NEW ORLEANS, LA – August 31, 2010
As New Orleans and the nation commemorate the fifth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, The Olinger Group Founder and CEO is featured in a national website as a business owner who fought the odds to keep his business afloat after the storm. The article on Portfolio.com profiles four New Orleans entrepreneurs who worked to not only to save their own businesses, but also the city’s small business community.
The Olinger Group’s offices were flooded in the storm, and the Portfolio.com article describes how Jude Olinger first established temporary offices to rebuild the company’s infrastructure in the weeks following Katrina. Olinger tells reporter Ken Bernhard, Jr. how important it was to reassure clients that despite the storm’s devastation, The Olinger Group would survive and continue to provide seamless service. Today, The Olinger Group is thriving in a new location in downtown New Orleans.
Read more about Jude Olinger’s efforts to save his business after Hurricane Katrina in Portfolio.com by clicking here or reading below.
ABOUT THE OLINGER GROUP
The Olinger Group is a full-service market research firm that is an industry leader in innovation, project management and advanced analytics. Founded in 1994, the New Orleans-based firm specializes in helping companies in the retail, hospitality and healthcare industries find out more about customers’ behaviors and attitudes. Focusing on custom-designed project management, The Olinger Group uses advanced analytics and conjoint analysis to gauge consumer interest in price, availability, features and other qualities for products and services. The Olinger Group offers companies and organizations custom research on an off-the-shelf budget.
The Katrina Effect: How Entrepreneurs Helped Restore New Orleans
Kevin Langley took a key life lesson from Hurricane Katrina.
“Katrina didn’t cause the problems, it revealed the problems,” Langley said, referring to the societal and infrastructure challenges his hometown of New Orleans has long had. “It also revealed the opportunities; the opportunities to get things right.”
After the devastation of the monster storm that struck the Gulf Coast five years ago, Langley, 45, and other entrepreneurs in New Orleans stuck through the very hard times and came out stronger. As with many catastrophes, disaster can lead to more business for some. Others saw opportunities emerge as they launched new endeavors in the atmosphere the storm created.
New Orleans, Katrina’s Ground Zero, remains a changed city. Its population is 22 percent smaller than it was before the storm, one of the strongest hurricanes to slam into the region during a particularly angry 2005 season. Some businesses left completely, moving to nearby Jefferson Parrish, which has 8,222 more businesses now than it did the summer before the storm.
And even though Katrina spared some of the city’s most popular tourist areas, it damaged its well-known music scene: New Orleans has half the gigs for musicians it did before the storm, and they pay half as much, the Los Angeles Times reports.
Still, entrepreneurship has grown in the New Orleans area, with individuals starting businesses at a higher rate than nationally, with 450 per 100,000 people starting businesses, compared with 320 across the United States. And wages overall have grown 14 percent in the past five years, catching up to national averages for the first time since the 1980s, according to a Brookings Institution and Greater New Orleans Community Data Center report.
This summer, Portfolio.com spoke with a handful of interconnected entrepreneurs like Kevin Langley who survived Katrina and its aftermath and who stayed in New Orleans to rebuild their businesses and their lives.
No Option Except to Rebuild
In the late summer of 2005, Langley’s entire New Orleans neighborhood, most of the city he had called home for two decades, and his construction business were under water. His wife and 3-year-old triplets were living in Baton Rouge, sleeping in a room in his parents’ house that didn’t have power.
Looking out over his devastated Lakeview neighborhood, blocks from one of the city’s breached levies, Langley only had one choice as an entrepreneur. He had to persevere in the face of obstacles he’d never expected, and he had to keep the business he and partner Bret Ellis built, Ellis Construction, going.
“I had 45 employees, and each of those employees had four to five to six other dependents. Multiply that out and you have 400 to 500 people,” he said. “I took my business partner and we sat there and we said: ‘Look, we have to rebuild. There’s no decision, right?’”
Ellis Construction’s employees were scattered, some even living in cars in Wal-Mart parking lots. So Langley first had to round them up, reassure them, and put them back to work, even if it was only make-work while the partners figured out just what business they had left. Before the storm hit, the company had about 100 contracts lined up. Afterward, virtually none remained; with existing businesses destroyed, new construction was out.
It took two weeks for Langley and his partner to pull all their employees together. It took even longer for the floodwaters to recede. Ellis Construction started with makeshift offices in Baton Rouge before moving back to its digs in New Orleans once the ground finally dried.
Langley sat down with his employees and talked over the company’s situation. He and Ellis told them they would continue to be paid, but they didn’t know for how long. They had to cut manual checks because their payroll service had gone down. They set up trailers where 16 employees lived for nearly a year after the storm in the parking lot of Ellis Construction’s offices.
As for those offices, it took up to six months to get electricity. It took a year before regular phone service was restored. Langley rigged a point-to-point wireless connection from his office’s rooftop to downtown New Orleans and used Voice over Internet Protocol to communicate.
“It was a totally new environment, so we were a totally new company, even though we’re still the same name. We had to rethink everything,” he said. “We had to go to work and put our employees to work on whatever jobs were available.”
His is not the same company today as it was before Katrina. Despite work gained helping to rebuild New Orleans, many of the projects it lined up before the storm became tougher and more expensive to complete.
But that’s less important to him than what he’s been able to do as an entrepreneur in New Orleans. “I can tell you the punch line. The punch line is that entrepreneurs rebuild cities, and they provide quality of life and jobs for people,” Langley said.
A Mad Dash to Recover
Three weeks after the storm, in September 2005, Jude Olinger returned to his office in New Orleans from Baton Rouge. He already knew his office had been destroyed. It was housed in the same building as Ellis Construction, and Langley had told him of the flooding. Though the building stood, the first floor of the building was flooded to the desktop level. Olinger, “fighting the last war,” as he puts it, is now headquartered in a high-rise.
