Dec. 16, 2013 06:00 AM

Far from an overnight success, ABiz Entrepreneur of the Year Lenny Lemoine helped build a successful construction company the old-fashioned way: through hard work, determination and cultivating relationships.

Photo by Robin May
Lenny Lemoine takes his coffee black. His office overlooking Jefferson Street downtown is simply appointed - neat like his coffee, uncluttered and orderly. Family photos and precisely stacked books with such titles as Flawless Execution, The Economics of Building and The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People share shelf space. It's what you'd expect for the office of a titan of the Acadiana construction industry who helped transform a mom-and-pop lumber and hardware store in Cottonport into the juggernaut it is today.

"So many people in Lafayette have given us so much opportunity," says Lemoine, sporting a plain dark sweater over a white button-down shirt - simply appointed like his office. "I really am grateful that we made the decision to come here rather than a Baton Rouge or a New Orleans, because I don't know that we would have had the same reception."

Lemoine's bottom line underscores just how good 2013 has been to the privately held company, which employs about 325 people with offices in Baton Rouge and New Orleans and is owned by a small group of shareholders that includes Lemoine family members.

Revenue in 2012 was $159 million (earning the No. 15 spot on ABiz's list of Acadiana's Top 50 private companies); this year it's on its way to exceed $310 million. The company has projects under way from South Carolina to Texas; the largest, according to Lemoine, is construction of the New Orleans East Hospital - a project vital to the Crescent City as it replaces the old Pendleton Memorial Methodist Hospital that was flooded by Hurricane Katrina.

Lemoine says this year's phenomenal growth in revenue is due in part to 2012 projects being delayed into this year. But seizing opportunities is also credited, notably opportunities with former and repeat customers.

"If someone decides to build a $50 million building and you've worked with them in the past, then you need to go be their partner and get that done for them," he explains. "And in most cases they're only going to build one building. And if you're not in a position to take advantage of that opportunity and serve their needs, it might be the only chance you get."

First-time customers become repeat customers. Just ask Bud Barrow, CEO of Our Lady of Lourdes Regional Medical Center. "I think the world of Lenny. He's an individual whose word means more than any written contract," Barrow tells ABiz. "He [did] a major renovation at my previous position at Opelousas General Health System, and it was from that experience that I knew he was exactly the man that Lourdes needed to put together a partnership to create a world-class, 21st-century hospital on Ambassador Caffery."

From left: Donald H. Broussard, the Lemoine Company's chief financial officer and secretary/treasurer, enjoys a light moment with Lenny Lemoine and Operations Manager Greg E. Landry outside the company's headquarters on Jefferson Street. Both Broussard and Landry will celebrate their 30th anniversary with the company in 2014.
Photo by Robin May

Lenny Lemoine's connections in the worlds of business and real estate development are vast, but it wasn't always that way. After graduating from LSU in the late '70s he headed back north to Cottonport in Avoyelles Parish to go to work at the Cottonport Lumber Company, the lumbar yard slash hardware store his father, Louis "Hoss" Lemoine, founded in the 1930s. His older brother Tim had also returned home to help their dad with the business after graduating from LSU ahead of Lenny. But the brothers found the family business unsatisfactory. In 1979 the Lemoines sold the Cottonport Lumber Company and the brothers spun off a small construction company, literally dropping the Lumber to become the Cottonport Company.

By the early '80s Lafayette was calling. The Hub City was cresting an almost 25-year wave of oil back then - a wave that would collapse by mid decade, bringing Lafayette with it, when the bottom fell out on oil prices.

But that last hoorah was a hell of a ride for the city, for the oil industry and notably for the construction sector as Lafayette sprawled out like a fat, happy hound. Voters also approved a major bond proposal to build new schools to accommodate the bustling population.

The Cottonport boys saw an opportunity.

"For us it was just incredible," Lemoine recalls. "We came down and started bidding on these schools and got three of them, and all of a sudden we're spending all our time driving back and forth to Lafayette from Cottonport. And we knew that if we were successful in the public market - if we were really successful, if we really took care of subcontractors and vendors, and if we did what we said we were going to do - we knew that we would eventually get a shot at some of the private work."

In 1983 the Cottonport Company followed the money, relocating to Lafayette and changing its name to the Lemoine Company. Yet until the mid-1990s most of the company's work remained public-bid jobs. "It's a good way to make a living but a hard way to live," the 58-year-old Lemoine says philosophically. "The work goes to the lowest bidder, and it's not always a win-win. But it's a great way for people to learn how to build and learn discipline."

One of the first private projects the company snagged was the Washington Life Insurance Co. building on Jefferson Street - the very building where the Lemoine Company is now located after outgrowing its longtime headquarters on I-49 north of Carencro.

Whether it's a public project like a school or a private job like a hospital, estimating the cost of a project - knowing, for example, what the cost of raw materials will be in six months - and being disciplined about the plan, Lemoine says, is a key building block in success. "In our business, if you don't get it right up front, if you don't get the estimate right, you don't get the pre-construction plan right - so much of our success is dependent on that," he says. "We probably control 50 percent of our risk there. And if you do that right, it's just a matter of having the discipline and focus to make sure that you're on a weekly and monthly basis progressing like you need.

