Executives of the Year

Adversity is never welcome, but in the right hands, it can be transformed into innovation. It can spur us to step out of our own little worlds and reach out in a desperate effort to create a little light in the darkness. It can break us down, only to build us back in a way we never could have anticipated. It can teach us how far we can be pushed, and show us what matters, and what really doesn’t.

It is in times of adversity that leaders of quality are formed, and within these pages you’ll find some of the top in our region right now. They are the people who have long been leading the charge to eradicate poverty and provide more affordable housing and are now finding their mission more critical than ever. They are the people that stepped up to make sure all of our communities had the testing and medical care they needed this year, who led our healthcare heroes and who made sure our small businesses had the guidance they needed to get the resources to keep them afloat. They are the leaders who dared to think differently in industries that have been hit the hardest — to use this crisis as permission to change the way things have long been done, and yes, even to test the boundaries of how much fun can be had on a Zoom call.

Please join us in celebrating Biz New Orleans’ 2020 Executives of the Year.


Checking In
2019 Executive of the Year
Gayle Benson
Owner, New Orleans Saints and Pelicans

Exec Gaylebenson

In addition to donating millions in funds and supplies to COVID-19 efforts, in 2020 Benson opened Dixie Brewery, renamed it Faubourg Brewing Co., opened a wine company, celebrated a $56 million reopening of the Benson Cancer Center and announced $50 million raised for a VC fund to benefit the Gulf South.

 

Dr. Shondra Williams

CEO | InclusivCare

“Being an organization born out of disaster, we are pretty battle-tested, and we have been able to respond to the call of duty.”

Exec Shondrawilliams

Bringing testing and care to wherever it’s needed

We are a community organization, established by and for the community,” said Dr. Shondra Williams, CEO of InclusivCare. “We live, eat, sleep and breathe the needs of the community. When residents are not thinking about health and safety, we’re doing it for them and finding the resources to support them.”

Formerly known as Jefferson Community Healthcare Centers, InclusivCare is a network of four multiservice community clinics throughout Jefferson Parish. While they serve all residents — hence the name change in 2019 — there is particular emphasis on reaching residents who may otherwise not have ready access to health care.

This mission became even more important during the pandemic, and the network’s post-Katrina roots were a vital asset.

“Being an organization born out of disaster, we are pretty battle-tested, and we have been able to respond to the call of duty,” said Williams. “We were able to galvanize, mobilize and participate in over 40 events that included COVID-19 testing and follow-up services.”

This included seeing patients in community centers, churches and other community gathering places, and partnering with government, the private sector and faith organizations. InclusivCare was the first to bring COVID-19 testing to St. Bernard Parish in May 2020.

“Agility was very important, especially this year,” said Williams. “Being flexible, adaptable, able to pivot at a moment’s notice, required a lot of team building, but our staff was amazing in their stamina and resilience, keeping the community’s needs ahead of their own.”

This challenge was made even greater by the loss of a team member to COVID-19 early in the year, but years of hard-earned resiliency carried the organization through.

While serving so many community members was in itself highly rewarding, Williams was justifiably proud that InclusivCare was recognized by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce with its 2020 Community Support and Leadership Award. The organization was chosen out of some 700 nominees nationally.

“We’re ecstatic about that recognition, especially in light of the hardships we faced this year,” said Williams, adding that the award is also a boost to Louisiana and particularly Jefferson Parish.

Another year-end highlight for InclusivCare was breaking ground on a new 14,000-square-foot facility on Lapalco Boulevard that will offer community medical and dental services, along with an on-site pharmacy, while creating 40 new jobs.

“2020 was the pinnacle of crisis management,” Williams said. “Now we have truly mastered it, we’ve navigated the constant change, and we are better prepared than ever to serve our community.”

 


 

Andreanecia Morris

CEO | HousingNOLA

“You name a reform, and I can show you how the failure to include housing has undercut it.”

