, and to be considered even close to any of them is very humbling,” said Romig. “This honor challenges me to strive to continue learning and growing each day that I am lucky to be alive.”
In 2018 there were three specific projects that Romig found the most meaningful.
The first, he said, was creating a partnership that should achieve results in early 2019 with 504HealthNet to help promote healthcare services to hospitality workers. 2018 was also the planning and execution of the visit to New Orleans by the king and queen of Spain as part of the Tricentennial. Romig was also part of the introduction of the New Orleans Slave Trade app and marker project.
With 2018 filled with external events, Romig hopes 2019 will bring opportunities to focus inward and hone his team.
He said he plans to “continue to find ways for the team at NOTMC to grow and develop their skills and experiences…and to be the best mentor and advisor I can to my team.” Romig sees that happening by continuing to focus on creating opportunities for the diverse businesses in the tourism sector and advancing the growth of the economy.
As a native New Orleanian, Romig’s commitment to and advocacy of New Orleans is ceaseless.
He credits his parents, Jerry and Janice Romig, for demonstrating the importance of community and follows their examples by serving on numerous boards and commissions.
“I love my city and I love what I do,” he said. “I feel very lucky to be from New Orleans, and it hits home with me how important families are to our culture of hospitality. Growing in the shadow of my family, especially my mom and dad who have given so much to New Orleans, has been the best leadership training ever.”
By Jennifer Gibson Schecter
Co-Founder and CEO
Ready Responders and its mobile approach to healthcare have traveled a long way since winning New Orleans Entrepreneur Week’s “Big Idea” competition in 2017. Following that early recognition, major Silicon Valley investors such as Founders Fund — the venture capital firm whose portfolio includes the likes of Facebook and Airbnb — have also backed the company, serving as an encouraging vote of confidence.
According to co-founder and CEO Justin Dangel, Ready Responders offers “the equivalent of a house call within a matter of minutes anywhere in New Orleans,” and the uptake has been strong. The startup treated its first patient in June 2018, and in December alone, treated close to 3,000 people across Greater New Orleans.
The idea for the company was developed by Dangel and co-founder Ben Swig in response to a problem plaguing health systems across the country, that of people calling an ambulance or heading to an emergency room for non-emergent issues, clogging ER capacity and costing health systems and insurers millions annually.
Ready Responders dispatches a trained medical professional to a patient’s home, and includes access to a doctor via video chat. If the patient requires further attention, Ready Responders can refer them to the next point of care. This approach not only reroutes non-emergent cases from emergency channels, it also offers a convenient option to those who might not otherwise access care at all.
“We have great hospitals here in New Orleans and a great EMS service and clinics, but not everyone can get access to care when they need it,” said Dangel. “It turned out there are a lot of people excited to get care at home.”
To reach more patients, Ready Responders has partnered with health insurance payors including UnitedHealthcare, Aetna and Louisiana Health Connections, and developed relationships with healthcare organizations like Ochsner and New Orleans East Hospital.
Today, patients in Greater New Orleans area can access Ready Responders by calling 211. Dangel says access will continue to grow in 2019 as the company expands through partnerships with new payors and hospital systems and launches in three cities outside Louisiana. “We are excited to continue to grow,” said Dangel, “and build what we think is a new paradigm for prehospital care.”
By Rebecca Friedman
Director of Aviation
Louis Armstrong International Airport
In an airport that served approximately 12.8 million travelers in 2018, the impending opening of a brand-new terminal (scheduled for May 15) is big news.
With a $1 billion price tag and 972,000 square feet of space, including 35 gates, the North Terminal will welcome travelers to a modern facility befitting one of the country’s fastest-growing airports — a major departure from Armstrong’s existing terminal, portions of which date back to the 1950s.
Kevin Dolliole joined the effort in mid-2017 equipped with expertise developed over the course of a career in the aviation industry. This experience included overseeing airports in St. Louis and San Antonio and serving as a consultant to airports across the country.
With the North Terminal, Dolliole has confronted challenges ranging from a sinking sewer line to traffic flow issues but has kept the project’s many constituencies focused. In 2018, the airport was able to secure $35 million in additional project funding, including a $20 million grant from the FAA. These funds allowed them to address challenges (including the sewer line) and make functional improvements, such as expanding the international concourse.
Dolliole has also focused on keeping the cost of operations low for airlines, an important factor in increasing the airport’s ability to serve a growing market. In 2018, the airport offered 53 nonstop flights, up from 39 just a few years back, and Dolliole is hoping for more.
Residents and visitors alike are counting the days until they can enjoy the new facility’s benefits, which include improved pickup and drop-off flow to reduce curbside congestion, increased parking capacity, and an array of retail and concessions, both local and national, that will be accessible to all travelers beyond one central security checkpoint.
“The first impression you get of a community is the airport facility you fly into,” he said. “We will be delivering an image of a proactive, modern-thinking community and region to folks visiting.”
Dolliole said he especially looks forward to sharing the new facility with locals.
“It’s great for visitors,” he said, “but I’m more excited for our local citizens to have something like this that they can utilize in a more convenient fashion and that will continue to grow air service here.”
By Rebecca Friedman
Co-Founder and CEO
Lowry Curley was our cover feature back in August. At that point, on the heels of a $100,000 grand prize win at New Orleans Entrepreneur Week that March, Curley explained how his company’s invention, Nerve-On-A-Chip — a 3D cell-based model that mimics living tissue in form and function — was allowing pharmaceutical researchers and scientists to monitor the potential effects of drugs on humans more quickly and cost effectively than traditional methods. At the time, the company had seven full-time employees and was working with three pharmaceutical companies.
