(Photo by Collin Richie)
“People have often seen things in me that sometimes I didn’t.”
How many siblings do you have?
For the panel moderator asking the question it was meant to be one of those softball, introductory questions asked primarily to relax the panelists. Seldom does anyone really care about the answer. But for Claire Babineaux-Fontenot, then one year into her career at Wal-Mart Stores Inc., the answer isn’t so simple. It’s everything. It’s one that not only defined her life growing up in south Louisiana, but also is an underlying key to her success as a global businesswoman. Which is why she hesitated for a moment before saying:
“I have 107 siblings.”
The story behind her response is one worth telling. It began in Opelousas—in the heart of Cajun country—where Babineaux-Fontenot grew up. She is the granddaughter of sharecroppers, and neither of her parents graduated high school. They didn’t have much in the way of material wealth, but there was an abundance of something greater: a family of incredible heart and size—even by south Louisiana standards, where double-digit sibling counts is somewhere closer to the norm, than the exception.
In 1963, while Warren and Mary Alice Babineaux were pregnant with Claire, their third biological child, they took in two children who were subjected to neglect. From that day, more than 100 children would come through their doors—through adoption, foster care and childbirth. In 2008, her parents were immortalized in the National Adoption Hall of Fame. The annual Warren and Mary Alice Babineaux Award honors their legacy.
Looking back, Babineaux-Fontenot, 53, is keenly aware of how her upbringing shaped her life. As one of 108, she grew up with an appreciation for all walks of life, for inclusion and for understanding—something few learn so early in lives that are increasingly sheltered. And it would prepare her for opportunities to come—as a tax attorney for the state of Louisiana and then law firms in Dallas and Baton Rouge—and ultimately to the position of executive vice president of finance and global treasurer of Wal-Mart, the world’s most profitable company.
As great as that job was, the desire to return home was even greater. Today, Babineaux-Fontenot is back in Louisiana in yet another high-profile role, as an operating partner with Bernhard Capital Partners, the private equity firm launched by Baton Rouge business magnate Jim Bernhard.
The rise from humble beginnings to accomplished executive isn’t a unique one, but doing it as a woman of color from Louisiana makes the story rather remarkable.
Yet if her career proves anything, she says, it’s that no one has meaningful success without help. Babineaux-Fontenot eschews the term “self-made,” saying she’s yet to meet anyone to whom the cliché applies. She credits much of her success to the unique hand she was dealt in life, starting with being born to parents who had the capacity to care for 100-plus children.
“I’ve always known I had it better than I deserved,” she says. “People say, ‘No, you’ve earned everything you’ve got.’ I have worked hard with every opportunity provided, to be sure. But here’s how my calculus worked: Of my 107 siblings, over 95% were subjected to neglect or abuse—did they earn it? Well, if they didn’t earn that, how did I earn being the child of parents I had? I didn’t earn that either.”
BUSINESS BIO: After practicing law in Dallas and Baton Rouge, Claire Babineaux-Fontenot joined Wal-Mart Stores Inc., rising to executive vice president and global treasurer by 2014. Wanting to return to Louisiana, she left the company three years later to become an operating partner at Bernhard Capital Partners. (Photo by Collin Richie)
‘Represent them well’
Babineaux-Fontenot learned from her siblings, who came from a variety of backgrounds and challenging situations, that she started out with advantages in life. She grew up with a plastic spoon in her mouth—not silver—she says, because while they didn’t have money, she was privileged nonetheless.
“I had siblings who were not going to get chances in life that I did, so I had to work hard,” she says. “I have to represent them well.”
The defining moments of her career came when others took those chances on her. They were her mentors and company leaders, who believed Babineaux-Fontenot could achieve more and put her in the positions to do so.
The biggest opportunities came during her time at Wal-Mart. From the day she accepted her first position, her team and responsibilities grew. Within one year, executives at Wal-Mart, including former CFO Charles Holley and CEO Lee Scott, elevated Babineaux-Fontenot to the role of global chief tax officer. They knew she had transferable skills to be effective on the world stage, even though she wasn’t so sure herself at the time.