Exec Andreaneciamorris

Fighting for affordable housing at a time of critical need

The affordable housing crisis in New Orleans has hit critical mass, and Andreanecia Morris, CEO of HousingNOLA, is widely recognized as the point person when it comes to trying to solve it.

The problem has been building for many years, but “COVID-19 really emphasized it. You can’t shelter at home if you don’t have a home,” Morris pointed out.

Morris has been involved with this issue since her first job out of college, when she worked in the communications department at the Housing Authority of New Orleans (HANO). “I felt a real responsibility to know what I was talking about,” she recalled, so she constantly questioned other staff, managers and housing residents.

“That’s when I learned how broken the system was. I couldn’t fathom how we had done this to our fellow citizens.”

After Hurricane Katrina, she went to work for a nonprofit housing developer, but frustrated by what she felt was a lack of progress, she helped start HousingNOLA in 2014. The organization is dedicated to creating an overarching plan to address the affordable housing crisis.

“Housing is the foundation for addressing issues like crime, healthcare and education,” she said. “You name a reform, and I can show you how the failure to include housing has undercut it.”

HousingNOLA seeks to bring affordable housing to the forefront through continuing education efforts, advocacy and developing new policies. Several key policy proposals are now in the pilot project stage, especially in response to COVID-19.

One example is a rental assistance program for newly unemployed workers, which HousingNOLA launched with significant national funder support as a potential model for nationwide replication. Even more innovative has been Morris’ work to place homeless families and current renters with Section 8 housing vouchers in short-term rental properties that are not being occupied because of the tourism slowdown.

“We’ve found that with the right support, this concept is working,” she said, adding that, “Some of these STRs will probably go back to being regular rentals permanently.

“We started saying ‘Put Housing First’ years ago, but COVID-19 shows we still have a long way to go,” said Morris. “Next year, we will be refocusing on the communications piece, because we still have to overcome ongoing resistance to affordable housing. We are also going to launch a citizen planning process for affordable housing. This is a citywide problem and we need residents, businesses and government to come together to solve it.”

 


 

Guy Williams

President and CEO | Gulf Coast Bank & Trust

“There was a period of about three weeks where we worked 24 hours a day.”

Exec Guywilliams

Championing small business and the New Orleans economy

As Guy Williams explained it, managing Paycheck Protection Loan applications for his customers was a high-stakes race to the finish line.

“The SBA set it up in an awkward way, where it was first come, first served,” said Williams. “As soon as you loaded loans into the portal, the money was being whittled away by the treasury, so we had to [get the applications processed] quickly to make sure all of our customers got done. There was a period of about three weeks where we worked 24 hours a day — which is more than a little unusual in the banking business. Parkway Bakery, one of our customers, has to go in at 3 a.m. to prepare the roast beef for the poor-boys, but we never thought we’d be up working at that hour.”

Ultimately, Gulf Coast completed 2,552 PPP loans totaling $276,439,000. The bank also approved $15,620,000 of the less-popular Federal Reserve Main Street loans. At the same time, the bank was strengthening online banking tools, improving health and safety protocols and counseling customers.

“Everyone is dealing with uncertainty,” said Williams. “The New Orleans economy is really in a difficult situation because both the oil-based businesses and tourism-based businesses are hurting. As a banker, you need to be sympathetic to the problems, provide good advice and help in ways you can so we can all get through this.”

Williams, who co-founded Gulf Coast in 1990, is responsible for $2.2 billion in assets, 45 locations, 689 employees and more than 17,000 customers in New Orleans and Baton Rouge. In March, he became chairman of the board of Greater New Orleans Inc., where his colleagues say he’s done yeoman’s work during an unprecedented year.

“Guy is such an effective leader because he is morally principled, intellectually dexterous, and has a passion for the people of Greater New Orleans,” said GNO, Inc. CEO Michael Hecht.

