Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Project Give

A recent LSU grad and Lafayette native aims to create a business model for giving.
Lafayette native Chase Brumfield was preparing to graduate from LSU this past spring when he realized he had no idea what he wanted to do with his life. He didn’t want to pursue his psychology major, and he didn’t want to go out and get a desk job.
He wanted to find his passion.

After a couple late nights, some Jack Daniels and inspiration from a former first lady, Brumfield came to a sort of conclusion. “My passion is reaching out, getting to know people,” he says. “I was always interested and am still most interested in disaster management and trauma, and offering some sort of assistance.”

This quote by Eleanor Roosevelt — “The purpose of life is to live it, to taste experience to the utmost, to reach out eagerly and without fear for newer and richer experiences” — also helped Brumfield find his calling after college.

A website and Facebook page that use the power of social media to connect people who have something to give with those who are in need, called The Give Project, was born. Almost immediately, Brumfield heard from Howard Bennett, who had information on a family that lost everything they owned in a Baton Rouge fire.

Bennett posted information about what the family needed on The Give Project’s Facebook page, and within a week several fans donated clothes, blankets and towels.
At the time, the page only had about 100 Facebook fans, but Brumfield felt his idea was validated when they mobilized to help the family. “I didn’t think it would work that easily and that quickly,” he says. “Within an hour, people were saying, ‘I have stuff to give.’ What happens if we get to be on 10 social networks and have thousands of fans? Can you imagine the amount of needs we could fill then?”

As of Oct. 14, The Give Project had 1,680 fans on its Facebook page, 234 subscribers on its site, and featured needs listed included guitar lessons, a desk chair and scrap wood for building a garden. In the style of Freecycle or Craigslist’s volunteer section, The Give Project serves as the facilitator for free giving and getting, with members making plans for delivery or pickup of items.

Brumfield and project editor Eric Hernandez also see the potential for involving college students. Sitting in class at LSU, Brumfield noticed that most students were checking Facebook at least a couple times. He wondered whether his generation could use the social networking site in a more constructive way, for social responsibility or social good. Large natural disasters like the earthquake in Haiti earlier this year seem to mobilize them to give, but what about regular day-to-day needs in their community?

“College students are constantly in transition and giving old stuff way,” says Brumfield. “We’ve discussed having a college challenge campaign.” Hernandez, a student at UL Lafayette, says his generation wants to give back but isn’t necessarily going to use traditional methods like volunteering at a soup kitchen.

“A lot of the people that have latched on to this idea have been college students,” Hernandez says. “I know a lot of my peers, they want to go out and do volunteer activities, but they may not know where to go.”

Also in the works for The Give Project are incentives for giving, which could involve local bars and restaurants. But first Brumfield and Hernandez need to decide whether the site will continue as a for-profit venture, with revenue coming from investors and business partners who have the option to offer branded gifts, or pursue a nonprofit status, something that’s easier to sell to the public.

“We had a vision of creative capitalism,” says Brumfield, “but nonprofit is looking better and better and could potentially lead to better partnerships and perhaps a broader audience.” Either way, Brumfield wants the focus to remain on free giving.

He’s even taken up the challenge himself, and begun to travel to community events, like a recent blood drive, to set an example.

“That brought me back to the purpose,” he says. “We want to have The Give Project give back and not just facilitate giving.”  —  Erin Z. Bass


Chamber Searching for Innovators

The Greater Lafayette Chamber of Commerce is in its second year of searching for Acadiana’s most innovative companies and individuals.

The award is designed to celebrate the people of Acadiana who have helped create an economically and culturally thriving community through innovative ideas and products. It also aims to educate and inspire others to do the same.

In 2009, the award committee selected six finalists, two from the public sector and four from the private sector. Lafayette Consolidated Government/Believe Entertainment was selected for the public sector award for the Lafayette Entertainment Initiative. NSI Upstream was chosen for the public sector award for its innovative Oil Field Commander.

