Photography courtesy Olinde family
2017 Baton Rouge Business Awards and Hall of Fame
HALL OF FAME • J.B. OLINDE
At the end of life, some men are known as brilliant leaders. Some earn the title of great family men. And others leave their mark professionally—as successful businessmen.
The late Joseph Beauregard Olinde Sr. was all three.
“He was a guy who was the oldest of seven in his family and was a natural leader,” says son Tom Olinde, who worked with his dad at Olinde’s Furniture for nearly 40 years. “He really valued family, and with seven kids of his own to take care of, he was lucky that he was able to find a really good balance. I know a lot of successful businessmen who sacrificed their families to be that successful and were miserable. Dad had this great ability to compartmentalize. When he worked, he worked, and when he was home, he was home.”
J.B. Olinde, his nickname professionally and among friends, was born in 1924 in New Roads to a family with deep Louisiana roots. He grew up in a house on Main Street, where he and his six siblings were birthed in the front room. His family ran a commissary store that began in 1865 as a post-Civil War one-stop-shop, selling everything from food to overalls.
As the oldest, Olinde excelled at everything he did. He lettered in basketball, was president of his senior class and editor of the school paper. He was a Boy Scouts senior patrol leader, won a scholastic medal and eventually graduated as valedictorian from Poydras High School (now Julien Poydras Museum and Cultural Center).
“He was very, very bright,” says his son, Dr. Andrew Olinde. “Dad read two books per week and had a photographic memory, so he could remember everything he ever read and tell you about it.”
His smarts landed him a full scholarship to LSU in 1941, where he briefly pursued a business administration degree and received early accolades, including freshman honor society. But two years later, his education was interrupted when he volunteered for the U.S. Army and left for Europe to fight in World War II.
Though he was just 19 years old and far from his south Louisiana home, his leadership abilities shined. He was commissioned second lieutenant and was a heavy weapons infantry company commander in combat in Germany. He garnered many awards for his bravery, including campaign and battle ribbons, two Bronze Stars and a Combat Infantry Badge.
But he also lost a lot of friends in the war.
“He spent six months in combat,” says Tom Olinde. “He saw a lot of guys killed in front of him. And it left an impression on him. It colored his whole life. I asked him one time what it would be like if the war continued, and he said, ‘I would be dead.’”
Olinde stayed in Europe for another year after the war ended before returning to finish his degree at LSU in 1946. Three years later, he graduated from LSU’s law school in a distinguished class that included former Gov. Edwin Edwards. His voracious reading and attention to detail showed in his writing. He wrote daily letters to his family when he was serving in Europe, and years later when his grandchildren found those letters and shared them with friends, his writing engaged everyone.
“He could write in words that were so descriptive that even though it was a big war, he made you want to be there,” says Verlin Wickel, an executive secretary who has worked for the Olinde family for the last 16 years. “He just used these great adjectives to describe what he saw.”
During law school, Olinde met his wife, Margery Ogden Johnson Olinde. She was an undergraduate at the time. She called him “B.” He called her “Tyke.”
They married and started their lives together. Olinde’s law career could have been as decorated as his military service. He may have even become a U.S. Supreme Court justice, friends and family say. But shortly after graduating from law school, his father became sick with cancer and Olinde took over the family business.
“He never said, ‘I wish I did something else,’” says son Andrew Olinde. “He would’ve been a great lawyer, but he was happy doing what he did. He liked it.”
B. Olinde’s & Sons evolved from commissary items to furniture and appliances, and Olinde became a successful retailer. Awards denoting years of success fill the walls and shelves of the second-floor conference room in the Olinde’s Airline Highway furniture store.
And it’s not surprising, close friends say.
“He was a true southern gentleman, a good business man, a good father,” says Dr. Richard Hill, who met Olinde 45 years ago when they both began serving on the board of Baton Rouge Bank. “He was fair with everyone and knew what was going on in the business community. He worked up until he died, and he was good at everything he did.”
Olinde built the 110,000-square-foot retail store on Airline Highway in 1986, and the business flourished and continues to do well. His son Tom is now the president of Olinde’s Furniture, running 12 retail stores in southeast Louisiana, including eight Ashley Furniture stores. Along with his dad’s early ingenuity, Tom’s commitment to the family business is the reason for the company’s success, colleagues say.
“J.B. was a planner,” says friend and business associate Edward Kispler, a retired General Electric regional salesman who met with Olinde weekly for 22 years. “He was very organized. Everything had its place and everything was planned out to the Nth degree. I would see him every Tuesday morning for an hour. That was my day. I didn’t have another day. I was going to see him that day.”
During Olinde’s tenure, the store not only sold appliances and furniture, it also distributed beer and beverages, and introduced a “no interest” opportunity for customers. And Olinde was an integral part of the community. He served on bank boards and furniture dealer associations. He walked the floor of his business, hands clasped behind his back, chatting with customers and strategizing innovative business plans. He even created advertisements for newspapers to promote sales.
“He was a good salesman and very confident,” says Tom Olinde. “He was a smart guy, ethical and honest and treated people the right way. I remember one of his friends saying that it was a shame such a brilliant and legal mind was relegated to selling washers and dryers. But he didn’t see it that way. Once he started doing it, he liked it, and he was innovative.”
As his business grew, so did his family. The Olindes built a home in 1958 on three acres of land on Pikes Lane, where they raised seven children: Four boys and three girls. Olinde worked just as hard at home as he did at his store. He read to his children, helped with homework, pitched baseballs and fielded ground balls in the front yard—and he didn’t bring work home with him.
“When he checked out of there, he left it there,” says oldest son, Joseph B. “Beau” Olinde Jr. “He was not a worrier. He valued family time. When he was with us, he was with us. When he got to work, he worked. He had this unique ability to turn it off. “
He taught his children values. He sent them to Catholic school through eighth grade for a good religious and moral compass, and then sent them to public high school to learn how the real world works. And even though he sold riding lawnmowers, he did not have one at home. Instead, his sons were tasked with push mowing the family’s three acres.
He kept writing. When his children left home, he wrote them letters daily.
“When I was in college, he wrote me every day,” says Beau Olinde. “But I wasn’t so good about writing back, so I would get letters from him with a self-addressed stamped envelope and a letter with a bunch of boxes to check like ‘Are you alive? Are you married? Are you doing well at school?’ Just really funny stuff, but he made his point, and I got better about writing back to him.”
As his children grew alongside his business, Olinde made it a priority to keep in touch, writing to them and calling each one on the weekends. They became successful adults, graduated from college and had their own children, who in turn had their own children. When Olinde died in April 2015 at age 90, he left behind a wife of 66 years, seven children, 21 grandchildren and 18 great-grandchildren. In January, Tyke passed away. She was 88.
Kispler says Olinde’s organizational skills, along with his genuineness, made him a successful business owner and a fantastic family man.
“There were no pretenses. When you met him, you knew him. He was who he was,” says Kispler. “And as a businessman, he did the same things everyone else did, but he just did it better. Because he was a lawyer by education, he had a well-trained mind. And he kept his family organized. He may not have had the quantity of time with his kids, but he made sure he had quality time with them.”