Looking ahead, Williams said the two big challenges facing the New Orleans economy are reviving the tourism industry and replacing the economic activity lost by the waning oil and gas industry. To address both, he said, city leaders need to think big.

“I challenged our board members and investors at GNO, Inc. to measure ourselves against the best,” he said. “For too many years we have been content in Louisiana to look over our shoulder, and as long as Mississippi was behind us, No. 49 was okay. That’s truly bizarre. We can do much better — and it’s really time for us to do it.”

He also stressed the importance of supporting local businesses, especially now.

“Don’t shop at Amazon,” he said. “Jeff Bezos makes more money than all of us in Louisiana put together. I’m not a Bernie Bro but I think enough is enough. Shop and eat local because the job you save may be your own.”

 


Checking In
2018 executive of the year
Warner Thomas
CEO, Ochsner Health

Exec Warnerthomas

Outside of leading the state’s largest not-for-profit health system through a pandemic, Thomas made multiple announcements last fall, including the merger of Ochsner Health with Lafayette General Hospital, the plan to build a “super clinic” in Metairie, and Ochsner’s commitment of $100 million over the next five years to building community health centers in underserved areas.

 

Michael Williamson

President and CEO | United Way of Southeast Louisiana

“These are the times United Way was built for.”

Exec Michaelwilliamson

Bringing people together to raise millions for those in need.

When Michael Williamson first volunteered with his local United Way branch in South Carolina, he had no idea he was embarking on a new career path. Then a bank officer, Williamson participated in United Way’s “Loaned Executive” program and was such a success that six month later, he was offered a position with the organization.

After five years with United Way America, he was recruited to come to New Orleans as the chief operating officer for United Way of Southeast Louisiana. In 2013, he took over as president and CEO.

Amid the myriad challenges of 2020, this experience has served him well.

“These are the times United Way was built for,” Williamson said. “We are at our best when we are setting the collaborative table and bringing partners together.”

Five years ago, United Way released its “Blueprint for Prosperity,” which Williamson described as a “bold mission to eradicate poverty in Southeast Louisiana.” The work was at a pivotal point going into 2020, and Williamson found the biggest challenge over the year was simply to stay the course and follow the plan.

But following the original plan wasn’t enough. In order to meet new needs created by the pandemic, United Way created a pandemic response fund for Louisiana hospitality workers to “raise money to provide emergency grants to these workers as a bridge to when they could receive government aid.”

The fund raised more than $2.4 million and distributed approximately 4,800 checks within just a few months. Williamson said he was particularly proud of the amount raised given that the entire nonprofit sector was competing in 2020 with political fundraising efforts.

Always one to look on the bright side, Williamson noted that the pandemic also encouraged the organization to use technology to increase efficiency.

“In a matter of weeks, our team was pivoting to use more digital tools,” he said. “This probably sped us up by five years.”

He noted the steep learning curve that was a part of learning to manage donor relations via video technology but said the result has been a permanent operational change.

“Completing this transition successfully means United Way will be a stabilizing force in our community for years to come,” he said. “We will be able to play a stronger, more strategic role in the COVID-19 recovery.”

 


 

Lally Brennan & Ti Adelaide Martin

Co-Proprietors | Commander’s Palace

“You have to carve out the time to be creative and do creative things.”

Exec LallybrennanExec Timartin

Fighting for Survival with “The Zoom That Saved Wednesdays”

Led by Lally Brennan and Ti Adelaide Martin, iconic New Orleans restaurant Commander’s Palace served as a shining example of the entrepreneurial spirit this year.

“Our team’s approach was, ‘Let’s try anything,’” said Martin.

While being true to their history as a premier dining establishment, Martin and her co-proprietor, Lally Brennan, launched several new ventures over the course of the year to keep the operation going.

First was connecting with nationwide food delivery service Goldbelly.com in May 2020 to bring Commander’s cuisine to an audience across the country for the first time ever. There was a learning curve involved; their first offering was turtle soup and quail, sales of which tapered off after an initial burst. “That was maybe a little too adventurous,” recalled Brennan. “We had to figure out what the customer would enjoy.”

