As a boy in Alexandria, Louisiana, Lane Grigsby grew up with few material resources and without a father present, but with enough verve to ultimately create one of the Gulf Coast’s most influential industrial construction companies. Founded in 1973, Cajun Industries has doubled in size about every five years since it opened, completing more than $2 billion in industrial and public construction projects over its history. Sales reached $476 million in 2014.
Cajun Industries Executive Vice President Milton Graugnard says Grigsby has been a “principled leader” with an eye for opportunities.
“He’s taught everyone in the organization that you do right by the customer. He expects us all to do the honorable thing,” Graugnard says. “We have not necessarily been focused on growth as a primary mission. It’s been a matter of picking up the right opportunities along the way.”
Grigsby graduated from LSU in 1967 with a degree in civil engineering and went to work for Pyburn and Odom Consulting Engineers. But sitting behind a desk performing repetitive tasks didn’t jibe with Grigsby’s affable personality and energetic nature. Bored, he took a job with Crown Builders, a division of Homer Knost Construction Co., as a field engineer in civil construction. It was an important move, Grigsby says, because it opened his eyes to the world of industrial construction.
He started as an estimator, rose to project manager and by 1970 was promoted to executive vice president. About the same time, the company was acquired and became Lurgi-Knost Inc.
However, Lurgi-Knost dissolved by 1973. Grigsby decided that rather than cast about for another company job, he’d start his own construction company.
He named it Cajun Contractors and Engineers Inc. because he had recently completed a project along Bayou Lafourche and had become enamored of the people and culture there, he says. “And somebody told me you never want to name a company after yourself because if it fails, that’s all they think about when they hear your name,” Grigsby adds.
But it didn’t fail. Grigsby, comfortable with sales and motivated by a wife and two children at home, reached out to his many contacts in the industry. He convinced other construction companies to subcontract portions of their projects to him. Working with partner Bob Mixon, whom he later bought out, Grigsby performed the manual labor on the new company’s first few jobs and kept an office in his garage storage room. “We were just getting started, and we did a lot of the work ourselves. But we were able to pay our bills,” he recalls. After a year in business, the company had a net worth of $30,000. By 1976, the partners purchased land on Airline Highway and Highland Road and built a permanent office and warehouse.
In 1977, Cajun was hired to build a sewage treatment plant in the town of Livingston, during which Grigsby faced down an issue that would trigger a passion for civic engagement. Local union laborers protested Cajun’s job since the company was nonunion. Grigsby kept the project alive by pleading with a local union boss, but it motivated him to strengthen the ability of small businesses to work without union intervention.
At the time, a handful of nonunion New Orleans construction companies had started a local chapter of Associated Builders and Contractors, which Cajun and a few other local firms joined. But Grigsby and others wanted a robust ABC in Baton Rouge. In 1980, he co-founded the Pelican Chapter for the Capital Region and has been an active member ever since, serving as chapter president and state president and spending 18 years on the board of directors.
“With ABC, Lane saw an organization that could strengthen the construction world,” recalls Cajun’s current president and CEO, Ken Jacob, who has worked with Grigsby for 35 years. “When he sets his mind to hit a target, he goes all in. He’s a visionary.”
By 1988, Cajun had grown to $50 million in sales. That year Grigsby had the opportunity to buy a book of business from an East Coast industrial construction company that was going under, recalls Jacob. It enabled Cajun effectively to double sales overnight.
“He pulled off a remarkable deal,” Jacob says. “We had enough well-trained people, enough bench strength to get it done.”
Cajun would continue to expand, growing to serve main client bases, the industrial sector and government projects. The company’s four divisions provide industrial construction and maintenance as well as deep-foundation work, marine work, equipment hauling and pipe fabrication.
In the late 1980s, Grigsby would become involved in the first of many political campaigns. Unhappy with the city’s direction at the time, Grigsby, friend Newton Thomas and other prominent businessmen would get behind the mayoral campaign of Tom Ed McHugh. Grigsby continued to participate in politics, notably founding the conservative organization BR Next. Last fall, the political action committee he co-founded, Better Schools for Better Futures, helped influence the outcome of several East Baton Rouge Parish School Board elections.
“Lane is the kind of guy who sets his teeth into an issue,” says Thomas, founder of Newtron Group, an industrial electrical and instrumentation firm. “If he believes in it, then he finds ways of making change happen. It’s a noble mission.”
Grigsby’s professional career and civic activism is threaded with the belief that it’s important to find a fulfilling career and to persist, even when the odds are low.
“The word ‘no’ jumps up in front of everybody,” he says. “You can’t let that stop you. Figure out a way around that obstacle.”