Criteria for the award were established by an Innovation Committee Task Force. Applicants must reside or work in the Acadiana area, and chamber membership is not required. Judges will focus on results and creativity of the innovation.

Applicants should include any pictures, videos or other material that may be helpful to the committee.

Application forms can be printed online at www.lafchamber.org/InnovationAwards. Completed applications must be returned by Nov. 19, at 5 p.m. to the chamber’s marketing relations specialist, Carley Ste. Marie, by email at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. , by fax at 337-234-8671 or by mail at P. O. Box 51307, Lafayette, LA 70505-1307. Call 337-408-3655 with any questions about the award.

The Acadiana Innovation Award winners will be announced at the chamber’s annual banquet on Tuesday, Jan. 20.


Sposa Bella taking over old CC’s spot

When CC’s Coffee House on Kaliste Saloom closed in April, there was a slew of unhappy regulars wondering what would come of the space.

Now we know.

Bridal boutique Sposa Bella is relocating to the 340 Kaliste Saloom Road site, says store associate Andree Dupuis.

The boutique, currently located in River Ranch’s Main Street development, is redecorating the former café to have a more airy and shabby-chic appeal. The new location will give Sposa Bella more room to showcase its collections of gowns, cocktail dresses, shoes and accessories. The extra space will also allow it to add more dressing rooms, an on-site seamstress and a wider selection of cocktail and bridal dresses.
Dupuis says if all goes well, the store should be in its new home by the end of November. — Hope Rurik



RedHawk sells Texas units for $66 million

Lafayette-based RedHawk Energy Corp. sold its Texas oilfield services operations for approximately $66 million on Oct. 20. The transaction included cash, assumed bank indebtedness, certain equity securities and other consideration.

RedHawk acquired the Texas-based oilfield service operations in late 2009, returning the business unit to profitability and dramatically improving cash flow from its operations. “The improved cash flow allowed us to significantly reduce bank indebtedness, which then positioned us for a sale of the business unit,” said RedHawk founder G. Darcy Klug.

A Baton Rouge native who has lived in Lafayette since 1983, Klug resumed duties as the company’s chairman of the board and CEO, having most recently served as executive vice president and CFO.
Klug said the sale resulted in investment and cash returns in excess of RedHawk’s original objective.

“With completion of this sale, we will now direct our investment focus on Louisiana-based business opportunities,” he said, noting that the company is already working with representatives from the Lafayette Economic Development Authority to evaluate investment opportunities.

RedHawk Energy Corporation was founded in 2008 to focus on acquiring and consolidating well-managed, smaller, undercapitalized onshore and offshore oilfield service and equipment companies.

Its common stock is registered with the Securities and Exchange Commission, but the company is not currently trading its common stock. — Leslie Turk


A Marriage Made over Finger Sandwiches

Michael Doumit partners with Robert Frugé’s catering biz

Pink must be the color of happiness. A line of blue-haired ladies, filing through the door at Abacus, were all wearing shades of pink. As they entered the restaurant, Michael Doumit greeted lunchtime customers dressed in a neatly starched pink button-down shirt. Doumit’s cheeks blushed with joy. Or perhaps it’s the rosy prospect of a successful merger between Doumit, Lafayette’s king of catered society weddings and Mardi Gras brunches, and businessman Robert Frugé, who owns three catering halls — Wolf Hall in Washington, La., Grand Coteau Ballroom and Abacus on Pinhook Road.

Clearly, Michael Doumit is tickled pink to be in the thick of his clientèle, who have been eating his spreads of kibbe, grape leaves, hummus, crab dip and finger sandwiches for nearly 50 years. Four years ago, when Doumit was deep in financial difficulties and on the brink of losing his longtime Oil Center business, a la carte, to the IRS, he turned to Brian Blanchard, owner of iMonelli. Blanchard saved the business and retained Doumit — until the relationship soured and they parted company on Oct. 12.

While Blanchard declined to comment for this story, he did say a la carte is doing a terrific lunchtime business and will be rolling out an expanded menu soon.

Once again, Doumit has landed on his feet.

