The Villere family has been in New Orleans as long as nearly anyone. Jacques Phillipe Villere was born near the city in 1761, son to King Louis XV’s naval secretary for Louisiana. He served first as an officer in the French army and later as a major general in the American territorial militia. He was also the second governor of the state of Louisiana, not to mention the first to be native-born. It was his son, Gabriel, a major in the militia, who warned Andrew Jackson that the British had captured and were encamped on the Villere plantation, prior to the Battle of New Orleans, the final engagement in the War of 1812.
Flash forward almost 100 years to 1911 when St. Denis Villere founded Villere & Co., an investment firm that was a member of the New Orleans Stock Exchange and involved in public underwriting and brokerage of local stocks and bonds. Fifteen years later he was joined in the business by his son Ernest, who as time went on became increasingly engaged in investment counseling. Ernest’s sons, St. Denis (Sandy) II and George, joined the family business during the 1960s. Today those brothers have welcomed into the business a fourth generation–George Villere Young and St. Denis Villere III, known as “Sandy, Jr.”
With that kind of history, it’s easy to understand why the Villere family is so strongly devoted to New Orleans and were not about to let a little thing like a hurricane, even one as ferocious as Katrina, uproot them and their advisory firm for long. Their story is one of perseverance to the business, kindness from partners who are far from strangers, and devotion to clients, to family, and to their city.
By the time Katrina made landfall on Monday, August 29, all four partners of Villere & Co. and their families had evacuated to Houston, but like many New Orleans natives they’d been through hurricanes before and thought they couldn’t possibly be out of their homes for more than a few days. The storm’s reality soon blew that optimistic assessment out the window. As the scope of the disaster became apparent it was imperative that the firm get back up and running as soon as possible. Surprisingly, with a little help from some friends, by Tuesday, August 30, Villere & Co. was back in business from Houston, where they would remain until almost Thanksgiving.
Initially the partners worked out of a Charles Schwab retail office in Houston. “We’ve got about two-thirds of our assets custodied at Schwab, and they were generous enough to give us an office in which to sort of huddle,” explains George V. Young of the first few days post-Katrina. “That didn’t fit 100% for a variety of reasons, but then we found space through a friend starting on Friday, so we were up and running pretty quickly.”
Villere & Co. has always taken a long-term approach to investing, so when the storm disrupted the Gulf Coast the partners didn’t have to spend a lot of their energy moving clients’ money around. “Our primary goal was to get in touch with each of our clients and let them know we were okay, and that their money was okay,” says Sandy Villere Jr.
Of course, getting in touch with clients was a task more easily spoken of than actually accomplished for a number of reasons. First, just as the Villere & Co. principals and their five-person staff had to evacuate New Orleans, so did their clients. Then there was the problem that area code 504, the primary one for New Orleans, was entirely out of service. “One of the first things we did was to go buy new cell phones with a Houston area code and put up on www.villere.com all of our contact information so people could get in touch with us as quickly as possible,” recalls Villere.
The biggest problem that the partners faced, after they discovered that they were going to be unable to return immediately to their offices, was getting their hands on the firm’s computer server, still located in those offices on the eighth floor of a building with no power for elevators and air conditioning. They asked a friend who was still in the city to retrieve it for them, which he did on his way to Baton Rouge, where Sandy Villere, Jr., was able to pick it up, but that wasn’t accomplished until mid-September.
While Villere & Co. was able to operate remotely, the partners did face a number of challenges that they hadn’t anticipated. Some of it amounted to long-distance hand-holding for clients, but it was important to let those clients know that their assets were secure. Some of it was of a much more concrete nature.
“There were requests to wire money here or there,” says Villere. “People were just scared and wanted more money wired into their checking accounts.”
“That was something we hadn’t really had to do before but we got involved with that and [did] address changes, ordering checks,” adds Young. “Most everybody who left the city thought they were going for two or three days; of course it turned out to be a lot longer. So they didn’t bring a lot of the things that they needed. The good thing about our business–and we learned this pretty quickly, and it’s not unique to Villere & Co. but to all investment advisors–[is that] it’s a very portable business. You don’t have inventory, you don’t have raw goods that you have to produce. It’s a service business. As long as your data is stored in a safe area, which ours was, we were able to pluck the data out [and continue operating].”
Regular business, of course, did take a little while to get back on track. For example, the company issues rolling quarterly statements to each client at the end of every month. According to Young, the August statements were about a month late, and the September ones about two weeks behind schedule.
While the firm’s four principals were together in Houston, the rest of their staff was scattered far and wide. Of their five back-office employees, one went to Lafayette, Louisiana, one to Mississippi, two to the Florida panhandle, and one to Miami via Arkansas. “What we were eventually able to do was set up our office manager in Baton Rouge with a house/office, so she could temporarily live and run accounts there,” explains Young. “We had a couple of employees who didn’t do anything for a couple of months until we knew what we needed from them, so a lot of it fell on the office manager’s shoulders, which she handled wonderfully.”
While Hurricane Katrina has changed New Orleans forever, its actual impact on Villere & Co.’s business has been negligible.
“It was kind of a non-event,” says Young, adding, “If you look at the dollars that came in September, October, and November ’05 compared to ’04, we were flat. We didn’t bring in any new dollars, because there wasn’t much marketing we could do while we were in Houston. It did give us pause to consider opening an office in Houston, but that’s a very competitive market. Until you’ve had a presence for some time, it’s hard to really show any profit. So that didn’t seem to make any sense to us.”
“Our [investment] performance happened to be quite good during that time frame,” adds his cousin. “So I don’t think we were really affected.”
Since the firm has returned to its native city, growth has been back on track. “We recognize that we need to be here to have the business grow,” says Young. “Being in Houston, a lot of our typical potential clients were not available to prospect.”
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