E.J. Ourso loved building his company—the successful entrepreneur made 56 acquisitions over 48 years—but the business associates who knew him best say he also experienced great joy from sharing his success with others. Business Report and Junior Achievement will honor Ourso posthumously at the 2019 Business Awards and Hall of Fame gala March 20.
Ourso was the founder of Security Industrial Insurance Company, better known as Security Plan. Over the years, in addition to insurance companies, Ourso acquired funeral homes, cemeteries and flower shops—all related businesses that he understood well. In 1996, he sold it all in a deal valued at approximately $180 million. At the time, the insurance company had more than $1 billion of life insurance in force.
A great deal of Ourso’s fortune has been donated to charity. Ourso and his wife, Marjory, formed the E.J. and Marjory B. Ourso Family Foundation and donated almost $6 million to the fund. The Oursos contributed $15 million to the LSU College of Business Administration, which resulted in the renaming of the business school and the establishment of the Marjory B. Ourso Center for Excellence in Teaching.
Ourso also felt called to give to religious organizations. He donated $1 million to found the Catholic Aged Religious Endowment, a retirement program for Catholic priests and nuns. Money was also provided for the Archdiocese of New Orleans, St. Michael’s Special School, Ascension Catholic Diocesan Regional School and Ursuline Academy, along with numerous other Catholic and religious institutions.
“He had a special affinity to these charities. He wanted to leave a legacy,” says Jesse Arboneaux, president and CEO of the foundation. Arboneaux began his career in 1973 working with Security as a junior accountant. He was a recent college graduate with a semester of teaching experience when Ourso gave him a job.
He describes how Ourso grew up in the small south Louisiana town of Donaldsonville. Despite amassing such a substantial fortune, Ourso never had an interest in working in an upscale office building or carrying a fancy briefcase. In fact, Arboneaux says Ourso became irritated when an associate repaired the leather strap that had fallen off of his old briefcase, which Ourso called “Old Lucky” and carried to every acquisition. “He prided himself in being a poor country boy,” Arboneaux says.
BUSINESS BEGINNINGS: E.J. Ourso launched Security Industrial Insurance Company from this Donaldsonville office building, and his office decorations always reminded him to “think” and to always keep acquiring companies.
Ourso started developing his business sense at a young age. As a young child during the Great Depression, it was necessary that Ourso contribute to the family’s grocery budget. He volunteered to clean out attics, hauling away any scrap paper, iron and wire he found and selling the materials to make extra money.
Ourso’s mother also volunteered him to help his uncle sell off 700 Rhode Island Red chickens. Ourso took to the streets of Donaldsonville, with a dozen live chickens at a time hung around his neck. He would knock on doors and tempt housewives with the image of a freshly roasted chicken on the dinner table that night. While Ourso’s uncle had agreed to give him 25 cents per chicken sold, Ourso offered to wring the chicken’s neck and pluck it for a few cents more. He considered the extra change he made from this arrangement his own. “He credited those experiences with giving him the drive and the know-how to be a successful entrepreneur,” Arboneaux says.
Ourso’s career in insurance and funeral homes was not what he originally set out to do. He entered LSU in 1940 with plans to major in journalism and become a sports correspondent. Before he could complete his education, he was called for active duty in World War II, where he attained the rank of captain. Shortly after returning home from the war, Ourso’s father died, leaving Ourso with the responsibility of taking over the funeral home business his father had owned, as well as providing for his mother, younger brother and sister.
Ourso knew very little about business, so he started reading books that explained important business concepts. While Ourso ran the funeral home, his mother set up a flower shop one block away. “He was a voracious reader. He used to pride himself on reading a book a day,” Arboneaux says, adding that in the later years “he had people running the business for him, but he was the visionary.”
In 1947, Ourso married Marjory Barbier, whom he had met before the war. In less than five years, the couple had five children, and Ourso needed to earn enough money to feed and clothe them. Rather than work at the business his father had left behind, the couple scraped together $10,000 to launch their own funeral home and burial insurance business, with money Ourso had saved from his Army pay and from Marjory selling some shares of Sears, Roebuck and Company stock.
“She was a stay-at-home mom, but she was the rock behind Mr. Ourso,” Arboneaux says of Marjory Ourso. “She was a reassuring pillar. When he would go home distraught or when he tried to make an acquisition and he didn’t get a loan, she was his comfort.”
Ourso founded Security Industrial Insurance Company in 1948, selling insurance for the services he provided at his funeral home. To make it affordable for the people of Donaldsonville, who were still recovering from war, he sold the policies on an installment plan of a nickel per week, wearing out the soles of his shoes as he walked the route to collect the premiums each week.
“The less fortunate in our society had to have the means to bury their family members,” Arboneaux says. Ourso made it manageable for them by charging a small weekly sum rather than a much larger single payment every three or six months.
In Ourso’s book, “Dreaming Impossible Dreams, Reflections of an Entrepreneur,” published in 2001, Ourso describes a low point in business where he had a cash reserve of only $1.25. The Department of Insurance wanted to shut him down. Instead, Ourso opted to forgo his $250 a month salary for three months. To feed his growing family, Ourso bought several sacks of potatoes and the family ate them without complaint.
As a reminder of those sparse years, Cathy LeBlanc, Ourso’s longtime personal secretary, says there is a one-dollar bill and a quarter in a frame hanging on the wall in the conference room of the foundation’s office. LeBlanc now serves as secretary of the foundation. “He built it back up. He didn’t give up,” LeBlanc says.