"If you blow the front end, you don't get that right - and sometimes it doesn't matter how well you execute it in the field - you're just not going to be profitable."

David Callecod, the CEO at Lafayette General Health, with whom the Lemoine Company has had a long relationship, says the entrepreneur and his company surpass expectations. "Lenny is a true pro and has built a solid team throughout his company," Callecod says. "Projects are on time, on budget and always high quality."

The Lemoine Company has been plenty profitable as a result. And although the majority of the company's 10 stockholders doesn't hold the moniker Lemoine, the company remains a family enterprise more or less. Tim Lemoine retired in 2000 - an early retirement to be sure yet one of the perks of the company's success - but another brother, Adam, recently rejoined the company after a career change, and a pair of nephews run Lemoine business units.

But the Lemoine Company is definitely transitioning away from the family-business model. At 58, Lenny Lemoine says he sees himself working another seven years or so, remaining only long enough to groom a qualified replacement.

"It starts and ends with people, obviously. And I think we have great people," Lemoine says. "We need to do a better job of training and developing our people, and that's something I'm passionate about and want to make sure we get right - from on-boarding a new person to the technical training as well as the soft skills.

"I want to feel really good about that before I exit the organization, because you want it to be sustainable. The only way it's going to be sustainable is if you're hiring the best, but you're able to grow them and retain them and create an environment and a culture where they feel gratified and they feel like they have a bright future and that they're developing on an individual basis into being as good as they should be at what they do."

Runnin' and gunnin' might best describe a typical day for Lenny Lemoine. He squeezed our interview into a half hour block between meetings and visits to job sites. An avid outdoorsman who enjoys hunting and fishing, Lemoine says he wishes he had more time to devote to his biggest pastime of the last decade, golf. But, the day planner says no.

Yet Lemoine said yes when the community asked him to chair Lafayette Central Park Inc., the nonprofit that is overseeing the transformation of the Horse Farm into a premier public park.

"It's been fun and challenging," he admits. "The community's been incredible in terms of the support and the interest in it. And you look at Central Park in New York; more people go to Central Park than visit the Statue of Liberty. And for this community it is a phenomenal amenity and asset, so I think everybody on the board is excited about it. But it's difficult. Our board members, we meet on Friday mornings at 7 a.m. because we're all busy."

One thing Lemoine will make time for is an LSU football game. He even sometimes sports a purple and gold hard hat on job sites. "I always wanted to be a part of Tiger Stadium and right now we're involved in the south end zone expansion there, and that was always a dream," Lemoine says.

Lenny Lemoine at the Lafayette General construction site with Roosevelt Williams, a longtime fixture of the company who started 26 years ago.
Photo by Robin May
His love for his alma mater has another legacy: he and former head coach Nick Saban have become close friends. Lemoine and his wife of 29 years, Christine - the couple has two adult children: Caroline, an interior designer living in Houston, and Ryan, a West Point grad stationed in North Carolina - met Saban through Saban's wife, Terry, when they sat by her at the 2000 Peach Bowl during Saban's first bowl victory as the Tigers' head honcho.

And while Tiger fan Lenny is proud of his company's work at one of college football's iconic stadiums, he says he's proudest of his work for the two giants in Lafayette health care - Lourdes and LGMC. The two hospitals are major employers as well as fierce competitors. That they turn to the same company for their construction needs says a lot about the Lemoine Company, and it validates Lemoine's business philosophy and has opened other doors in the sector.

"The long-term vision was ultimately to try to be successful at health care," Lemoine says. "And it took us a long time, but we do about 50 percent of our revenue year in and year out in health care."

The Lemoine company was the general contractor for the new Lourdes on Ambassador Caffery as well as the ongoing transformation of Lafayette General in the Oil Center - projects that are a far cry from the low-bid school-construction jobs the company cut its teeth on.

"Those are projects that, either one of them would have been a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity in a community this size. And to be a part of both of them - those are great projects," Lemoine says with evident pride. "And to be able to do them here rather than tackle a project of that size in Beaumont or Shreveport or somewhere else, it's just unbelievable. You can use your people so much more effectively when it's here. So those, over the history of our company, have been phenomenal."

Introducing ABiz's Entrepreneur of the Year Symposium

Regions Bank and Regions Insurance sponsoring event beginning in 2014

Beginning next year, the ABiz Entrepreneur of the Year will be honored at a new event, sponsored by Regions Bank and Regions Insurance. Titled the Entrepreneur of the Year Symposium, the program will feature remarks from the honoree along with a panel discussion among past ABiz Entrepreneur of the Year winners.

"We've been hoping to create an event around this award since Dr. Kip Schumacher was named the first Entrepreneur of the Year by ABiz in 2009," says ABiz Co-Publisher Cherry Fisher May. "We look forward to working with Shawn Hubbard, Brother Marine and the Regions team in the year ahead to build a terrific forum that provides inspiration for all of us in business."

The luncheon event will take place in late November or early December 2014. Specific dates and details will be announced as soon as calendars can be coordinated among past honorees.

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