Moving at the fast-paced speed of tech, just four months later, AxoSim has grown to 12 full-time employees and signed two additional international pharmaceutical companies.
“I’m also excited to report that we have received two new small business grants,” said Curley. “These grants are allowing us to develop applications to be able to test new, non-addictive opioids. We’re also working to automate our testing which will hopefully allow us to produce 10 times the output we have now, which will help us expand faster.”
Spurred by a personal experience with a neurological issue he battled while in college, Curley said he was “intrigued by the development of new and better biomedical tools.” But in addition to his focus on helping to discover the best drugs to treat neurogenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s, ALS and multiple sclerosis, Curley has had another goal in mind from the beginning: to help create a thriving biomedical district in New Orleans.
“I struggled to find a job here after grad school,” he said, “so bringing biotech jobs to the city is a personal mission.
Four months ago, Curley was recruited to be a member of the Biodistrict Board of Commissioners, which is working with biotech companies and universities to create a strategic plan to recruit and retain a more diverse workforce. He is also a member of Krewe de Nieux, a collection of local entrepreneurs devoted to solving some of the growth issues within the sector and “promoting a modern workforce.”
“What is being done here right now is really exciting,” he said. “And it’s only going to get better.”
By Kim Singletary
President and General Manager
Ernest N. Morial Convention Center
“A decade of delivery.” That’s what Michael Sawaya promised when he took the helm of New Orleans’ Ernest N. Morial Convention Center in February 2018, fresh off assisting San Antonio with a $325 million expansion. Less than a year in, he’s already delivering for New Orleans.
This past June, (the same month Sawaya was featured on the cover of Biz New Orleans) the governing board of the convention center approved a $558 million, five-year capital improvement plan to allow for the development of the Convention Center Headquarters Hotel.
Described by Sawaya in June as the “first order of business,” as a headquarter hotel is something most tier 1 destination cities like New Orleans already have, the planned 1,200-room Omni Hotel (operated by Omni Hotel & Resorts) recently received an independent analysis that projected the hotel would create an additional 172,000 room nights into the market annually, resulting in an additional $208 million in spending and create 1,900 new permanent jobs. The result of all of this would be an annual total economic impact to the city of $282 million, including $18 million in new taxes for the city and $6 million for Louisiana.
Sawaya says negotiations for the hotel began in December, with construction anticipated to begin around the end of next summer and completion in 2023 in time for the Super Bowl.
June’s capital improvement plan also included the approval of a 7.5-acre pedestrian park that will span the length of the convention facility along Convention Center Boulevard. The pedestrian park will include a transportation center connected to the building via a covered walkway, as well as outdoor entertainment spaces, seating areas, public art and water features. Construction on Convention Center Boulevard began in September with expected completion in the summer of 2020.
“A hotel has to have more than just a convention center to support it, so in 2019 we will be busy aggressively planning to add more activity around the area,” he said, “which will include entering into development with various mixed-use, residential and retail components, as well as creating a strong entertainment district.
Sawaya can see it all in his mind, and it’s incredible.
“I’d like to live over there,” he said. “Wouldn’t you?”
By Kim Singletary
CEO OF THE YEAR
President and CEO
Greater New Orleans, Inc.
When Biz New Orleans was preparing to launch its first issue in October 2014, Michael Hecht was a natural for the cover. His business, after all — and that of the organization he leads — is to sell the city, and since joining the organization in June 2008, he has racked up an impressive set of wins, including more than 77 new companies drawn to the region and $30 billion in new investment.
In addition to helping to rewrite national flood insurance and bringing the first nonstop flight from New Orleans to Europe since 1982, GNO, Inc. played a substantial roll in both 2018’s No. 1 and No. 2 stories of the year — the purchase of Avondale Shipyard and the opening of DXC Technology, the biggest economic development jobs win in Louisiana’s history.
Under Hecht’s leadership, GNO Inc. has formed a truly comprehensive plan for the region’s economy, including work on coastal restoration and managing water resources, reformation of the state’s tax and budget structure and tackling criminal justice reform.
So, on the heels of his 10th anniversary leading GNO, Inc., and with this year being the 15th anniversary of the organization, Biz New Orleans is honored to celebrate Michael Hecht as our 2018 CEO of the year.
On finding his perfect career
“As a child, my favorite pastime was to build cities with my Legos and Lincoln Logs. That passion has been a part of my entire life…Taking this job was a chance to come home and a chance to build a better New Orleans region. This is where my lifelong passion lives.”
On the power of a team approach
None of our wins would have been possible without the remarkable partnership and trust that exists between our parish, region and state allies. This partnership is almost always cited by companies as a key reason why they choose the New Orleans region.
On his management style
“I believe in structural autonomy, meaning individuals are given goals and a specific vision of what success looks like but it’s up to them to determine the best possible path. Leadership exists to help, if or when needed, but there’s no micromanaging.”
On his side gig
“I’ve been DJing for about 20 years now…My specialty is electronica and ‘90s hip-hop, but I’m definitely more of a gourmand than a gourmet. I do a lot of fundraisers. The plan is actually to release my first album in 2019. On that note I’m excited that one of our special projects this year will be the New Orleans Music Economy Initiative (NOME). Led by former GNO, Inc. board chair Tara Hernandez, we’re working to create a full music business here, including agents, publicity and managers, much like Nashville has.”
On New Orleans
“We’ve reached a level of economic success in this region that wouldn’t have been thought possible in the weeks following Katrina, or, quite frankly, in the weeks before it.”
On his staff
“Our staff of 20 individuals is one of the most talented, energetic and dedicated in the country,
I’m sure of it. I feel lucky to go to war with such a happy band of soldiers.”
By Kim Singletary