The venture has nonetheless a success, tripling the restaurant’s sales.

Brennan and Martin have also partnered with two local beverage companies — French Market Coffee, to create a custom coffee and chicory blend, and El Guapo Bitters, to craft an exclusive line of cocktail mixers. Each will be found on your local grocery store shelves soon.

“We are still not making money in the restaurant,” Martin said, “so we need all of this just to survive.”

The restaurant has also received global attention for its Wednesday night wine and cheese Zoom party. Since April 2020, Sommelier Dan Davis has led a variety show-style party on Zoom that has been regularly attended by over 1,000 New Orleanians. Attendees purchase tickets and then pick up the wine and cheese specified for the evening at local stores before settling in (often in costume) to enjoy themed evenings that include performances from local artists and the opportunity to learn from Davis, along with wine and cheesemakers from around the globe. In October, the party moved nationwide as the restaurant began shipping wine, cheese and charcuterie packages to those eager to join in the fun.

On top of all this, Commander’s Palace has also launched a permanent “to-go” business called Le Petit Bleu.

Working with their staff to develop these innovations has been a joy for Martin and Brennan, as well as a learning experience.

“The pleasure the team has gotten out of their entrepreneurial accomplishments has been fun to watch,” Martin said. “It’s taught me to look into people and see their talents.” “You have to carve out the time to be creative and do creative things,” added Brennan. “That’s been a positive, that we had that time.”

“We’re just a little microcosm of the city, creating new jobs with new businesses,” concluded Martin. “We hope to help fan the flames of entrepreneurism in New Orleans.”

 


 

Robért LeBlanc

Founder and Creative Director | LeBLANC+SMITH

“If New Orleans is going to thrive and endure, we need hospitality companies that are willing to grow inside and outside of the city.”

Exec Robértleblanc

Innovating and growing in one of the pandemic’s hardest-hit sectors

Robért LeBlanc made news in July when he announced an inventive new business model for the hospitality industry.

In an effort to streamline operations and promote equity, LeBlanc made all positions at his four restaurants and bars and one hotel full-time and salaried (starting at $30,000 per year) with insurance benefits. All employees, no matter their primary role, also took on more leadership responsibilities. LeBLANC+SMITH’s restaurants and bars also unveiled new systems and safety protocols designed to ease the workload of the now-leaner crews.

The experiment is unfolding at the hospitality group’s French Quarter restaurants Sylvain and Longway Tavern, the Uptown restaurant Cavan, and Lower Garden District bar Barrel Proof, as well as at The Chloe, the company’s brand-new boutique hotel on St. Charles Avenue, which opened in October 2020, the same month Meauxbar — opened in 2003 and purchased by LeBLANC+SMITH since 2014 — closed in the French Quarter.

Five months after the new system’s debut, LeBlanc said he’s learned a lot, made some changes and is pleased with the early results.

“It’s going well,” he said. “Some people chose to go back to hourly pay so they could have flexibility, but the same principles apply: You pay people a little bit more of an hourly rate and the tips are shared equally. And we still treat everyone as a leader and engage them in all the meetings, so there’s still equity between what the front of the house makes and what the back of the house makes.”

LeBlanc said the staff sizes at his restaurants have grown by more than 50% since the summer. Sylvain and Cavan have been profitable for the last two months and Barrel Proof is heading in the right direction. Longway, meanwhile, is “struggling and may have to wait until the [French] Quarter comes back a bit.”

The big surprise, said LeBlanc, is that locals have really embraced The Chloe, which occupies a converted French Quarter mansion. The 14-room hotel spans 14,000 square feet and features ample outdoor dining space, along with a pool and gardens. It’s LeBlanc’s biggest project to date. The final price tag was in the $9 million range and was funded by a group of New Orleans investors whom LeBlanc said are pleased with the early response.

