This interview was conducted by Patty Rasmussen, an Atlanta-based freelance writer. She spent 12 years covering the Atlanta Braves for ChopTalk Magazine and has written for Major League Baseball publications, Georgia Trend magazine, WebMD and Blue Ridge Country.
Eight years after the devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina, the city of New Orleans is standing tall again, due in part to business owners like Marian Pierre, founder and CEO of Crescent Guardian, Inc. Pierre founded Crescen in 1993, the first woman in the state to start a security company.
With remarkable tenacity, hard work and a network of supportive friends, Pierre grew Crescent Guardian into a multi-million dollar company, employing over 1,500 people by the time Katrina swamped the city. The storm destroyed her home and her business, but Pierre refused to throw in the towel and leave, choosing instead to rebuild.
She turned Crescent Guardian into much more than a supplier of security guard services. Crescent Guardian offers advanced technological and electronic security services including Internet protocol (IP) video surveillance, radio frequency identification (RFiD) tracking, asset management and video analytics for commercial and governmental entities. In addition to the headquarters in New Orleans, the company now has three offices in Atlanta, Dallas and Boston.
Crescent Guardian is a certified Woman-Owned Small Business and Minority-Owned Business. The company has earned numerous awards including New Orleans’ Small Business of the Year in 2000. Pierre was twice-named Woman of the Year in New Orleans City Business (2007 and 2012), received the Parren J. Mitchell Entrepreneur of the Year Award in 2008 and is a member of Women in Public Policy (WIPP).
Womenetics: How did you get involved in security? It must be a male-dominated field.
Marian Pierre: It is. I worked in city government for many years and while there worked for Joseph Giarrusso, the president of the city council who started the first security company in the state of Louisiana, Giarrusso Security Services. He was also the former Chief of Police. [Through him] I was always involved in security matters. I came to know a lot about security, so it seemed like a natural progression when I left city government to go into the business.
Womenetics: Did you have previous experience owning a business?
Pierre: I had a Mary Kay business, a beverage outlet store and a nightclub all going on when I was working for the city council.
Womenetics: How did you start Crescent Guardian Inc.?
Pierre: First I came up with the name; Crescent for the “Crescent City” (New Orleans), Guardian meaning secure. I had a friend who worked for a law firm, Adams and Reese. I told him I didn’t have any money, but if he would do my corporation paperwork for me I would pay him as soon as I got the money. He agreed. I borrowed $50 from another friend and went to the one-stop shop at the World Trade Center to get my name incorporated. Another friend owned a building. I called her and asked if she had any space she could let me use. She let me have a rarely-used office.
At the time, gaming was coming to Louisiana. I met with the people at Harrah’s [casino], explained what I did, who I was and my experience level. I bid on the contract and, lo and behold, they hired me. I would work at night as a security guard and during the day I solicited business. I was unable to get a loan, but I continued to bid on projects.
A project came up for the Sewerage and Water Board of New Orleans. I bid on that contract and got it but didn’t know how I was going to support it. My friend, who gave me the space, came to my office to congratulate me on the contract. I told her I might not be able to do it because the deal required uniforms, a cash bond – money I didn’t have. Later that day she called to tell me she’d give me the money to take the bid and that I could just pay her back when I could. I told her I’d give her 10 percent on her money and no one was giving 10 percent – this was 1993.
I got the uniforms, and every day I went out and looked for people to work. I needed 56 people to even start the contract. Every day I rode around, passed out leaflets, interviewed people, while still working at night. My son came out of the military that same year, and he helped too. He put together the scheduling, and we got it going.
Womenetics: From that point on it was grow time for you?
Pierre: Yes, God was showing us so much favor. We started getting contracts left and right: the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Coast Guard, Hansen’s Disease Center, the Social Security office and post office. We were growing by leaps and bounds. Everything was totally paid for, and then here comes Katrina.
Womenetics: Hurricane Katrina all but destroyed your business when it hit in August 2005. Tell us about your emotions and some of the situations you dealt with as that played out – the storm and immediate aftermath.
Pierre: I was angry. I asked, “How could this happen to me?” I stood outside my building, crying, as I watched stuff floating down the street. I was almost ready to give up, and then I got mad. I wasn’t going to let this beat me. I was going to find a way to get started again.
I started searching for my clients. The Sewerage and Water Board was (temporarily relocated) to Baton Rouge. I called on them to find out when we could come back. We were still doing business in some places like the state Capitol and grounds. I was on my way back to New Orleans from Dallas, Texas, the day after the storm and got a call from a friend in Washington, D.C. They told me that Chase needed to get into New Orleans to get their monies out of their banks and asked if I could help them. I told them I could and then called a friend who worked in law enforcement. I explained what I needed, and he got some former state police officers together to take Chase into the city to help them.
The banks were closed, but thank God I believe what my mom always told me about saving money: Always have cash you can put your hands on. I had to meet payroll that Friday after the storm, but I was able to do it with the cash I had on hand until my clients were able to pay me. Remember, the storm happened close to the end of the month, and our clients hadn’t even received the billing. I had to re-bill everyone.
I lived in my car and was lucky enough to get some office space in the Central Business District. My people started calling me back, letting me know where they were and telling me they wanted to come back. They had no place to stay. I ended up buying a house, making it nothing but bedrooms. As some moved out, we’d bring in others.
It was a challenging time. I knew I couldn’t let it beat me. My sons were telling me to let it go, just move to Dallas and do something there. But my heart was here, I didn’t want to leave New Orleans.
Womenetics: What was it about New Orleans that was so meaningful to you?
Pierre: The culture, the people, the fact that this is my city, and I wanted to be a part of helping it come back. There’s nowhere else I want to live.
Womenetics: You had grown from you knocking on doors to 1,500-plus employees when Hurricane Katrina hit. How has Crescent Guardian changed since then?
Pierre: We were moving into electronic security in 2005. That was my vision. I wanted a company that had a holistic approach to security, electronics plus physical security. We were just at the pivotal point of trying to change our company into that model when the storm hit.
It’s been eight years now, and we’re at 200 employees. We brought aboard some good electronic people, like [Vice President] Ray Cavanagh from Boston whose background was in electronic security. We’ve put together a good electronic security team, the type of team I wanted. We were able to secure the Port of Fourchon based on our security model with our partner BRS Labs in Houston, Texas. We’ve gotten traction with companies that understand you have to couple electronic security with physical security. We call ourselves the security company that never blinks. I think we’re on the right track to get where we need to go.
What I’m most proud of are my people. They wanted to see this work, too. Without them, we couldn’t have done it.
Womenetics: What sort of advice do you give to women entrepreneurs who are building a business in a male-dominated field?
Pierre: Never give up and understand that if you know your business, that’s something someone can’t take away from you. If you know your business, people will recognize it when you open your mouth, and it won’t be as hard.
Womenetics: Describe some of the ways you give back to your community.
Pierre: The major objective of Women Organized Mobilized for Empowerment Now (W.O.M.E.N.), the nonprofit I started along with some other women, is to empower women.
We’re political – we support political candidates. We’re educational – we support young women by helping them navigate the maze of how to apply for college, funding and those sorts of things. We mentor them.
But my company is also engaged in giving back. Instead of us giving gifts to each other at Christmas, we adopt a family and provide everything they need for Christmas. We partner with the Children’s Defense Fund (CDF) and mentor 25 young boys through high school. They’re able to go to a tutoring program offered by the CDF, and we take them to different experiences, NFL games, NBA games. It’s great to see their eyes light up, even for the smallest things you do for them.