April 17, 2014 10:00 AM

Greg Manuel's Lafayette-based residential development company is taking advantage of exponential industrial growth in Lake Charles.

Photo by Robin May  
Greg Manuel of Manuel Builders in front of a Parade of Homes modern craftsman house his company designed and built in Carencro  

For a Lafayette native, Greg Manuel is becoming awfully familiar with Lake Charles. It didn't used to be that way, but with Calcasieu Parish anticipating up to $60 billion in industrial projects - including the granddaddy, a $21 billion expansion by South African chemical giant Sasol - the Lake Charles area is in need of a lot of houses for the tens of thousands of workers and their families who will be pouring into Southwest Louisiana for jobs. Greg Manuel does houses, and he does them well.

"That market is up and coming. The plant expansions are not fictitious - they're coming. The job growth that's going to come with them is going to happen. The second half to maybe the fourth quarter of this year, Lake Charles is expecting about a 3,500 job increase and next year somewhere in the 5,000 range - and there's no housing."

The fit, tan and notably youngish 63-year-old, who logs about 100 miles per week cycling in addition to hitting the gym a few days a week, has been heading west to Lake Charles every other week as his company, Manuel Builders, expands its footprint.

Founded by his father in 1963 - Greg joined full time in the mid 1970s after flying sorties in Vietnam, working as a bush pilot in Canada and flying helicopters offshore (he says the latter "wasn't enough money for the risk"), although he was on job sites as young as 13 doing grunt work - Manuel Builders specializes in starter homes for families: 1,500 to 2,000 square feet and rarely priced at more than $200,000. Just the type of houses Lake Charles is going to need a lot of - at least for the next few years.

His company, he says, anticipates completing about 100 units per year for the next three or four years, but he knows it will taper off eventually.

"I see a cap on it - once the expansions and the employment niche is filled," he says, noting that Manuel Builders will likely work aggressively in Lake Charles for about five or six years as the metro area will be needing up to 7,000 new houses to meet the demand of its growing workforce. "We'll be as big a part of that as we can be," Manuel adds.

Manuel Builders now has an office there staffed by three Lake Charles people - two sales reps and a field manager; the company uses Lake Charles contractors for construction - who were trained in Lafayette. A sales team leader and operations manager from the Lafayette office travel to Lake Charles once per week to help keep the operation humming. Three of Manuel's current projects are in concert with Lafayette developer Robert Daigle, the visionary behind River Ranch and Sugar Mill Pond, although Manuel Builders' contribution to the Daigle projects is in conventional subdivisions as opposed to traditional neighborhood developments like RR and SMP.

The move west to Calcasieu is just part of an explosive period of growth for Manuel Builders. "Last year our sales were up just over 60 percent," Manuel says. "That's a lot of growth to manage."

In fact, the company - No. 48 on the most recent ABiz Top 50 Privately Held Companies in Acadiana - has averaged 41 percent annual growth for the last several years as the staff ballooned from eight in 2009 to 42 today.
The demand for new houses in Lafayette has been tremendous for the last few years, and Manuel admits his company for a time struggled to effectively meet that demand.

"The challenge is serving the client well without having sufficient staff, and we experienced that with rapid growth; we weren't doing as good a job as we would like to do for the customer or for our own cost control," he explains. "So we've been working diligently on integrating new systems, software, and increasing our own staff. Now we're learning to overstaff  and invest in our employees."

For Manuel, who is active in the community - he served on the Charter Commission a few years ago and has had a hand in the comprehensive planning process including serving on an advisory committee helping create a unified development code for the parish - investing in employees has served him well. Manuel says he hires "more for culture than for skill set," and as a result most of the staff of Manuel Builders are products of Lafayette and our local university. The company also donates 10 percent of pre-tax net profit to charity every year.

Those dual investments - in employees and in the communities in which it does business - will likely serve Manuel Builders well as it establishes itself in the Lake Charles market. But Manuel also sees limitations amid all the promise Lake Charles offers.

"Lake Charles has decent infrastructure now, but their ability to get infrastructure into place for their growth may cap some of their growth," he notes, adding that, despite a mere 70 miles separating us, there are fundamental differences between Lake Charles and Lafayette. "Honestly, it's a completely different culture," he says. "Lake Charles has a lot of potential, but there's a difference in the way of thinking between Lafayette and Lake Charles. You have people here who think, I guess, progressively, out of the box. You have some great brain power and they're all about diversification. There's a lot of thinking about how do we improve this climate for business.

"Lake Charles seems to have been - and I'm not on the inside and can't say this for sure - but the impression that I get is that they just kind of let it happen; they're not aggressive in making it happen. Now that may change, but unless it does I don't think they're going to catch up with Lafayette. It's that mind set, that feeling that I get.

"I think Lake Charles has a ways to go not just in jobs, housing and industry, but in their approach to being aggressive about inviting business in."

As long as Lake Charles can meet its infrastructure needs as the jobs pour in, Manuel Builders is poised to profit. The company and its president have endured slumps before - in the mid-1970s, mid-1980s and 2007-2008 - and Manuel has learned to effectively roll with what the economy gives him. And with starter homes - and homes for retirees looking to downsize and be closer to their grandchildren - Manuel feels like his company has perfected a relatively recession-proof formula.

"We feel like it's the most sustainable," he says. "It will last the longest into a downturn, and it will come back the soonest. That's been evident to us over the years, thankfully."

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