Business News

Center of Attention

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Working hand-in-hand with local and regional economic development groups, Le Centre shines an international spotlight on the Cajun economy.
By Ted McManus

Not only do Philippe Gustin and Christophe Pilut parlez the language of international business, they also fully comprendez the importance of expanding into the global marketplace.

Philippe Gustin, left, and Christophe Pilut

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Working hand-in-hand with local and regional economic development groups, Le Centre shines an international spotlight on the Cajun economy.
By Ted McManus

Not only do Philippe Gustin and Christophe Pilut parlez the language of international business, they also fully comprendez the importance of expanding into the global marketplace.

A native of Belgium and longtime Lafayette resident, Gustin is manager of Le Centre International de Lafayette, which is housed in the heart of downtown inside the former City Hall building at 735 Jefferson St.

"I can remember paying my utility bill right here in this room," Gustin says from his seat at the head of the table in Le Centre's spacious conference room. Pilut, who hails from France, keeps especially busy as Le Centre's information and translation specialist on a wide variety of business and tourism ventures.

Both are firm believers in the need for more South Louisiana companies to get involved in entering export trade agreements with customers around the world.

As a division of Lafayette Consolidated Government, Le Centre has worked hand-in-hand with local and regional economic development efforts such as the Lafayette Economic Development Authority and the newly-formed Southwest Louisiana Economic Development Alliance, based in Lake Charles.

Their message cannot be stressed enough, according to Gustin. "Attracting international corporations to Lafayette and Acadiana requires a great deal of coordination at the local, regional and state levels," he says. That's where Le Centre and LEDA come in.

Since its inception in 1989 under the administration of then-mayor Dud Lastrapes, Le Centre's mission has been the same - to increase international trade and tourism in the Lafayette area.

"We knew from the beginning that the promotion of international trade cannot be limited to the city limits," Gustin points out, noting that some of the area's most prodigious exporters include Bruce Foods of Cade and Tabasco of Avery Island.

"It's impossible to talk about international trade and restrict it to a few square miles," Gustin says. "Dud Lastrapes understood that very well."

Although Le Centre operates under the auspices of LCG, Gustin explains, "we are really a municipal organization with a regional mission to increase business and tourism opportunities here." Tourism is such a big part of the equation because of the high volume of jobs and revenue it creates, he adds.

"People from around the world come to Lafayette, and South Louisiana as a whole, to experience the food, culture and music we have to offer," Gustin says, citing the popularity of Festival International as a prime example.

Vivian Alexander's Alex Caldwell

Putting Lafayette on the proverbial map has always been a top priority for Le Centre, which also worked closely with the Council for the Development of French in Louisiana in organizing Festivals Acadiens et Creole, which predated Festival International.

"Those projects certainly became bigger than we had envisioned at the beginning," Gustin says.

On the morning of this interview, Gustin and Pilut had entertained visitors from Senegal, and issued them an invitation to return to Lafayette in October with a delegation of officials to attend the biannual Louisiana Gulf Coast Oil Exposition.

Steven Romero, vice president of Tabasco, joined them for that meeting to help illustrate how the food, culture and music of South Louisiana is "part of everything we do," Gustin says.

It is rare to attend any function for an oil and gas company without finding some sort of Cajun food being served there, he adds. That Cajun culture has created many ties between South Louisiana companies working overseas and the host countries.

Take Scotland, for instance. Louisiana oil patch workers took their culture there, drawing many Scottish companies to this area.

Such diplomacy has paved the way for Le Centre and LEDA to work jointly on projects to attract more UK companies to Acadiana, through an initiative launched by the state Department of Economic Development.

"We owe so much to the oil and gas industry," says Gustin. "This area would not be known internationally like it is today without it. Probably more than anything else, when you really think about it, the oil and gas industry has put Lafayette on the world map."

LEDA's mission, Gustin says, is different from Le Centre's because it is a true economic development agency involved in selling land and buildings, in addition to seeking out skilled labor and tax incentives. When Le Centre identifies an international business lead, for example, the prospect is courted up until the time a request is made for land and building space, labor training and tax incentives. At that point, the transaction is turned over to LEDA officials to seal the deal.

Le Centre's primary purpose is to promote international trade - exporting our goods and services to the rest of the world.

There are instances in which Le Centre is able to find goods and services overseas for import back to Acadiana as well. Often, local companies need a component manufactured internationally to be able to assemble a better product or be more competitive here, so a relationship is established between the producer and customer.

Besides its close relationship with LEDA, Le Centre's mission is also greatly aided by its association with the U.S. Department of Commerce office in New Orleans, where former Le Centre employee Delilah Desouza is southwest Louisiana representative.

South Louisiana's global presence has been recognized throughout Europe. Recently, a series of articles acknowledged Cajun musicians, artists and artisans who took part in a pre-Christmas festival held in Montbeliard, located on the French and Swiss border.

"We thought maybe we'll get mentioned in a few newspaper articles, and this is what we got," Gustin says, displaying a scrapbook several inches thick, filled with articles and photos of the South Louisiana visitors.