“I told them I didn’t think I was ready. They said I was wrong,” she recalls. “It marked my career. People have often seen things in me that sometimes I didn’t.”
Even early on in her career as an attorney, Babineaux-Fontenot’s core competencies caught the eye of her superiors. One of her first mentors, Carol Calkins, a fellow Louisianan, still remembers what she saw in Babineaux-Fontenot in the late 1990s when they worked together at the PricewaterhouseCoopers law firm in Dallas.
“Claire had the uncanny ability to grasp a complicated issue, analyze it and turn around the research in short order,” says Calkins, the former national state tax partner-in-charge of the PwC central and southwest regions. “This enabled her to see workarounds to difficult issues that others might not have seen.”
It comes back to the lessons of her childhood. What Babineaux-Fontenot learned growing up in a diverse household transferred into her career, especially at Wal-Mart, where she led teams across 28 countries and worked with a variety of different people and cultures.
But her family will tell you there’s more to her than that. Her 79-year-old father, Warren Babineaux Jr., says that as a child, Claire did not mind hard work, she was “really, really smart” and was always paying attention.
“I’ll never forget when Claire figured out that I was letting her win a game—never,” he says. “She wouldn’t stop crying until I promised I wouldn’t do it again. I knew back then she was different.”
The only trouble he remembers her ever getting into were the times when she stood up for what she thought was right, even if there were repercussions. But, for him, the message was clear:
“I knew she would do well in life,” he says, “but it wasn’t gonna be just about her.”
‘I love this state’
In early 2017, Babineaux-Fontenot decided to leave Wal-Mart after she had a brush with breast cancer, which has since been removed. In announcing her departure, Wal-Mart CFO Brett Biggs commended Babineaux-Fontenot for her significant contributions to the company’s results and her leadership, especially in areas of talent and diversity.
She wanted to move closer to family and pursue a new vocation, which led her back home to the Bayou State, although, she says, she feels like she never really left.
“You know the expression, ‘You can’t take Louisiana out of the girl?’ I haven’t even tried. I love this state,” she says, “I owe everything to the foundation I received here.”
Babineaux-Fontenot is back where her business career began—in Baton Rouge, where she received her law degree from Southern University in 1989 and was partner-in-charge at Adams and Reese in the early 2000s. She and her husband, Barry Fontenot, now split their time between Baton Rouge and Dallas, while their son and daughter are away at college.
In Louisiana, it’s not often the case that when people leave for bigger and better things, they one day come back. Babineaux-Fontenot’s return is a notable exception. She’s adamantly optimistic about Louisiana’s future, so much so that she wants to be a part of it.
After leaving Wal-Mart, Babineaux-Fontenot met with Bernhard through her former Adams and Reese colleague, Jeff Koonce, now the general counsel at BCP.
“I heard of the legend that is Jim Bernhard long ago,” she says. “Not only has he contributed to the success of organizations, but he did it in Louisiana. He’s always chosen to do right by this state.”
Babineaux-Fontenot wants to follow his lead. When she joined BCP in August, Bernhard told Daily Report he looked forward to working with Babineaux-Fontenot because she brings “exceptional business experience” to the team. He declined interview requests for this story.
She also brings much needed diversity to the Baton Rouge business community. In her experience working with teams across the globe, she says, the teams with more voices are the ones that win. But she makes it clear that diverse faces are not there simply for show.
“I am not anybody’s window dressing,” Babineaux-Fontenot told Daily Report while discussing BCP’s decision to increase its diversity.
As an accomplished African-American businesswoman, Babineaux-Fontenot is proof that women and people of color also belong in the C-Suite. And despite Louisiana’s poor track record for women and minorities in business, Babineaux-Fontenot says she believes the state is uniquely positioned and has the innate potential to move ahead of the curve.
“The more that we can translate our natural proclivity toward extending kindness to those we don’t know into extending opportunities to them, the more progress we will make,” she says. “I hope my story moves someone out there to put new players in the game and give them the tools to set them up for success. I’m sure they will see the benefits that I have seen.”