Stuck in Baton Rouge, Olinger scrambled to get his business, a market research firm called the Olinger Group, back up and running remotely. He raced around Louisiana’s capital city with two computer hard drives containing the data upon which his business depended, in search of someone with the skills to extract the information. “We were stuck in a city that had doubled in population and everyone was still shell-shocked,” Olinger, 43, said of Baton Rouge, 80 miles northwest of New Orleans.
He and his wife Erika—who had her own business back in New Orleans—worked 16- to 18-hour days knitting together the Olinger Group’s 10 employees. Because most of his clients, among them Fortune 500 companies, and vendors were from places other than New Orleans, his business could continue.
He still remembers the smell when he returned to his New Orleans office. It was an odor that permeated the city—stagnant water and mold. The office was a lost cause, with $225,000 worth of uninsured destruction. Files he had left behind that had once seemed crucial crumbled when he picked them up. Water still stood inside some computer monitors.
But his home and wife Erika’s art business were on high ground and were spared flood damage. “We had potable water and electricity, but that was about it” until the winter of 2005, Olinger said.
Five years later, Olinger sees where Katrina made him a more confident businessman, more focused on the most important aspects of work. “I now know that if we can survive that, we can survive anything,” Olinger said.
For Erika Olinger, the aftermath of Katrina is a story of a community rebuilt.
The business she owned, the Cole Pratt Gallery on Magazine Street, had catered largely to tourists with its showcase of Southern artists. But seven weeks after the storm, a New Orleanian friend said, “I’m going to buy a painting.”
“That just started off this wonderful trend of people buying locally,” she said. “I had three of the most phenomenal years. I think people who in the past would go shopping for things elsewhere decided it was time to put their money back into the community.”
Looking back over the past five years, Erika Olinger sees the “entrepreneurial spirit” around her. And that has brought back the city she loves. “It’s grungy, it’s gritty, it’s poetical, it’s musical.”
The Chance to Start Fresh
As Jude Olinger scrambled to maintain his business, he also managed to give an assist to Neel Sus, 33. A New Orleans resident since graduating from Tulane University in 1995, Sus worked as a technical manager with Coleman Research Corporation and later with Northrop Grumman.
Even before Katrina, Sus had an entrepreneurial itch. On weekends he worked freelance programming projects, starting an embryonic part-time business. In the year after Katrina hit, he finally took the leap and created Susco Solutions, which builds custom software, including mobile apps, for businesses.
Olinger needed custom software to automate a going project, and he recognized entrepreneurial potential in Sus. So instead of engaging Sus to do the work part-time, Olinger worked out a deal in May 2006 allowing Sus to spend all of his time on his business.
From there, Sus didn’t look back. His company has grown into mobility, providing iPhone app templates for corporations along with custom computer programming. Katrina was the turning point in his ability to build a business that will generate $600,000 to $700,000 revenue this year.
“Some of the people in my market left,” Sus said, and their departure created openings.
“How often could I do what I’m doing and it be part of the return of the city?” Sus asked. “In this economy, in some ways it’s kind of the equivalent of settling the Wild Wild West.”
A Springboard to Something Bigger
Just as the Wild West offered opportunities for those with perseverance and moxie, Katrina did the same for people like Skipper Bond.
Bond, 38, spent a few years in New York working for the global public relations firm Fleishman-Hillard until the September 11, 2001, terror attacks convinced him to return to the South. Once home, he started an event production and public relations company called Proscenia, which, as he put it, “made a lot of money and lost a lot of money.”
He started a second public relations firm. That firm, Bond Public Relations and Brand Strategy, was gaining momentum when Katrina wiped out his local clients. He got lucky: A national client with local ties, Southern Comfort, kept business alive.
He also got a call from a former boss who was working with Fluor Corp. The construction giant based in Dallas was installing temporary housing on the Gulf Coast. Fluor needed a local person to help with public relations.
Bond was on his way.
He was able to make his first hire, his sister. And as the city came back, Bond’s business grew as well. Today, it has eight employees and is nearing $1 million in annual revenue, Bond said. The company has handled such events as New Orleans’ famed Jazz Fest.
“Katrina was definitely a springboard,” Bond said. “There was so much opportunity after for those of us that stuck around and endured. ”
Mission for the Future
Five years after Hurricane Katrina, Kevin Langley is not just a New Orleans resident and business owner. He’s a resilient entrepreneur, one who is as concerned about building his city as he is his business.
Langley doesn’t really see a city whose population has fallen, and he tries not to focus on the swaths of land where houses once stood. Instead, he points out a local economy that somehow survived the Great Recession better than most major cities. It’s a city where the levy system has been largely rebuilt and where its once-dysfunctional school system has been replaced by a network of charter schools closely watched as a model for other cities.
The recovery of Langley’s construction business, while hugely important, is only part of what he wants. His goal is for New Orleans to experience a full-fledged entrepreneurial renaissance. He’s taken on a role as mentor to entrepreneurs like Bond and Sus. Through the international Entrepreneur’s Organization, he helped develop a program for helping young entrepreneurs grow their businesses to $1 million revenue, which is the level at which an entrepreneur is eligible to join EO, which he helped launch in New Orleans right after the storm. The experience of Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath helped him focus on what’s important about entrepreneurship—the courage to take risks to create something of lasting value, service to community, and to family.
“The reality is, it was the same struggle I had before. It just was much more dramatic, much more serious, much more purposeful after the storm,” Langley said. “So, for me, the storm was a dramatic event that allowed me to focus on what was most important. And doing the right things for the right reasons for the right purpose, that was Katrina.”
Kent Bernhard Jr. is News Editor of Portfolio.com