Squeeze Play

by Leslie Turk

LHC Group CFO Barr Brown hopes to parlay his success in the local health care business into a job in college athletics. Can he pull it off?

About the same time LHC Group's Chief Financial Officer Barr Brown was celebrating the success of the Lafayette-based home nursing company's initial public offering ' with a shindig upstairs at his Pinhook Road restaurant attended by Gov. Kathleen Blanco and UL Lafayette Vice President of Student Affairs Raymond "Coach" Blanco ' David Walker was taking over as interim athletic director at UL Lafayette.

Some eight months later, Brown, the CFO who is also senior vice president and a director at LHC Group, has announced his resignation from the company and is hoping to relieve Walker ' who also is head of auxiliary services ' of his temporary duties. The athletic director's job was left vacant last July when Nelson Schexnayder, citing limited financial support for the university's athletic programs, asked to be reassigned within the university.

On Monday, Brown confirmed he was finalizing an update of his résumé and would be delivering it and an application letter later in the day to the UL search committee.

The Natchez, Miss., native who now calls Lafayette home is applying for a job that did not immediately yield many quality candidates, in part due to fundraising constraints and UL's limited athletic budget. The search committee, chaired by Hunter Trahan, has been in a holding pattern since early November, pending the outcome of this legislative session so the university can better assess its budgetary situation.

The pay ' Schexnayder was earning $89,440 when he left after 11 years ' is far less than the $334,000 Brown earns at LHC Group, which provides post-acute health care services primarily to Medicare beneficiaries in rural markets in the southern United States.

Trahan says the salary, which is sure to have a cap, will depend on the person's qualifications and experience. Early Monday afternoon he was unaware Brown planned to apply for the job.

The salary does not appear to be an issue for Brown, who is staying on at LHC Group through June in order to play an active role in finding his replacement.

"I don't do everything in life for money," says Brown, who turns 50 this year. "At this point in my life, I want to do something different. I still have ownership in LHC and will continue to do so." In the IPO, which raised $67.2 million, Brown made $536,000 from the sale of his shares in the company and still owns $3.6 million worth of stock.

Though Brown admittedly has little background in athletics, he maintains that he is qualified, saying most universities are favoring professional experience in the workplace over former coaches and others with related skills. "I think you have to promote, you have to raise money, you have to run the athletic department as a business," he says. "It's something I really want to do."

A four-sport letterman and football standout at Cathedral High School in Natchez, Brown walked on as a football player at LSU in 1974. He earned a scholarship, though he only played on the scout team. "It basically was a way to pay for my education," says Brown, who earned a bachelor of science from LSU. About 16 years later, when he was 35, Brown approached then-LSU athletic director Joe Dean about a position in his department, but there were no openings. Brown says he never shook the itch.

The finance chief also downplays the role his political connections ' First Assistant Attorney General Nick Gachassin Jr. and his Lafayette law firm serve as legal counsel to LHC Group, and Gachassin is a legal adviser and close friend of the Blancos ' will have in the decision-making process. In addition to Gachassin's current role at LHC Group, advice the lawyer offered the company's founders in the mid-1990s was a turning point that ignited LHC Group's first real growth spurt ("Health Care Jackpot," March 15).

Brown maintains the AD's job is far from a slam dunk. "I'm as big a dark horse who ever entered [the running]," he says. "I hope to have an opportunity to interview." Brown declined to comment on the prospect of taking over a department in the midst of an NCAA investigation that now concerns eligibility of a former basketball standout and possible illegal summer football practices.

In the meantime, Brown also has secured the rights to develop a Doe's restaurant in Baton Rouge, which he hopes to open before the end of the year, and on the Mississippi Gulf Coast. His Doe's of Lafayette at 530 W. Pinhook Road, a steak and tamale eatery, is located in the same complex as LHC Group's headquarters.

Brown worked as senior auditor for Arthur Young & Co. in Houston from 1979-1984 and has spent most of his professional career in the public company arena, including a 1984-1991 stint at California-based Kasler Corp., a general contractor specializing in road and bridge construction; and a five-year run with Equity Corporation International, a funeral home and cemetery company based in Lufkin, Texas.

Brown's resignation, made public in connection with a March 31 announcement of a fall in earnings at LHC Group for the year (which the company had pre-released Feb. 23), does not appear to have adversely affected the company's stock price. The stock, which closed at $15.81 on March 30, was up slightly, closing at $16 the day of the announcements. For the full year, LHC Group posted net income of $8.6 million, or 59 cents per share, down from $9.3 million, or 76 cents per share, in 2004. Excluding one-time items, the company earned 81 cents per share for the year versus 73 cents in 2004. Revenue rose 32 percent to $162.5 million from $123 million.

The company also reported a 34 percent rise in fourth quarter profit, attributable mainly to a $10 million increase in quarterly revenue. In contrast, LHC Group competitor Amedisys' disappointing fourth quarter and abrupt resignation of its CFO sent the Baton Rouge-based company's stock tumbling almost 25 percent overnight in late February.

"There's absolutely no similarity [with Amedisys]," Brown says. "We hit our estimate."

At least one analyst, Arthur Henderson of Jefferies & Co., LHC Group's lead underwriter on the IPO, is holding firm to a positive outlook for the company. Henderson downgraded Amedisys from a buy to an underperform, citing management's credibility in light of the significant miss on earnings expectations and the company's 2006 outlook. Henderson, who has since upgraded Amedisys to a hold, maintains a buy recommendation on LHC Group.

Brown also was quick to dismiss any effect The Independent Weekly's March story on LHC Group may have had on his standing with the company. For that story, the CFO threatened in a voice mail message that publishing data on insider transactions ' specifically easily accessible public information that the IPO had been a multi-million windfall for a number of LHC Group shareholders ' would affect the company's advertising purchases in this newspaper.

"My thought process had begun for this long before that story came out," Brown says.