“I think we’ve hit on something really special,” he said. “I think people really like the idea of these boutique hotels that can deeply embed themselves in historically and culturally significant neighborhoods and give people a sense of what it’s like to actually live there. The Chloe also gives residents a place they can use as their own lobby.”

Coming off a big win — LeBlanc was named Restaurateur of the Year by the Louisiana Restaurant Association in 2019 — this year has proved to be a real test of the Loyola grad’s leadership skills.

“You need to make tough decisions in difficult times while instilling confidence in people,” he said. “You have to believe in yourself and in your team. It’s easy to do that when things are going well, but it’s not always easy to do when things are going poorly. The pandemic won’t last forever. If New Orleans is going to thrive and endure, we need hospitality companies that are willing to grow inside and outside of the city.”

 


 

Greg Stock

CEO | Thibodaux Regional Health System

A key word for us was adaptability, followed by innovation.

Exec Gregstock

Leading A top-ranked hospital to adapt and expand during an unprecedented year

To say that 2020 was a challenging year for most hospitals is putting it mildly. For Thibodaux Regional Health System, add in a few hurricanes and the slumping oil and gas industry. Regardless, CEO Greg Stock sees a lot of good things that came out of the year.

“During critical times, you can go to `The sky is falling’ end of the spectrum,” he observed. “We tried to do the opposite and say, `We haven’t seen this before, what can we learn from it?’”

Opened in 1929 as St. Joseph’s Hospital, a 26-bed operation, Thibodaux Regional now occupies a state-of-the-art, multifacility campus with 180 beds. Remarkably, its ongoing growth continued during this difficult year.

“We entered the year moving along pretty well with our patient-centered wellness initiatives,” recalled Stock. When the demands of managing COVID-19 struck, among TRHS’s responses were building out a new, 30-bed critical care unit in just 45 days. It was a feat Stock called “unheard of in our industry.”

This happened while TRHS was already building a new cancer institute, which remains on schedule despite the challenges of obtaining equipment, supplies and a workforce in the middle of the pandemic.

“A key word for us was adaptability,” said Stock, “followed by innovation. The ability to remain calm and cool under very stressful circumstances is a reflection of the culture of the organization.”

This capacity was further challenged by the multiple hurricanes that hit Louisiana in 2020. The facility remained open during the storms, as it always does, and Stock noted that the experience of dealing with past hurricanes actually helped prepare his staff for managing the pandemic.

“Everybody was challenged during the peak of the coronavirus,” he recalled. “Every day was a different day. But we have an organization that can adapt and bounce back quickly.”

During COVID-19 the hospital also combined its ICU and step-down units into a single operation. This increased staff efficiency while providing patients with better continuity of care.

Throughout the pandemic, TRHS has maintained its status as a five-star hospital. It is currently ranked in the top 5% nationally for patient safety by HealthGrades and is considered one of the top 50 cardiovascular hospitals in the country by IBM Watson Health.

“We bring quality medical care closer to home for people in our region,” said Stock. “That’s our responsibility to the community.”

 


Checking In
2018 Executives of the Year
Cathy Deano and Renee Maloney
Owners, Painting With a Twist

Exec Twist 01 Exec Twist 02

Last November, the Northshore-based “paint and sip” national franchise announced the purchase of paint-your-own-pottery company Color Me Mine — which includes 140 units — and global ceramics supplier Chesapeake Ceramics through its parent company, Twist Brands LLC.

 

Greg Feirn

CEO | LCMC Health

“We had hospitals everywhere except East Jefferson, so this positions us well across the entire greater New Orleans community.”

Exec Gregfeirn

The acquisition of the year

They say that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, and CEO Greg Feirn said LCMC Health is coming out of 2020 stronger than ever.

A nonprofit network of hospitals and urgent care centers, LCMC has been serving the Greater New Orleans area since Feirn led its creation back in 2009. He has served as CEO since 2014.