When Frugé offered a consulting partnership, Doumit jumped at the chance to be back where he loves to be, “making things beautiful,” he says.

“I’m a perfectionist,” Doumit continues. “The food has to be good. The service, excellent. The silver, the china, the linens — I love to plan and execute a class event.” Frugé gave him the opportunity.

Actually, it was Frugé’s manager, Paul Scelfo, formerly of The Townhouse and later City Club at River Ranch, who suggested Doumit would be a good fit in the business. Frugé spent the past decade acquiring the three historic properties he promotes as catering halls. Until this year, he solicited outside caterers.

Abacus started serving lunch earlier this year, slowly building a daily customer base, while catering events inhouse in the evening and on weekends. Doumit came on board Oct. 18.

“Michael is the perfect fit for us,” says Scelfo. “He’s known as the premier fine dining caterer in Lafayette.
He has the clients and the expertise.”

Doumit comes from a Lebanese family in New Iberia, where he first began catering in 1963. He built his reputation on family recipes, rolling thousands of grape leaves, his calling card in an ethnic-inspired repertoire that has become de rigueur on catering menus and in the baker’s dozen of Middle Eastern restaurants that dot Lafayette. He found he was catering more parties in Lafayette than New Iberia, and moved his business here in 1978. Michael’s Ballroom, a catering hall on Jefferson Street, opened in 1980. A decade later, Doumit sold the ballroom and opened a la carte in the Oil Center. It has been a staple on the lunch circuit ever since, especially Wednesdays, when the restaurant serves a famous Ashy family dish, Mediterranean fried chicken.

Doumit’s first love, however, is catering. “My favorite thing is off-premise events,” he says. “I love the challenge of putting on a wedding, in the bride’s home or a beautiful old house.” Which is exactly what Frugé, whose buildings are all historic, needed.

“Michael brings an elegant style of catering that works with our buildings,” says Scelfo. “He gives us a historic presence right away. We’ve hired new chefs, new wait staff to support his vision.”

But don’t expect Doumit to disappear into the wonderland of chocolate fountains and ice sculptures. Last week he was sipping on Abacus’ outstanding gumbo, served daily at the Pinhook restaurant. “It’s good,” he said, clearly proud to be offering deeply Cajun fare. “One of the reasons I came,” he says, while happily greeting customers he has known his whole life, “is so I can definitely be involved in lunch.” —  Mary Tutwiler

Fired-Up

DHAP case managers say they are owed for 30 days of work.

[Editor’s Note: Just as this story was going to press Monday, LHA Executive Director Walter Guillory and Deputy Director Jonathan Carmouche both resigned.]

20101027-turkfileABIZ-0103
The LHA board met with Guillory (front) and Carmouche
(in red) Aug. 13 and voted to fire five DHAP case manager.

Daniel Stanford, the Lafayette Housing Authority’s attorney, says he was notified by LHA Executive Director Walter Guillory that the Disaster Housing Assistance Program case managers fired in August say they were improperly discharged, in that they weren’t given the 30 days’ written notice required by their contracts. They contend they are owed for 30 days of work — which would amount to $5,920 plus $600 in car allowance for each of them.

But there’s a glitch.

After repeated public records requests for the DHAP case managers’ current contracts in the wake of their firings, ABiz received this statement from LHA Deputy Director Jonathan Carmouche on Aug. 27: “Because of the continual extensions of the DHAP-Ike/Gustave [sic] program and the recurrent needs of the families, time did not permit to update the contracts with each extension.” The contracts, it turns out, all expired earlier this year. They were never renewed.

“The one who is really pushing the issue is Porsha Evans,” Stanford says, though it’s his understanding the other four case managers also are seeking reimbursement. The case managers were fired by the LHA board in a special meeting Aug. 13, their terminations coming on the heels of a critical independent audit of the LHA for 2009, which pointed out several problems with how the local agency was administering and managing the Department of Housing and Urban Development/FEMA housing program, which was designed to help families displaced by hurricanes. At the time, Guillory told the board HUD officials had pored over the program for three days at the LHA’s office and were unhappy with “the files, the record-keeping. The conclusion is we were not satisfied with that, as far as the record-keeping of the program.”

