Paul McIlhenny looks, acts and lives the part of a CEO whose family has built a huge business on millions of small bottles of Louisiana pepper sauce. Clad in a checkered shirt and fleece vest, his attire says south Louisiana casual. His manner, too, is typically laid-back: “Did you hear the one about Boudreaux and Thibodeaux driving their pickup through New Orleans ...”
But in the mahogany boardroom, lined with richly colored photographs of the company’s signature product, it’s impossible to forget that this is a man focused on business.
“We bottle four full days a week, night and day,” McIlhenny says of the company’s Avery Island manufacturing plant that produces the world-famous Tabasco brand pepper sauce. “We can bottle over three-quarters of a million bottles a day, and often do ... and we distribute to over 120 countries.”
As the sixth chief executive of the company that his grand pere Edmund McIlhenny founded in 1868, Paul McIlhenny, 62, has concentrated on finding ways to put Tabasco® on more tables and grocery shelves around the globe.
His focus since taking charge in 1998 has been on product marketing, and he’s excited about a new sweet-and-spicy pepper sauce that’s soon to be released. However, the marketing effort has gone way beyond pepper sauce. McIlhenny Company has a 40-page catalog offering dozens of products including Tabasco brand steak sauces and marinades as well as clothing, kitchenware and household accessories.
McIlhenny has also extended his corporate leadership role into the environment that houses his business and the more than 200 people employed by the company.
Louisiana’s vanishing wetlands, for example, rank high among his concerns. Appointed in 2002 by then-Gov. Mike Foster to the new Governor’s Advisory Commission on Coastal Restoration and Conservation, McIlhenny picked up a role his mother had begun years earlier as an advocate for wetlands restoration.
“The Avery-McIlhenny family owns a good bit of acreage in south Iberia Parish, so that’s one of my constituencies on that commission,” he says. “And since [hurricanes] Katrina and Rita, we’ve got the focus of Congress and many others on coastal restoration. It might be the only good thing that came out of the storms.”
In the past year McIlhenny also has worked at restoring some of the luster south Louisiana lost as a Mecca for indigenous food and great dining after the hurricane. Teaming up with the Southern Foodways Alliance based in Oxford, Miss., he has helped coordinate major events that bring top food writers together to eat and offer up stories about their personal experiences with food and restaurants along the South’s “gumbo trail.”
“They’re beginning to compile an oral history of food writers all over the country who have anecdotes about local food,” McIlhenny says. The McIlhenny Company has sponsored parties for the writers in New Orleans, New York City, N.Y., and San Francisco, Calif., each showcasing Louisiana chefs.
A self-described optimist and a goodwill ambassador for Louisiana, McIlhenny says one of his most rewarding roles of the past year was one that required a costume. The fourth-generation New Orleanian learned last fall that the Krewe of Rex had selected him to reign over Carnival 2006. As King of Carnival, McIlhenny got a chance to use the honor to leverage his hopes and strong feelings for Katrina-battered New Orleans.
“It’s a place like no other, and people outside need to understand that people here work very hard, but it’s also important to us to have a good time. Having grown up in New Orleans, I took the position that Mardi Gras is in our blood, that it was going to happen,” he says.
Autumn months lure McIlhenny to Canada to hunt geese and ducks. In January he hunts doves in Argentina, and throughout the season he hunts ducks in Louisiana. Recently, as he prepared for a business trip to England, he also laid plans to spend a few days stalking pheasants and partridges before returning home.
“I just love wing-shooting, it’s a real passion,” he says. “And I love to cook everything we shoot.”
He generally wraps up the season with a wild turkey-shoot – then he grabs his fishing rod. His favorites: redfish and speckled trout fishing in the marshes south of New Orleans.
Hopeful as he is about the future of south Louisiana, McIlhenny is anxious to see its recovery from the hurricanes move faster. Asked if he has any advice for those still struggling, he offers a French expression, prendre courage (take courage). Then he notes that in Cajun country the expression more likely would be, ne lache pas le patat.
“Literally, it’s ‘Don’t drop the hot sweet potato,’ but figuratively, it means, ‘Hang in there,’” he says.
Then, with a chuckle he adds: “If we lache pas le patat, then maybe we can laissez le bon temps rouler.”