In 1999, John Georges went into the tugboat business. It was unchartered territory for him. Though he had a successful wholesale distribution company and a thriving video poker business, offshore maritime was a totally new ballgame.
But Georges is not one to shy from a challenge and, besides, maritime seemed like an appropriate industry for a successful Greek businessman to tackle.
“All Greeks are in the shipping business,” New Orleans consultant and Georges family friend Danae Columbus recalls him saying at the time.
The business was extremely tough and capital intensive. Though Georges, by his own account, did well with the company—growing market share and making money—he ultimately was unable to compete with the real heavyweights in the industry. Taking them on would have required either devoting all his resources to tugboats, or remaining a niche player, and being a niche player isn’t Georges’ style.
So Georges got out, though not before making what he says was a considerable profit. He sold the operation to Shane Guidry, whose company, Harvey Gulf International Marine, is one of the industry heavyweights. Guidry says he’s not sure his friend actually wanted to get out of the tugboat business, “but it’s hard to compete against Walmart.”
Georges is not one to compete against Walmart, or Shane Guidry or anyone else who puts him at a competitive disadvantage from which he cannot emerge victorious. He is hard-wired to win. Lives for it. Thrives on it. If he can’t be first, he would sooner move on than settle.
His life and career are a testament to that drive and determination. He is among the top 10 convenience store wholesalers in the country. He is the largest video poker operator and distributor in the state. He is the 30th-wealthiest Greek in America. He owns one of New Orleans’ most famous restaurants. He married a woman from one of New Orleans most prominent families. He lives on New Orleans’ most exclusive street.
Now he has taken over one of Baton Rouge’s most important and influential institutions. On April 30, he acquired The Advocate in a deal that cost him somewhere in the neighborhood of $50 million, according to sources, but buys him the prestige that comes from having the title of “publisher” under his name on the daily’s masthead.
In one respect it is a classic Georges’ move, which is to say it is an opportunity for the 52-year-old businessman to prove and challenge himself, to grow a company and take it to the next level, to add another accomplishment to his considerable résumé.
But Georges’ acquisition of The Advocate enables him to do a couple of other things, too. For one, it gives him a chance to take on The Times-Picayune, which trashed him during his failed campaign for mayor of New Orleans in 2010. People in Uptown New Orleans still talk about The Times-Picayune‘s story on Georges that ran during his expensive, high-profile campaign. Like him or not, they say, the story took some unfair swipes at the candidate, and those who know Georges say he and, especially, his wife, Dathel Coleman Georges, were hurt by it.
There’s another thing, though, about owning the largest daily in the state that is far more important to Georges: It gives him a credibility and prestige that neither the wholesale business nor video poker nor politics were ever able to confer. His voice will matter now. His counsel will be sought. He will be courted and schmoozed by every powerful person in the state, sooner or later. What’s more, he will have a forum for his platform should he choose to run again for office. Should he not, he will be in a position to help crown the next king.
It is a win-win, an enviable position, which is where Georges likes always to be—in the driver’s seat, out in front, calling the shots.
“You always want to be a star,” he says. “Not a comet.”
Georges’ work ethic and determination to prove himself came, in part, from his family: first- and second-generation Greek immigrants who pushed hard, worked hard and got ahead fairly quickly. His maternal grandfather, Gus Pelias, came to New Orleans and started Imperial Trading Company, now the core business of Georges Enterprises, in 1916. His father, a fighter in the Greek resistance in World War II, joined the company after marrying Georges’ mother and remained there until his death in 2002.
Dennis Georges rode his kids hard.
“He was the real deal, a task master,” says Columbus, who knows the Georges family from the Greek Orthodox Church, to which John Georges has donated millions. “That’s where John gets his task mastery from. But Mr. Georges was also a very kind and generous man.”
John Georges tells childhood stories that support that assessment.
“He was very strict,” Georges says of his dad. “On Halloween night, we could not go trick or treating. I would have to stay home and be tutored in Greek. Can you imagine? It was surreal.”
