Eighty years of service in New Orleans and the loyalty of customers and employees make Bienvenu Brothers Enterprises our Mechanical Contractor of the Year.
BY ROBERT P. MADER
OF CONTRACTOR'S STAFF
Drago Cvitanovich, well into his 80s, holds court at the end of his bar at Drago's, "Home of the Original Charbroiled Oyster," in Metairie, La. Son Tommy runs the place now, packed on a Wednesday night in midDecember as it is for every lunch and dinner six days a week. When Tommy Cvitanovich remodeled the restaurant recently, the only plumber he wanted was Vint Bienvenu, who spent 356 days there over a span of a 1 1⁄2 years. Meanwhile, Kirk Bienvenu and plumber John Loftis are installing a new master bath over at Tommy Cvitanovich's house, no questions asked about how much it'll cost.
In another corner of Jefferson Parish, homeowner Victor Pizzolato Sr. says he's been doing business with Bienvenu Brothers Plumbing for 40 years. The "boys," Vint Jr. and Louis Bienvenu Jr., are redoing his kitchen in his Hurricane Katrina-damaged home, while his wife, whom the boys address as "Miss Marie," raves about them.
Bienvenu Brothers employees, plumbers Loftis, Jeff Winters, Chris Abel, apprentice and soon-to-be licensed plumber Chad Scalise, bookkeeper Vicki Smith, and helpers Percy Ramsey and Jonathan Chin have no intention of leaving. They're family. Grandma Bienvenu lives next door to the office, and they could even go into her refrigerator if they wanted to. Winters has been with the company for 12 years, Ramsey for 10, Abels for nine.
Keith Bienvenu suspects that he's going to be presidentfor-life of the New Orleans chapter of Plumbing-HeatingCooling Contractors – National Association. He is this year's chairman of Quality Service Contractors, an enhanced service group of PHCC.
Nobody's leaving, either the customers or the employees. The Bienvenus have been doing business like this since 1927. It's because of this record of customer service that's now entering its fourth generation — and its record of service to the industry — that Bienvenu Brothers Enterprises in Metairie is CONTRACTOR's Mechanical Contractor of the Year.
Loving what they do
Brothers, Keith, Louis, Kirk and Vint Bienvenu have made their company what it is because they love what they do, and they truly care about their customers. Not that they'll always say so — they might even gripe that they could never get paid enough for what they do — but they keep on doing it.
They do things such as keep a supply of old faucet handles and cartridges for senior citizens or other customers who would prefer to have a faucet repaired rather than replaced. They keep old tank lids for customers who might crack theirs. They made a three-compartment sink for a hot dog cart because it was a challenge. They have a complete machine shop out back and can make a part for anything because they are, in a word, enterprising.
It's probably hereditary. The company was started in 1937 as Louis A. Bienvenu & Son Plumbing, holding New Orleans Plumbing License No. 14.
The brothers' grandfather and father rode public transit to jobs, tying the pipe on the outside of the streetcar and carry their tools in canvas bags.
The Bienvenu family (the name means "welcome" in French) has likely been in Louisiana for as long as Acadians have been there. The Bienvenus came to Metairie from Reserve, about 30 miles up the Mississippi, where they had been truck farmers growing shallots and vegetables.
"My grandparents built this house in 1927," Keith Bienvenu says of the house the firm still uses as its headquarters.
Louis Augustin Bienvenu Sr. had the house built in Metairie in 1927 and went to work as a plumber for C.N. Finley Inc. in New Orleans. (James C. Finley is this year's president-elect of PHCC-NA.)
The business still operates out of the house. Louis, Kirk and Vint Bienvenu all live close by; Keith, who lives about six miles away in Harahan, is the only one who left the old neighborhood. Granddad died in 1977. Dad, Louis Augustin Bienvenu Jr., retired in 1981 although he was in the office every day, usually in the kitchen cooking lunch for the staff, until he passed on in 1984. The brothers re-established the company as Bienvenu Brothers Enterprises in 1979.
Louis is actually Louis August Bienvenu Sr. because his mother didn't want him to become III. His son is Junior. During the time, however, when Granddad, Dad and Louis were all working together he was called The Third anyway just to keep everybody straight.
