In a New Book, Local Entrepreneur Recalls the Highs and Lows of Rebuilding His Company
NEW ORLEANS – Within the span of five years, local Jeff O’Hara’s business event management firm was walloped by Hurricane Katrina, the Great Recession, and the BP oil spill. But thanks to the hospitality mogul’s enduring optimism, entrepreneurial spirit, and love for New Orleans, his company – PRA New Orleans – is now going strong. In fact, in 2016 and 2017, it was named to Inc. magazine’s annual list of the 5000 fastest-growing private companies in the United States.
O’Hara recalls the struggles of reviving his company, while contributing to the citywide rebuilding efforts, in his new memoir: “Have Fun, Fight Back, and Keep the Party Going: Lessons from a New Orleans Entrepreneur’s Journey to the Inc. 5000” (Greenleaf, December 2018).
He also shares advice about starting a business and surviving natural disasters, and touchs on such topics as: the hospitality industry’s role in helping New Orleans recover from the storm; the expectations entrepreneurs should set with their families; the amount of responsibilities leaders should bestow upon their employees; and the importance of treating people with respect.
O’Hara will speak about his book on Tuesday, April 9, during a local International Live Events Association gathering called ILEA Storytellers: Lessons from Event Planners. It takes place from 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. at Ernst Café (600 S. Peters Street). Visit the event page for ticket and registration information.
O’Hara said he wrote the book because the business events industry is “not always well-covered,” and he wanted to highlight the ways in which the industry benefits the local economy.
“Our clients who are bringing groups and meetings into New Orleans are the ones taking the front stage, and we do all the work on the back stage,” he said. “I wanted to tell the story of the business events industry, because it's not something that everybody realizes is out there.”
When Hurricane Katrina swept across the Gulf Coast, O’Hara lost both his home and his business clientele. So he moved to Colorado, sought refuge with a friend, and patched together a handful of part-time jobs, such as a gig for a catering company, a ski resort, and a Colorado-based business events company.
A year later, O’Hara returned to New Orleans and began drumming up business for PRA – all while running a bar at night.
“We had to find a way to keep the business going and keep the staff motivated, even when the phone wasn't ringing,” he said.
O’Hara believes the surge of young entrepreneurs moving to New Orleans and launching tech companies “brought a whole new energy to the city – especially to the downtown area where they opened their businesses, and where a lot of people now live.”
“We developed a great ecosystem for the startup community with the different accelerator programs that we have here,” said O’Hara, citing the Idea Village and Propeller as examples. “With Idea Village’s New Orleans Entrepreneur Week (NOEW), we can showcase the bright minds that are here in the city. All of those things contribute to the national rankings we get for the startup community.”
Over the past ten years, O’Hara has also launched and developed seven additional hospitality businesses and two real estate companies; and he has backed several startups as an Angel Investor, including firms in the fields of technology, biotech, consumer staples and alternative energy.
O’Hara, who received his MBA from Tulane University, is an active member of the NOLA Angel Network and Lagniappe Angels. He has backed startups through the Rockies Venture Club, as well.
“Once you overcome those lows, the highs and the successes make up for all the down times that you had,” said O’Hara. “Even though you have these down times, once you commit to a life of entrepreneurship, you're pretty much unemployable in the corporate sector. Companies know that you have an independent streak and they are going to be reluctant to hire you … Once you realize that you're committed to that life of entrepreneurship, then you just find a way to make it work.”
Suzanne Pfefferle Tafur is the associate news editor of BizNewOrleans.com. Follow her on Twitter at @suzpfefferle