Perhaps that is one reason Georges is always so eager to prove that he wasn’t a bookworm or a nerd growing up, despite the strictures placed on him at home. At Sam Barthe School, where he played high school football, he is still proud to say, more than 30 years later, that he hung out with the jocks. Similarly, at Tulane, where he went to college, he belonged to the fraternity that threw the wildest keg parties. His friends today, he says, are the “cool guys.”
But Georges is smart, serious and genetically type A, despite his efforts to convince you otherwise. He always has been. On Saturdays when he was growing up, his father would make the three boys in the family rotate the chores—one would cut the grass, one would deliver the newspapers (the kids shared a neighborhood route), and one could take the day off. Georges, the youngest of the boys and fourth of the five kids, never wanted the off week.
“I would swap with my brothers so I could work,” he says. “I just always liked to work.”
He liked to make money, too, and was a budding entrepreneur early on. His sister, Pam Dongieux, recalls candy sales that were held in the family garage on Saturday mornings.
“He would buy candy with his own money (at cost) from my dad,” she says. “Then he would turn around and sell it to the kids in the neighborhood.”
Georges also spent a lot of time working at Imperial Trading with his father and uncle, and was fiercely loyal to both. Family legend tells that he spent summers and weekends mopping the floors in the warehouse and washing the delivery vans. Perhaps more importantly, he learned the distribution business from the bottom up, and after graduating from Tulane with a degree in business, he went to work at Imperial, where his competitive nature was immediately apparent.
“My dad and uncle had this thing where my uncle would be the first one to the office in the morning to open the doors and my dad would be the last one there at night to lock up,” Georges says. “So I started trying to beat them and would get there before my uncle in the morning and stay until after my dad had left at night.”
It is an anecdote more telling, perhaps, than Georges realizes. What was he trying to prove?
“I wasn’t trying to prove anything,” he says, somewhat baffled by the question. “I was trying to succeed.”
Success came easily. Within his first month on the job, Georges landed a $10 million account for Imperial Trading with Delchamps, then one of the region’s largest supermarket chains. He got the deal by working connections, getting a real estate developer to put him in touch with a regional manager, who helped connect him up to the corporate decision-makers.
It was the first of many deals Georges would nail, but those who know him say negotiating is where he really excels. Todd Trosclair, the LaPlace electrician and businessman who is his partner in Galatoire’s and in Cypress Lakes Country Club at Ormond, says Georges is masterful at putting together deals—then making them happen.
“He’s tough,” says Trosclair, who first met Georges after Hurricane Katrina while doing electrical repair work on Imperial Trading’s warehouse. “But, man, I’m telling you, the guy is fair. He’s the fairest person I know.”
Baton Rouge bankruptcy attorney William Patrick was also impressed by Georges’ negotiating skills when the latter acquired the closed Colonial Country Club in Harahan last year. The deal was complicated and involved wresting the 88-acre property out of foreclosure and away from the powerful Lauricella family of Jefferson Parish.
“Once Georges came in he was quickly able to negotiate a deal because he has the stroke to negotiate something like that,” says Patrick. “He was good to his word, too. Everything he said he was going to do, he did.”
Those traits have served Georges well over the years, and under his leadership Imperial Trading has grown exponentially. It did so not only by aggressively going after new accounts but by taking a mom-and-pop operation to the next level, investing in new technologies, increasing efficiencies, and hiring professionals to do the accounting, marketing and other business-related functions that had previously been handled more informally.
More recently, much of the growth has come through acquisition. In the past five years, Imperial has purchased Union Grocery in north Mississippi, C.D. Fite Company in Atlanta, and Harrison & Co. in Shreveport. The acquisitions collectively have established Imperial Trading/Harrison & Co., as it is now known, as a super-regional distributor with customers in 12 states and more than $1 billion in sales—up nearly 14% over the previous year. That places the company at No. 8 on the list of top 25 convenience store wholesalers in the U.S., according to Convenience Store News, a trade publication.