Kirk Bienvenu is the total package of knowledge and skill, the type of plumber that plumbers would hire to work in their own houses. He has worked on dragsters as a hobby and he maintains all the company's service vehicles. He also looks like he could throw a cast-iron bathtub a couple hundred feet.
Vint Bienvenu is the youngest and the only child named by their father. He was named after Vint Bonner, the character played by actor John Payne in "The Restless Gun" TV series in the late '50s. Vint Bienvenu has been on medical leave for a year, but he has always shared a truck with Kirk.
Working smoothly together
The four of them have grown comfortably into their roles in the company. Since a car accident wrecked his knees in 1985, Keith Bienvenu has run the office. Louis oversees field operations — permits, inspections and troubleshooting jobs — and tracking down a plumbing inspector in New Orleans these days can be a full-time job in itself. Kirk and Vint couldn't imagine doing anything else other than working in the field. Both of them say doing renovation work is their favorite.
"I like to take an old house that might be falling apart and renew it," Kirk Bienvenu says.
The firm is, nevertheless, a service contractor, 80% service and 20% renovation, 60% of that residential and 40% commercial. About 80% of the business is repeat and referrals. The firm bills in the $2.5 million range.
The Bienvenus avoid new construction unless somebody begs them, as was the case when the brother of an existing customer asked them to build his medical office building for him. It was a negotiated contract.
Keith has become the public face of Bienvenu Brothers in the last several years. He's been a member of PHCC since 1975 and has served in every office of both the Louisiana PHCC and the Metro New Orleans Association of PHCC. He is LAPHCC director-at-large and president of Metro New Orleans PHCC. He has served on numerous committees for local, state and national chapters, including a term as Zone 2 Director for PHCC-NA, plus he was the national secretary in 2003-2004 during the presidency of Steve Carder.
Keith Bienvenu was one of the founders of QSC. Attending seminars at a PHCC convention was fine, he says, but service contractors needed more, a whole day or days devoted to their needs and education. He has participated in the QSC Peer Groups, which have been invaluable, he says, noting that the wealth of knowledge is priceless.
As well known as Keith is, his wife also has a high profile in the industry. Linda Bienvenu is the national president of the Women's Auxiliary of PHCC-NA.
The kids are all right
Sometime in the next 15 to 20 years, Bienvenu Brothers Enterprises will be taken over by the cousins: Keith's daughter, Maria Louise Bienvenu, 26; Louis Jr., 24; and Vint Jr., 19. The Bienvenu family is close, none more so than the cousins who interact well with one another. Vint Bienvenu Jr. says the three of them go out to dinner about once a month so they can get away from the business, at least for an evening.
The company will be in good hands. When you talk with these young people for a while, it becomes obvious how smart and directed they are.
Maria Bienvenu is the quiet one who has a bachelor of arts degree in marketing and management from Southeast Louisiana State and her MBA from the University of New Orleans. Neither Vint Jr. or Louis Jr. could stand working at a desk, they say, and they're glad she can manage day-today operations.
Louis Bienvenu Jr. just bought his second house, a brand new one, on four acres in southwest Mississippi, about an hour away from the office. He's renting out his first house in Harahan.
"I want to expand to north of the lake," he says, north of Lake Pontchartrain, although he's well aware of how difficult it is to find the good, trainable people needed to grow the business.
Keith Bienvenu is involved in the state PHCC's apprenticeship program that's up and running in Shreveport and Baton Rouge, but the program has only been able to attract a couple dozen qualified applicants.
Hurricane Katrina affected Vint Bienvenu Jr. the most, wiping out the first half of his senior year (and his football season) at Brother Martin High School. A few more than 200 young men graduated last spring from his senior class, which had numbered 395 before the hurricane.
Vint Jr. says he was always crazy about the business. He. is enrolled in the apprenticeship program administered by the state PHCC. When he was little, he had his own childsize uniform and wouldn't let his father go out on a service call without him. Vint Jr. says the homeowners always gave him tips and adds that he went out on service calls until he was 13 when he discovered girls and football.
