The New Orleans business community isn’t what it used to be. Just ask around. Talk with local business leaders and what you hear in their voices is the intensity and determination of people who are hyper-focused. They exude confidence and stamina and they carry an air of urgency about the need to move ahead.

So how is that different from the stereotypical picture of the driven business owner?
What distinguishes the current crop of local business leaders is that they’re funneling more energy than ever before into something other than their own businesses. Many of the folks who run the companies that employ thousands of New Orleans-area residents are, in fact, now helping to run New Orleans.

Evidence of their involvement appears everywhere from City Council and Levee Board meetings to ethics reform and housing task forces to strategy groups related to health care and public education. Business leaders have been front and center in the workings of the Louisiana Recovery Authority and its committees, not to mention in crime-fighting initiatives and efforts to reform the local criminal justice system. (If you didn’t see the hand of business in the October resignation and “repositioning” of District Attorney Eddie Jordan, your eyes must have been closed.)
This is not to say that civic activism in the business sector is a new or recent phenomenon. Indeed, much of the activity afoot today is rooted in the 1980s efforts of one of the most aggressive business leaders the city has ever known – James “Jim Bob” Moffett, who founded Freeport-McMoRan Inc., and several affiliates. His statewide campaign to reform Louisiana’s tax structure was the basis for founding the New Orleans Business Council, which has remained active and engaged in various political and governmental efforts to this day.

As impassioned as Moffett and his cohorts were in the 1980s, however, rarely if ever have local businesspeople been more poignantly engaged in the community than they are now.

“There’s a sense of urgency to get it right because the margin of error is so slim and if we don’t get it right now, we won’t recover,” says Greg Rusovich, CEO of Agility Project Logistics.

Rusovich, a member of the Business Council, also heads one of its most active spinoff groups, the New Orleans Crime Coalition. The group includes representatives of wide-ranging civic groups including the Urban League, the Metropolitan Crime Commission,  the local Hispanic Chamber of Commerce and the Young Leadership Council. “We meet regularly and devise strategies in the criminal justice system,” Rusovich says. He emphasizes that this and other groups “cooperate fully” with local political leaders.

Recently, he and others journeyed to Washington, D.C., to lobby Congress for money to mend the crippled local criminal justice system. Among other things, the group wants funding for inpatient treatment of alcohol and drug abuse problems. “Drug use is a root cause of crime, so part of our effort is to get court-mandated drug treatment. That’s an example of where the coalition decided it had to deal with some of the social ills, not just the criminal justice system,” Rusovich says.
In fact, the Business Council, which in the past has tended to concentrate its efforts in just a few select areas, these days is spreading its influence and energy across a wide spectrum.

“We’re involved in anything that improves the quality of life,” says Jay Lapeyre, president of Laitram LLC and chairman of the New Orleans Business Council.
Lapeyre, who took the reigns of the council just after Hurricane Katrina, says members of the group agreed that their post-Katrina agenda shouldn’t focus on a particular business sector or a single issue but rather should address the broader environment. “We’re primarily working to create an environment that makes people want to be here,” he says.

To that end, the council chose a host of priorities and named task forces to map out strategies. They looked first at how to better protect lives and property, which led them to focus on flood safety and criminal justice. They also tackled public education, water and sewer issues, housing, and in what some members consider their highest priority, ethics reform.

In each case, the task forces reached into the community to enlist help from diverse organizations, ranging from levee boards and the Army Corps of Engineers, to universities, other business groups, nonprofits and citizen groups such as the Alliance for One Good Government.

“This is an extraordinary time in the history of New Orleans, and what we’re saying is, if we’re going to stay, we have to improve the city. Otherwise it’s not a good decision to stay,” Lapeyre says. “We know that we have to give this our best shot.”
Business Council member David Voelker echoes the thought. “You only have a narrow window, after a disaster, to convince people that [this is] a good place to live. We’ve spent a mountainous amount of time on this but I think people are beginning to see the light at the end of the tunnel – and they know it’s not a freight train heading at them.”

Voelker, of Frantzen Voelker Investments in New Orleans, played a key role in brokering the deal that enabled the replacement of New Orleans District Attorney Eddie Jordan. He also is a board member of the Louisiana Recovery Authority.
“There were times in the past few years when I’d say 50 percent of my day was dedicated to state and city matters,” Voelker says. Like his colleagues, he considers it a matter of necessity.

“New Orleans has a long fight ahead of it, but I’m very positive about the future of this city,” he says. “I’m one of those people who’s never going to leave, so I fight to save the city I love. I have a lot of faith in New Orleans and I know it’s going to be great.”