But ABiz’s review of the program, along what the auditors found, revealed much more than just sloppy record-keeping. Over the past 2.5 years, the DHAP case managers’ pay increased from about $11 an hour to $37; each was paid for 40 hours of work and got a $600 monthly car allowance without turning in time sheets or documentation on miles traveled. What’s more, some had additional jobs in the community. In the case of former Lafayette City-Parish Councilman Chris Williams, he had at least one other full-time job at UL Lafayette and even billed the program for time he spent teaching a class at the university. Other case managers for the DHAP were Charlie Esie, Linda Jefferson and Myra Parker.

The auditors also noted that Carmouche, who was in charge of the DHAP, was himself getting a piece of the action, inspecting homes in the program “on Saturdays” for $75 a pop. Carmouche, who earns $85,000 a year, got an extra $20,000 from the LHA for inspecting homes in 2009 and had already been paid $11,300 when the auditors slapped his hand.

The 2009 audit further noted that rent reasonableness documentation in the case managers’ files, if it was in the file, appeared to be fabricated and that some of files themselves had zero supporting documents. That audit prompted a visit from the Louisiana Legislative Auditor and led to a federal investigation of the LHA, which is ongoing; HUD officials are now working alongside LHA management to address the problems, which are widespread throughout the agency

At the time the case managers were fired, Guillory explained that the residents on the program would continue to be serviced by the LHA’s existing staff. The program, which had an annual budget of $1.8 million, was slated to expire Oct. 31. As has happened several times since its inception in 2007, the DHAP is once again operating under an extension. LHA case managers’ primary responsibility on the program was making the residents’ rental assistance payments, along with help on utility payments and security deposits. Residents were also to receive case management services to help them get back on their feet, including financial education, job training or other social services.

Evans, who confirms she has written to the housing authority seeking 30 days of pay, says while the contracts themselves were not renewed, she is confident that HUD’s extension of the program while they were still working as case managers constituted an extension of her contract. Evans, who maintains she worked tirelessly for her clients, says she has consulted with an attorney and plans to pursue legal action if necessary. She declined to name her attorney.

“We were sent amendments to the contract,” says Evans, whose real name is Beatrice Wilson. “The amendments came, actually, from HUD.”

That’s not the way Stanford sees it.

He says the most recent contract for Evans (though each differs slightly) had an effective date of Aug. 1, 2009, through March 31, 2010. It’s for $37 an hour with a $600 monthly car allowance and replaced one signed Dec. 1, 2008, that also was set to expire March 31, 2010. That one was for $30 an hour with a $600 monthly car allowance. It’s unclear why a new contract was issued so long before the one signed Dec. 1, 2008, expired.

The contract’s “duration” clause stated that it would be effective through March 31 of this year “or the date of the termination of the DHAP funding if earlier.” A renewal should have been executed 45 days before the March 31 expiration, approximately Feb. 15, with the consent of both parties. “That did not happen,” Stanford says.

The “termination” clause in the contract calls for the LHA to provide the DHAP worker with written notice of termination 30 days prior to the effective date and to specify “the nature, extent, and effective date of termination.” Because the contract was not current, the clause does not apply, Stanford maintains. He says after March 31 the DHAP workers were operating as independent contractors without a contract and subject to termination at any time, with or without cause.

On Oct. 15 Stanford notified LHA’s Guillory in writing that only the LHA board can take up the matter (three of whose members, Joe Dennis, John Freeman and Leon Simmons, ironically, have filed legal action to get their own board posts back; they were dismissed by City-Parish President Joey Durel a few days after they fired the DHAP workers). However, the board itself appears to have little power to make a decision on whether the case managers are owed any money, as HUD on Oct. 20 made it crystal clear the board cannot approve a single penny of expenditures without its authorization. —  Leslie Turk

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