“Twenty years ago there were a lot more distributors than there are now,” says Joan Fay, editor of Convenience Distribution Magazine, another trade pub. “But a lot of the little ones haven’t survived, and the ones that are left—like Imperial—keep getting bigger and bigger.”
Imperial Trading sits at the center of Georges Enterprises. It is the bread and butter of all of Georges’ business operations and accounts for most of his revenues. But Georges is equally powerful and successful in the video gaming industry. He is both the largest distributor and largest operator of gaming devices in the state, with nearly 1,200 machines throughout Louisiana, according to the Louisiana State Police. His companies also sell devices to casinos and truck stops all over the country.
It’s unclear how much Georges has made from video poker. He says his video gaming revenues are small relative to sales from the wholesale business. Still, that’s millions of dollars a year, and Georges has been in the industry since the beginning. He helped craft the bill that legalized it in 1991.
“He was one of the people who had the foresight to see the value of bringing video poker to the amusement business,” says Alton Ashy, a longtime lobbyist for the video poker industry. “He is one of the small group of people that banded together back in the early 1990s and pushed it through.”
At the time, Imperial Trading had a vending machine company, which it has since sold. Back then, though, the bars and establishments that had Georges’ vending machines proved to be a built-in customer base for his video poker machines. It was an easy way to grow the market, and there was plenty of demand.
“He had an opportunity to try and get the businesses that he was already servicing to put his machines in,” says attorney Jack Capella, who is president of Georges Enterprises. “He was smart enough to make a deal with the manufacturers, and he was willing to take the risk and sell machines before people were buying them, and he was able to build a strong base from which he was able to grow.”
Georges says he has little involvement in video poker today, though he was among the founders of the newly created Louisiana Video Gaming Association, which will focus on lobbying and growing the industry, according to Ashy. Georges also owns the Oasis Truck Stop in Harahan, which does a thriving business and generates welcome tax revenues for the local economy.
“It does really well,” says Harahan Mayor Vinny Mosca. “And it provides us with about $180,000 in tax revenues a year.”
Georges’ friends say it’s unfair to focus on his video poker business. Bill Kearney, one of his closest friends and former business partners, says talking about Georges’ video poker business “is a great injustice and disservice to him.”
But video poker is legal in this state, thanks, at least in part, to John Georges. Why the sensitivity?
“His greatest successes are far beyond gaming,” Kearney says. “He has bought hundred-year-old businesses like Galatoire’s and The Advocate. He has grown Imperial. Those are the things he has done that are worth talking about.”
The sensitivity, of course, stems from the stigma attached to video poker, legal or not. Edwin Edwards summed it up—as only Edwards can—in a jailhouse interview with a New Orleans journalist in 2007, when Georges was running for governor.
“I like Georges,” Edwards said at the time. “He’s running as a businessman, which could be a good thing, except that his business is selling cigarettes, alcohol and gambling machines.”
It was a half-joke, whole-in-earnest kind of remark that helps explain Georges’ discomfort with discussing video poker. That said, his role in the industry is not generally considered among the reasons he lost his $11 million campaign for governor in 2007 or his $4 million bid for New Orleans mayor.
Some say among the reasons was his changing party affiliations. After being a life-long Republican, he became an independent to run for governor and a Democrat to run for mayor.
Georges says he made the first change because he defies pigeonholing and dislikes labels. He says he made the second swap because he, surprisingly, found himself popular with black voters in New Orleans.
“Here I had been a life-long Republican and the Democrats liked me and the African-Americans liked me, and it’s very touching when people support you,” he says. “And you have to be a Democrat to be the mayor of New Orleans.”
Others say the biggest reason for his campaign losses is that he, ultimately, does not have the temperament for politics. The aggressiveness, the swagger, the alpha male tendencies that have proven so effective in the boardroom have not translated as well in the political arena.
“Some people have that ability to connect with the average person and project being the kind of guy you would like to sit down and have a beer with,” says one political consultant. “John does not have that. I don’t think it is for lack of effort. … I just don’t think he has that common touch.”
