Most of us have two lives—a work life and a family life. But as one sugar company has shown, when business grows out of family, work might just end up being a home.
That’s what happened in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
In August 2005, the storm devastated areas along the Gulf Coast, with Louisiana bearing the brunt of her wrath. Like thousands of other homes and businesses, the Domino Sugar refinery in Arabi was ripped apart, submerged in water and dried out a broken, non-working version of its old self. Before the storm, the refinery produced 19 percent of America’s refined cane sugar. Immediately after, sugar stocks were gone. Equipment was gone. Most importantly, employees were gone, forced to evacuate across the country.
But this wasn’t the first time company stakeholders would start from scratch. The Sugar Cane Growers Cooperative of Florida (SCGC), a joint owner of Domino along with family-owned Florida Crystals Corp., started in 1960 as a partnership of 53 farm families.
They built the cooperative from the ground up, the values of each family shaping the character of the organization. More than 40 years later, they were still employing a spirit of family to bring the Arabi refinery back from the wreckage. And they knew that started with bringing the people back to Arabi.
“We can fix anything; we can rebuild anything,” said Mickey Seither, Domino’s vice president for operations said during a 2005 interview. “If it's broken beyond repair, we can buy another one and put it in its place. But if we don't have employees, it's for naught. So early on, we decided the one thing we have to really concentrate on is fixing the situation that our employees are in.”
So they did. Before enough time passed for Domino’s 300 Arabi employees to even miss a paycheck, the company got to work on getting them back to work. Domino secured 273 trailers and assembled a village of temporary housing, soon dubbed “Chateau Domino.” The employees and their families – about 700 people total – moved back to Arabi, rent-free.
For most employees, their families and their reassembled Domino co-workers were all they had. “His job is still there, but everything else is gone,” Kathy Hearty told one reporter at the time. She’d lost her own job as a teacher after Katrina ravaged the school, but her husband’s job at the refinery and housing in a 28-foot trailer helped her family to return to Louisiana.
“Chateau Domino” enabled a return of other businesses, too. The owner of nearby restaurant, Arabi Po-Boys & Café, remembers getting a call from Domino. “Domino said ‘we’ve got people here, we need you to come back, we want you to come back,’” he told a local reporter shortly after the hurricane. “Their employees have been just a rock solid backbone of our little store.”
Perhaps that call came because members of the SCGC remember being the “little store.” Many of the 53 families in the cooperative overcame their own life challenges before finding success in the sugar industry. Take the Hundley farm that supplies vegetables for Wal-Mart and sugar for shoppers across the country. A far cry from the backbreaking, low-paying work on the Santa Fe Railroad Lloyd Hundley endured before starting the farm in 1935.
Then there’s Noel Shapiro, an immigrant who arrived in the U.S. with nothing and eventually became a successful sugar producers in Florida and SCGC board member.
“We didn’t have two nickels to rub together, just the lint in our pockets,” he said of his family when they arrived in Miami decades ago. Determined to make something from nothing, Shapiro learned English, worked odd jobs and eventually set out to learn to farm. “Necessity makes a great teacher,” Shapiro often says.
“This entrepreneurial spirit and sense of family are what makes the sugar industry great,” SCGC president and an original cooperative founder George Wedgworth has said. “Many of the people came from meager beginnings, but through hard work they built a good life.”
Decades after their meager beginnings, members of the Cooperative were again building good lives—or rather, helping rebuild those of their employees. The decision to focus on people before profit didn’t just get Domino’s business back on-line, it did the same for families.
And if necessity makes a great teacher as Noel Shapiro likes to say, the lesson might have been summed up best on a banner that hung above the refinery doors when Domino’s owners came to Arabi to celebrate the refinery’s reopening: “Tough times never last, but tough people do.”