More than two thirds of family businesses fold before making it to a second generation. The odds get truly stacked against them after that: 12 percent reach a third generation, 3 percent reach a fourth.
Lafayette-based general contractor JB Mouton, which for decades reflected its family formula with “and Sons” in its name, is the rarest of rare: a fifth generation family owned business.
“I think you have to have a little bit of good luck to make it 100 years, so there must’ve been some good luck in there somewhere,” says 34-year-old Stuart Billeaud, that fifth-generation in a company that began humbly with his great-great grandfather, JB Mouton, a carpenter who began building homes in Lafayette before American doughboys strapped up their boots to go “over there” for World War I.
Stuart’s right: There has to be some luck embedded in the company’s long success. But he also points to the company’s work ethic and its treatment of both customers and employees for JB Mouton’s longevity.
Someday, Stuart will likely be the sole owner of the entity that employs about 40 people and was No. 42 on ABiz’s 2014 list of the Top 50 Privately Held Companies in Acadiana. His current title is project manager-estimator, and he serves as company secretary. But right now, he is co-owner with his dad, company President Popie Billeaud, who is 61 and doesn’t sound close to retirement.
Both Billeauds worked for the company during summers and holidays growing up, and each earned a college degree in construction management or building science before grabbing the company reins.
JB Mouton’s fingerprints are all over the greater Lafayette area. The tallest building in the city, the Chase Tower — which, if you’re “so Lafayette,” you still call the “FNB building” — was built by the company, as was the largest by square footage, Park Towers on Kaliste Saloom. Many of the churches, medical offices and schools in Lafayette and the surrounding area were also built by JB Mouton, which for decades has, with few exceptions, focused on commercial construction.
“The bulk of our work today is some oilfield services, some medical and some general commercial construction,” Popie explains. “At times we had done as much as 50 to 60 percent of our volume in the medical industry. That’s fallen back a little bit over the last few years.”
Few can travel Lafayette and see so many tangible examples of their company’s long-term success.
“It’s very fulfilling to drive by and see those buildings,” Popie admits. “We always say that the effort of our work product lives for generations to come. That’s one of the rewarding aspects of our profession.”
For Stuart, it’s that and more: “It’s nice to see the building, but it’s even better to know that, if it’s a school or whatever it might be — a hospital or a church — I look at it as what is the building doing? It’s teaching kids; it’s taking care of patients — just keeps on giving, just keeps on doing what it’s supposed to do. It’s more than a structure, it’s something that can give back to the community and serve a useful purpose.”
The company’s revenue for 2014 was $25 million, a number that has been consistent over the last several years as management focuses more on quality jobs and client relationships than on getting bigger for bigger’s sake.
“We have chosen to drill down and raise the level of service to our clients rather than just grow the volume,” Popie adds.
Despite the sense of tradition that saturates a generations-old family business, JB Mouton has embraced the future; it was one of the first local firms to use computers, albeit in a way that today sounds awfully “RadioShack.”
“Our firm first went on computer in 1969,” Popie notes. “That, in its day, was ahead of its time. It was limited to payroll and bookkeeping functions, and it was done through a computer service with no in-house computers; you typed all your information on magnetic tape and sent it to them and they processed if for you.”
Even before the age of computers, the company had a knack for seeing the future. Famed Louisiana architect A. Hays Town recalls in a letter sent to company brass in the early 1980s as Popie’s father, Manning “Bozo” Billeaud was ascending to president to replace his retiring uncle, Francis Mouton, that it was JB Mouton who cut Town his first paycheck as those Yankee doughboys fought in the trenches of the Western Front.
“In 1918 Papa was afraid I would be an artist, so he said he wanted me to draw plans for remodeling his home on Clinton Street — Mr. [JB] Mouton was to be his contractor,” Town recalls in the Oct. 1, 1981, letter sent from his Baton Rouge office. “When Mr. J.B. saw my plans he hired me to draw 2 house plans for himself and he paid me my first architectural fee.”
Cultivating architects seems to be a JB Mouton hallmark.
“As an architectural student working part-time in a local architectural office, I had the opportunity to meet Mr. Francis Mouton. What a fine gentleman,” recalls Lafayette architect Kirby Pécot. “I didn’t have a lot of opportunity to interact with Mr. Francis, as I thought it best to keep my attention to the work on my desk and just appreciate the fact I had a part-time job. Then I met Manning ‘Bozo’ Billeaud. He always found the time to stop by my desk and visit. I created questions about how to draw some architectural details just to engage him.”
Making it to 100 hasn’t been a cakewalk, the Billeauds admit.
“In any generational business, they reach points of huge challenges,” Popie says. “Our business is no different. In World War II our business had to suspend services because building materials were not available due to the war effort.”
During the oil bust of the 1980s, Popie adds, the company was forced to lay off 92 percent of its workforce. But just as Lafayette rebounded, so did JB Mouton.
Eventually Stuart will succeed his father as company president — that’s Popie’s succession plan. For Stuart, who is just getting his feet wet in management, that’s as far as it goes, saying dryly and in jest, “I haven’t picked out my successor yet.”