Oct. 14, 2013 07:11 PM

LABI's new president reaches out to members in Acadiana and elsewhere to build a more robust organization.


By Jeremy Alford
Oct. 15, 2013

 Photo by Brian Baiamonte
Stephen Waguespack

LABI's new president reaches out to members in Acadiana and elsewhere to build a more robust organization.

"I did implement blue jean Fridays," says Stephen Waguespack with a smile, sitting in his new office at the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry's headquarters in Baton Rouge. For now, it's clearly small steps. At age 39, he's taking over one of the most influential lobbies in the state and replacing a giant in Louisiana's political arena, Dan Juneau, who was LABI's  president for about 27 years.

Bigger steps, however, are surely right around the corner. It's a lofty perch, one that Waguespack seems to be taking in stride, always quick with a laugh or a joke or an explanation of how he came to be called "Wags" by those who know him best. "No matter where I've lived or gone, it was a nickname that always came up within a couple weeks and stuck," he says.

Despite his ease, the transition hasn't been completely lighthearted. Waguespack fell under heavy criticism from certain corners when he was overwhelmingly recommended by LABI's selection committee, chiefly for his former roles as Gov. Bobby Jindal's executive counsel, chief of staff and appointee to the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education.  

Waguespack explains that Jindal will have no extra sway over LABI - plus he's prohibited from lobbying the governor's office until November 2014, due to ethics rules. He says he has worked in politics for more than 17 years, of which six were spent with Jindal, and that he has developed many other alliances along the way. "Most people see those partnerships I've built as beneficial to the organization," he says.

Bill Fenstermaker, chairman and CEO of Lafayette-based survey and mapping company Fenstermaker and a longtime LABI member, says the matter has been blown out of proportion. "I think they came up with the right person," he says. "If he had too many close ties, the selection committee would have looked into that very seriously."

If anything, Waguespack says that period in his career helped him better understand Louisiana's diverse business community, "In the [Jindal] administration, we were always doing statewide issues, so that was a great training ground," he says. "One day you're working on coastal issues and the next you're on I-49 in north Louisiana."

 Photo by Robin May
Clay Allen

How to bring those regional factions together, and keep them that way, may be Waguespack's greatest challenge, according to Juneau, who wrote in his final newspaper column, "Solidarity is showing early signs of fraying as the natural predators of business have been held in check for years and the major attacks coming against business and industry have been business-on-business wars recently. If that continues, it is a short trip back to the '60s and early '70s when the business community had no voice, and business's role in Louisiana was simply to cough up money for populist politicians to spend."

Photo by Robin May
Bill Fenstermaker

Waguespack says he agrees with that assessment. "I hope that LABI can be a bridge to bring together those different entities in an effort to better understand the similarities and opportunities," he says. "That's going to be a big focus for us going forward, to be that uniter out there. To do that, we're going go around the state and talk to as many people as possible. That will be our early focus."

He was actually preparing to travel to Acadiana when he was interviewed in late September and was eager to tell members in the region how they could participate in the process like never before. "We've traditionally had an issues council process where we bring people in and get statewide input on our platform and the issues we will lobby on," Waguespack says. "Because of our location, the Baton Rouge folks have had a lot of impact there. Moving forward, we'll be using technology to bring in members from outside Baton Rouge via a secure website, to vote, chat, comment."

Lafayette attorney Clay Allen, another LABI member, says such improvements are well timed, what with a reform fatigue developing among policymakers and a renewed interest in uniting the business community statewide. "I would say it's a fair assessment that the state's business community is somewhat fragmented and that it hasn't been faced with a unifying theme or threat that has caused it to rally around a cause," Allen says. "With any new leader there are great opportunities, and it will be up to Stephen to not only unify, but to frame the issues."

Some special interest groups near and dear to Acadiana are wondering if their traditional alliances with LABI will still be in place under Waguespack's leadership. For instance, will LABI stand with the Louisiana Oil and Gas Association, and other energy groups, next year on the legacy issue? As controversial as political issues come, legacy lawsuits pit landowners against oil and gas businesses, sometimes dating back generations and involving more than one energy company, over contaminated oilfields. The issue is how and when they should be cleaned up.

While the Legislature has tried repeatedly to find a solution, Waguespack and others expect the issue to resurface in the 2014 session.

"When it comes to the legacy issue next year, I think there's a great opportunity for legal reform issues to come up. But I want to make sure when we look at these issues, that we unite the business community so our message is more persuasive," Waguespack says. "So I would encourage us to take a holistic approach to this. You may have other landowners, manufacturers, business owners, who also have issues that are challenging with the legal system."

On the election front, he says that the upcoming races for the state Supreme Court will be among the most important for LABI's membership. "Passing a law is only one piece of the puzzle, but ensuring they are implemented in a fair way and regulated, and viewed, and interpreted in a fair way is important," he says. "All of those aspects flow together in what you hope is a healthy marketplace where people want to invest. If our court system is not giving a fair assessment, people won't want to invest here."

Although he certainly faces his own unique challenges, Waguespack will also be tackling many of the same issues the other presidents of LABI did. And like those men - Dan Juneau before him and Ed Steimel before that - he expects to be at the helm for a very long time.

"I think it's the best job there is," Waguespack says. "If you are a guy like me who likes policy and believes in the business community, this can be a place where amazing things happen."

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