As of November 2020, LCMC had treated approximately 2,500 COVID-19 positive patients, hundreds of whom required intensive care. Despite a new spike in cases at year’s end, Feirn feels the system was well prepared.

“We have a lot of improvements in our clinical protocols, especially for intensive care patients,” he reported. “We are better able to manage our PPE. We’ve learned how to share staff when needed and to balance our patient loads.”

The biggest news of the year for LCMC was adding East Jefferson General Hospital to the network at the end of September. As a publicly owned asset, the acquisition required approval from Jefferson Parish residents and 95% voted to approve.

“A lot of this was about community,” Feirn said. “We had hospitals everywhere except East Jefferson, so this positions us well across the entire greater New Orleans community. It also continues the growth of our academic partnerships with LSU and Tulane.”

Several other new practices arose during the pandemic that Feirn said will continue long after it’s gone.

“We saw 3,000 to 4,000 telehealth patients annually pre-COVID-19, and that number will be over 100,000 by the end of the year,” he said. “This has changed how we’ve looked at creating access for patients in general. Telehealth offers easier access for patients, saves the providers time, and helps keep people out of what might be a costly visit to the emergency room.”

Feirn said he is particularly proud of the teamwork displayed by the system’s 12,500 staff members throughout the year. In gratitude, LCMC implemented “Operation Bon Appetit,” which gave each employee a $100 gift card redeemable at local restaurants.

“Folks in greater New Orleans know what it’s like to come together as a team and work through problems,” he said. “Our experiences this year have created a culture that will continue beyond the pandemic.”

 


 

Stephen Perry

CEO | New Orleans & Company

We learned after Katrina, and especially now during COVID-19, that the greater the challenge, the greater the resolve.

Exec Stephenperry

Heading tourism in its most difficult days

Since the pandemic put New Orleans’ sizzling hot visitor economy on ice, the city’s tourism professionals have been supporting health and safety efforts while working to keep the New Orleans brand at the forefront of travelers’ future plans.

Nobody has been more involved in the process than Stephen Perry and his team at New Orleans & Company, the destination marketing agency that promotes the city to business and leisure travelers.

“Our priority has always been twofold,” said Perry. “First, to keep our locals and visitors safe during the pandemic through sanitizing and safety programs at restaurants, hotels and the convention center. Second, we work daily across many platforms to bring the originality and authenticity of New Orleans culture to the world to create billions of dollars in future spending, tens of thousands of jobs and a huge part of city revenue and services.”

In his role as the city’s top salesperson, Perry talks to more Fortune 500 CEOs on a frequent basis than probably any other Louisiana executive. All those contacts should prove crucial as the city plans for a post-vaccine scenario.

“Our sales staff is in constant communication with our clients, and our earned media through PR efforts is critical,” he said. “We have launched campaigns supporting our local restaurants and attractions and we ran a ‘road trip’ campaign in our regional drive [markets] to keep our brand top of mind.”

The stakes are high.

Since March, New Orleans has lost about $200 million each week in “visitor spend” across all platforms: airlines, transportation, hotels, retail, restaurants, nightclubs, bars, music venues and cultural attractions.

“That’s an extraordinary amount of money to take out of a city this small,” said Perry, who has been lobbying for more federal aid to increase his marketing budget.

Experts say it will take until 2024 for New Orleans to climb back to 2019 levels of tourism income. Regardless, Perry is hopeful about the future.

“We learned after Katrina, and especially now during COVID-19, that the greater the challenge, the greater the resolve,” said Perry. “That resolve drives me to lead this incredible world class team of sales and marketing professionals whose work drives a $10 billion economy and 100,000 regional jobs and benefits people residing on every street in every neighborhood of our beloved New Orleans. New Orleans is so beloved as a brand. We are optimistic about the future and believe that we will emerge from a challenging year.”