Lafayette only spent around $5,000 on the trip. "You can't buy the kind of publicity we received in return. It really was quite overwhelming," says Gustin.

The venture has launched an international music program initiative being spearheaded by Pilut, local musician Louie Michot and other event organizers. That new program aims to match local musicians with concerts and festivals being held across the globe, making it possible for musicians to perform abroad on a regular, or at least semi-regular basis. Typically, musicians must make multiple return engagements to recover their expenses and earn enough to make a living.

Another focus for Le Centre in recent years has been the local Hispanic community.

To help people with Hispanic roots become better acclimated to life in South Louisiana, the Acadiana Association of Latin Americans has been formed. The goal of that effort is to help integrate Hispanics living and working here into the population, allowing them to become more active and productive members of society. One of the products of that effort has been the publication of La Revista, a newspaper written in both Spanish and English, offering local news to Latin American readers.

Catering to those with Cajun roots is likewise an ongoing campaign for Le Centre. Gustin points out that the Grand Réveil Acadien (The Great Cajun Awakening) will be held Oct. 7-16, 2011, at sites located across South Louisiana. The preliminary schedule calls for events in New Orleans, Houma, Lake Charles, Lafayette and their surrounding regions within the 22-parish Acadiana region.

That event's stated mission is to "awaken the population of Louisiana, primarily those of Acadian descent and the youth, to the realization that our language, culture and coastal lands are being threatened."

The GRA is a spinoff of Congrès Mondial Acadians (World Congress of the Acadians), which is held every five years at sites rich with Acadian history. Lafayette hosted that event in 1999 and also unsuccessfully bid on the one in 2014. The upcoming Congrès Mondial will be held in the two-country region of Maine, Quebec and New Brunswick. Organizers of the 2014 event will be on hand at the GRA to promote their activities. Gustin says Lafayette will bid again, because of the multi-million financial impact it has on the region.

Currently, Le Centre has been working with three students in UL Lafayette's Business Department, recruiting local companies to attend the upcoming FuturAllia trade show, to be held May 18-20 in Kansas City. FuturAllia was conceived 20 years ago in Lafayette's sister city of Poitiers, France. This year's international forum's theme is "Open the Door to a World of Business" and is expected to feature 800 businesses from 30 countries.

Paula Phillips Carson, assistant vice president for Institutional Planning and Effectiveness at UL, says FuturAllia promises "a low-cost, low-risk venue for exploring relationships with supply chain partners from across the globe."

"The organization of FuturAllia allows for both structured and informal interactions that can infuse your business with new ideas, initiatives and customers," Carson adds. "And even after participants return home, the culture of follow-up ensures that attendance generates valuable business transactions."

For more information on Le Grand Réveil Acadien (Great Cajun Awakening), visit or call (337) 298-3711. For info on FuturAllia, contact Gustin at (337) 291-5474, e-mail him at LeCe[email protected], or visit

Globe Trotters
From bejeweled purses and canned goods to oil field equipment and protective buildings, many south Louisiana companies have carved an international trade niche. By Ted McManus

It may be based in the quaint Acadia Parish community of Rayne, but MBI Global has a solid worldwide presence. Founded in 1998 to service the oil patch, it has grown to become one of the largest manufacturers of protective building systems in the world.

With global safety and security concerns reaching heightened levels in today's precarious political climate, MBI continues to reinvest in research and development of innovative concepts, designs and products that meet its customers' ever-changing requirements. MBI provides protective building systems to industrial, offshore, military/government, commercial and residential sectors.

With thousands of units produced to date, MBI has specialized in the complete process - design, engineering, manufacturing and delivery of buildings that protect against explosions, ballistics, chemical releases, projectiles, fire, forced entry, noise, earthquakes, hurricanes and tornadoes.

The company's products are now providing front line safety and security in Australia, Africa, Canada, Europe, Middle East, Far East, Russia, throughout the Americas and in many bodies of water across the globe.

The company has nearly 1.6 million square feet of production capacity strategically placed in four countries. "MBI can provide its products anywhere in the world at competitive prices and with delivery schedules much quicker and more reliable than the industry average," says Anthony Emmons, MBI Global's vice president of sales.

In addition to its facility in Rayne, MBI Global also has fabrication plants in Turkey, Northern Ireland and Australia.

The company employed more than 300 workers at one point, but like virtually everyone else, that number is down somewhat during a slow economy, Emmons pointed out. "But, we're definitely hanging in there."

Broussard-based Stabil Drill, a subsidiary of Superior Energy Services, is among a large number of Lafayette-area oil patch companies doing business both at home and in the international arena.

Stabil Drill is a world leader in the rental and manufacture of stabilization products used by all of the major directional drilling companies across the globe. The company also features a wide array of products used within the industry to explore for oil and gas at steadily-increasing well depths - including an inventory of more than 11,000 drill collars, hole openers, reamers, environmentally-friendly pneumatic mud buckets and other specialized equipment.

