AVERY ISLAND — From his formative days stocking shelves at the Tabasco commissary on Avery Island to today as he steps into his new role as the eighth president and CEO of the McIlhenny Co., Harold Osborn has seen family as one of the company's greatest strengths.
In the company's 150-year history, every president and CEO has been a member of the McIlhenny family and many have worked on Avery Island throughout their lives. Osborn stamped prices on canned goods, dug ditches and worked in the factory bottling Tabasco sauce before going to college, working on his own, returning to Avery Island and years later being named to the top position at his family's business earlier this month.
"I was the lowliest of the low and I loved it," Osborn said. "It gave me a real understanding of everything we do here and what has made this company so great over the past 150 years. Of course, I think it's very important to work your way up through the company because I also think it provides integrity and institutional knowledge. While most companies prohibit this kind of family connection, we embrace it."
Osborn said this also lets his employees, the majority of whom are multigenerational McIlhenny employees, know that their boss is familiar with their concerns and ideas because he's been there. While most large companies look at the bottom line, he said, McIlhenny tries to "live what we do."
"I think the McIlhenny Co. would like to keep it very family oriented," said Coy Boutte, a fourth-generation employee and manager of the aging warehouse. "They've been here six generations, and they have families who have been working here just as long making Tabasco sauce for them. I think they really like and appreciate seeing that family bonding in a company.
"I think there are some advantages of it, like I personally know the CEO and the VPs of the company. You get to see them, they walk around the island, you talk to them. I think that's a big advantage."
Many children of McIlhenny employees and family members spend summers working on Avery Island when they are old enough. This helps build connections for the next generation to the company and with one another whether they hoe peppers in the fields or run the entire corporation.
Michael Terrell, vice president of finance and chief financial officer and a fourth-generation employee, said he believes the summer work program helps build the relationship for not only the business and employees but also Avery Island and the environment.
The family's dedication to treating employees like family has been an asset and Terrell said he believes it has helped lead to the success the Tabasco brand has seen over its century and a half in business.
"I think it's a reflection of the entire family's philosophy of thinking about things in the long run," Terrell said. "I think it's been a wonderful way to have continuity with the people here. A lot of the processes and traditions that go into the production of the sauce is a reflection of that consistency and continuity.
"It's not to say that the company has not brought in outsiders, because as the world around us changes, we need the expertise. But having several multigenerational families does bring that historical perspective and continuity into how we manage the business."
McIlhenny has just over 220 employees, and Osborn said the connections to their history, family and their employees' families gives them a sense of pride for the company that sets them apart from other major worldwide businesses. That familial connection also drives Tabasco to continue being produced in Louisiana as the family's roots are in south Louisiana.
“Tabasco is sold in 197 countries and territories, so we have to send seeds from Avery Island to farms we’ve worked with for generations where they can be grown year-round,” said John Simmons, senior manager of agriculture and sixth-generation McIlhenny family member. “Our CEO and the family selects the seeds to be sent to the farms so (the McIlhenny family) still has a hand in almost every part of making Tabasco.”
The company's connection to Louisiana, its people and its environment are also a major part of the company's belief in sticking with those roots.
The company owns 200,000 acres in Vermilion Parish it uses to manage and develop new innovations for medium to small landowners to protect and bring back the marshland in order to help restore the land and protect against hurricanes and other major storms. Avery Island was even named to the National Register of Historic Places last year.
However, the company must grow and change with the times while holding onto that legacy and family connection, which is a balancing act Osborn said he's prepared to take on. He said he wants to build on the success of the past seven presidents, continue to create new flavors through the company's Flavor Lab and deal with the opportunities that face the company in an ever-evolving and more complicated business world.
Yet, with all the changes such as a bevy of new sauces or distribution around the world and even beyond to the International Space Station, Osborn said he believes the company's founder, Edmund McIlhenny, would be proud of what's been done with his hot sauce.
"I think he'd be proud of what we're doing and that we've maintained the tradition and standards he put in place," Osborn said. "He loved food and was very meticulous in the way he made the cause, and we've changed that very little. We're still sticking to his recipe. I also think he'd be very happy that the company has maintained our Louisiana roots and of what we've done with conservation and coastal restoration because those were particularly important to him as well."
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