Georges defends his campaigns and says he is proud of how well he did with voters.
“I got 188,000 votes in the governor’s race and I didn’t have a political party,” he says. “I’m proud of that. But look, for 30 years I’ve been running businesses. For six months I ran for office. Should that define me? I don’t even think about it. I don’t fixate on the past.”
Perhaps not. But he gives off the distinct impression that he still cares. At the news conference announcing his acquisition of The Advocate, he made reference to his losses to Gov. Bobby Jindal, who was standing to his left, and New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu, who was on his right. It was supposed to be a joke, but something about it rang hollow.
“John is very Greek and into all things Greek, and being elected is obviously something he really, really wants,” says one political consultant, who asked not to be identified. “But this is like a Greek tragedy: He can’t have the one thing he really wants because of his Achilles heel: He doesn’t connect with the voters.”
That may help explain why lately Georges has turned his attention to branching out into new arenas, buying country clubs, Galatoire’s and, now, The Advocate. Georges’ advisers say he is not trying to buy access or prestige—he doesn’t need to. Rather, he is buying opportunities.
“It doesn’t matter what the entity is,” says Capella. “John Georges is an entrepreneur who buys businesses. If he sees he can improve something and increase its value, he buys it. If he can’t, he doesn’t.”
Perhaps. But the businesses Georges is buying these days aren’t just investments. They’re institutions in their respective communities. Whatever anyone says, Galatoire’s isn’t just a restaurant and The Advocate isn’t just a newspaper.
Georges says his interest in The Advocate dates back nearly two years, to late summer of 2011. He first floated the idea past tech guru Pete Stewart, a friend and fellow member with Georges of the Young Presidents Organization. Stewart called attorney Charles Landry, who put together a meeting at his office between Georges and the Manships.
“That was really how it started and it never stopped,” recalls Landry. “John was the task master on it. He was determined to keep it going and to make it happen.”
Had the talks begun in 2012, after The Times-Picayune essentially opened the field to competition by scaling back its print publication to just three days a week, Georges’ interest in the deal would be easier to understand. But in mid-2011, The Times-Picayune was the only game in New Orleans, and newspapers around the country were folding because of declining circulation and ad sales.
Why would a New Orleans boy with no experience in publishing want a newspaper—if not, at the very least, to prove something to The Times-Picayune? Georges says nothing could be further from the truth.
“We are not spiteful,” he says of himself and his wife, who will play an integral role in The Advocate. “This is a business opportunity, a business we think we can run well.”
But Georges has also made plain that his business plan calls for increasing circulation of The Advocate in the New Orleans area, where it has already done remarkably well and where he believes growth potential is huge. His top managers, General Manager Dan Shea and Editor Peter Kovacs, are former staffers of The Times-Picayune, and several former writers and editors from the New Orleans daily have also been hired to work in the New Orleans office.
It’s going to be an intense battle for subscribers in the Crescent City, and across southeast Louisiana. While Georges says he doesn’t pay any mind to the competition, you can be sure he will relish the opportunity to go after readers of The Times-Picayune.
“The Advocate is the one newspaper in the country that can actually grow circulation because of the opportunities in New Orleans,” he says.
Given Georges’ track record of success in business, it’s a reasonable bet he will do well with The Advocate, at least in the short term.
“John has the Midas touch in all the business dealings he has been involved with,” says political consultant Karen Carvin. “And people in New Orleans are so mad at The Times-Picayune, they want him to succeed.”
In the long term, the more interesting question is whether he is able to resist the urge to dictate editorial coverage, particularly as it relates to his future political career, should he decide there is one. For now, Georges says he is not even thinking about seeking office again. His focus is on growing a successful business, and he will do what it takes to ensure nothing gets in the way.
“What is most important to me is that the newspaper will tell the truth,” he says.
But what if the truth isn’t pretty? What if the truth is about his campaign?
“I don’t tell the chef at Galatoire’s how to prepare Trout Amandine,” Georges says. “I am like any other newspaper publisher in America. You hire good people, you let them do their job.”