Stabil Drill's foray into international issues took a humanitarian turn in February 2010 when company officials heard about problems a nonprofit group in Lira, Uganda, was having drilling water wells.

Igor Markov, who works in the oil and gas industry, and his wife are among those assisting with humanitarian efforts in Africa through a group called the International Lifeline Fund, a U.S.-based nonprofit organization whose mission is to reduce human suffering through programs and activities that have the greatest impact at the lowest possible cost.

Working with Markov, Stabil Drill agreed to manufacture drilling equipment and provide supplies for a rig the group was using to drill for water. "By donating equipment such as a saver sub, drill pipe protective compounds and thread protectors, Stabil Drill was able to help in a small way," says Roder Russo, the company's international sales manager.

Drilling water wells, proper sanitation and hygiene are critical components of ILF's clean water program, and Stabil Drill's donation is helping to extend the life and reliability of a drilling rig that allows people in the war-torn region of Uganda to have access to clean, safe water.

On the opposite end of the manufacturing spectrum is Vivian Alexander, a specialty jeweler located on a farm in the Vermilion Parish hamlet of Maurice, which specializes in handmade elegant evening purses, dazzling jewel-encrusted eggs, ornate jewelry boxes and other collectors' items.

Alex Caldwell created the company with his life partner Vivian Tullos and labeled the business by combining their names.

Caldwell's work has already been a star in a blockbuster film. Warner Brothers asked him to re-create the Fabergé Coronation egg for the hit movie Ocean's Twelve. The egg stood center stage onscreen as George Clooney's celebrity-filled gang of thieves battled a rival in an attempt to steal the Fabergé masterpiece.

Another Vivian Alexander-designed egg, measuring a whopping 26 inches in height, has been designed for 20th-Century Fox and is due to be featured in the upcoming movie The Sitter, due for release in December.

On May 16, 2010, a delegation from the Acadiana area presented a Vivian Alexander purse to the mayor of the neighboring town to Cannes, France. The town serves as headquarters to the Cannes International Film Festival. The delegation was there to promote southwest Louisiana in films."They wanted to show the world that southwest Louisiana has more to offer than the spectacular scenery and alligators," he notes. "In no way is this meant to downplay the alligators and scenery, but to only make mention of other great wonders in Louisiana. Louisiana happens to be one of the country's top-rated film locations and a place to find beautiful, handcrafted artwork."

Among the countries to which Vivian Alexander merchandise has been shipped are Brunei, Germany, Russia, England, Australia, Canada, Mexico, Italy, Japan and Senegal.

The first purses made by Vivian Alexander were created with an ostrich eggshell, the same way native Africans have made canteens for centuries. These first creations led Caldwell to produce sculptures along the lines of the famous Fabergé Imperial Russian Easter Eggs.

Vivian Alexander's work attracted the attention of the Forbes family, until recently the keeper of the world's finest and most extensive Fabergé collection, started by Malcolm Forbes.

Caldwell was commissioned to create replicas of the most valuable sculptures in the collection. For seven years, he worked with the Forbes Museum curator to master the ancient art of enameling and the use of guilloché on precious metals. His enameling work was noted by Christopher Forbes to be the best in the U.S.
In December 2009, Caldwell retired the method of using real eggs to create his purses, though can still be custom ordered. Since then, Vivian Alexander's artisans have been designing egg purses from pure silver, which makes them even more unique and exquisite.

In another rural Acadiana community sits Bruce Foods Corporation, headquartered in Cade near New Iberia, a global trendsetter that has steadily expanded its international market. Founded in 1928, Bruce Foods was manufacturing original Cajun and Tex Mex food products for more than 80 years, long before these spicy cuisines were introduced to the rest of the world. Its Mexican food plant in El Paso, Texas, was founded in 1931 and pioneered the first canned Mexican foods.

Today, Bruce Foods is one of America's largest privately-owned food manufacturers with more than 1,200 employees, and four processing plants in the U.S. Its products are distributed in more than 100 countries, and are carried by most of the top retail grocery chains worldwide.

Known for its famous "Original" Louisiana brand hot pepper sauce, Cajun Injector Products, Bruce's Yams and Casa Fiesta Mexican food items, the company manufactures a variety of more than 350 food products under nine premium brands.

In terms of worldwide distribution, Bruce Foods has a long reputation for fair trade and has developed trusted partnerships with sales representatives and distributors across the globe.

"The company's size and business philosophy allows for progressive marketing and distribution of its products," says company spokesman Fred Werquin. Bruce Foods maintains large warehouse inventories involving millions of cases of products at all its plants to ensure that an adequate supply of every product line is ready for immediate shipment.

From tacos and tortillas to chilies and tomato-based sauces, the production of Casa Fiesta food items accounts for a large portion of total food production at Bruce Foods. Casa Fiesta products are primarily manufactured in El Paso, Texas, located on the Mexico-New Mexico border alongside the Rio Grande. Casa Fiesta items are prized for their spicy flavoring, fresh taste, and quick and easy preparation, Werquin explains.