Since then, he's worked summers for an air conditioning contractor and says he'd like to get additional training for air conditioning service so the company could offer it. If the next generation turns out like them, Bienvenu Brothers — or Cousins or whatever its name will be in 2025 — will be able to rack up another 80 years.
Katrina's impact will last 20 years
Louis Bienvenu stayed in Metairie, La., during Hurricane Katrina. A tree fell on the roof of Bienvenu Brothers' shop building and the water rose up to a block away and then stopped. He siphoned gasoline out of the trucks to keep the company's generator running.
After a week, he went to Baton Rouge, La., where the rest of the family had weathered the storm so he could take a shower and buy gas. He began bringing gas back from Alexandria, 200 miles away, or from Baton Rouge, 60 miles away, in 10-gal. containers until Vint Bienvenu got hold of a 250-gal. storage tank that they filled in Alexandria. They eventually found a wholesale fuel depot in New Orleans. They refilled the 250-gal. tank three or four times over six weeks before gasoline supplies in the area returned to normal.
Immediately after the storm, the firm got work hooking up water supply and drain lines for housing and shower trailers and for a cook boat for the cleanup crews.
Metairie did not have any natural gas problems, but to this day water is still in the gas lines in New Orleans. On a day CONTRACTOR visited Bienvenu Brothers in December 2006, the firm got a call about a water heater thathad gone out that Keith Bienvenu believed was caused by water in the gas line.
The firm keeps a large stock of parts in its 22-by-100-ft. concrete block storage building/shop/garage that's behind the houses. The company tries to keep their employees out of supply houses because a visit takes a minimum of one hour. Right after the storm it was hard to find parts, but today service is still at a premium. Before the storm, the contractor could call a wholesaler in the morning and get delivery to a jobsite in the afternoon. Now it takes two days. It's hard for the wholesalers or anybody else to find good help when even McDonald's is forced to pay more than $10 an hour.
It still takes three weeks for Jefferson Parish to get a gas inspector out. If homeowners need a rush inspection, caused by a new baby or a family member coming home from the hospital, they have to pay the inspection department extra for overtime.
Keith Bienvenu drove a CONTRACTOR editor around Metairie and New Orleans to show the damage. A sprawling mansion, the biggest house in Metairie, owned by a real estate developer, had 3 ft. of water in it. Many of the upscale houses are in various stages of being repaired but are still obviously vacant.
In middle-class areas, "FEMA trailers" are in dozens of front yards and parking lots. Some lots have only the foundation left. Bienvenu Brothers got a significant amount of business capping sewer lines at demolished houses. Then the visit traveled down to the Lower 9th Ward, a sad ghost town of partially collapsed houses and vacant lots.
"A lot of those houses should have been demolished years ago," Louis Bienvenu says about housing throughout the city of New Orleans. Katrina just forced the issue.
Shopping can still be a chore; the area is littered with abandoned strip malls, the stains on their walls showing the highwater mark. Health care is at a premium. Only one top-level trauma center hospital is still in business in the entire metropolitan area.
One big impediment to rebuilding for both owner-occupied houses and buildings and for landlords is that the insurance companies are refusing or delaying payment, Keith Bienvenu says. Homeowner's insurance costs a fortune now and the state of Louisiana provides homeowner's insurance of last resort. Without insurance, a homeowner can't get a mortgage, and without financing nothing gets built.
Many of the renters are gone forever, Keith Bienvenu says, having lost all their possessions in the hurricane and flood. People evacuated expecting to be gone three days, not a year, he points out. Now that they've moved on to Houston, Atlanta or Baton Rouge, enrolled their children in school and found a job, there's no reason to come back.
Bienvenu Brothers is taking care of its existing customers and emergencies. The brothers say they turn down work daily. The company has about 500 calls in the computer, and its dispatchers tell callers that it will be at least eight weeks before they can come out.
"We could double our workforce and not keep up," Keith Bienvenu says.
Business was good before the hurricane, and now it will be good for a generation, he says.
"It'll take 10 years to rebuild," he notes, "and then another 10 years fixing all the bootleg plumbing that's going in now."