Rising above the storm

Schneider comes back after Katrina

Mark Schneider stands in a warehouse on Laurel Street in Baton Rouge that Schneider Paper, his family’s paper and janitorial distribution company, is now using for excess stock and to “prepare for the future.”

In the weeks after Hurricane Katrina nearly eight years ago, it and another small warehouse were the new location of everything the company had left.

Schneider Paper had called the Union Brewery building in New Orleans’ Ninth Ward home for almost 35 years. The building took on 10 feet of water, the company’s employees were scattered across the South and its future was day-to-day.

“We got banged up bad,” said Schneider, who runs the company with his three brothers. “We were on the ropes.”

Today, Schneider Paper calls midcity Baton Rouge its headquarters. The company is about as big as before the storm, employing about 60 workers and running 10 trucks a day to institutional, industrial and retail customers in south Louisiana, Mississippi and parts of Alabama.

The company, which purchased its main building at 4800 North St. in 2006, just closed a deal on two smaller buildings it had been leasing from Mike DiVincenti. It also opened a “cash-and-carry” wholesale outlet for many of its food service and paper products.

“We’ve been very, very happy in Baton Rouge and the people here have opened their arms to us,” Schneider said. “We were blessed and fortunate, but it took hard work to do it.”

Schneider Paper was founded in 1957 by Tony Schneider, Mark’s father, and moved into the Union Brewery building between the North Carrolton and North Robertson overpasses in 1969 when Mark was a freshman in college. But the nearly four decades the company called the building home came to a sudden end in August 2005, when Hurricane Katrina blew through New Orleans and the levees protecting the city broke.

Schneider evacuated with his family to Houston, then got to work with his father and siblings quickly figuring out how to operate a business that was under water.

Scott Schneider, the company’s sales manager, evacuated to Baton Rouge and had begun looking for warehouse space. He contacted DiVincenti, who owned several available warehouses in midcity after closing Imperial Food Supply in the wake of major customer Piccadilly Cafeterias’ first bankruptcy.

“I came in from Houston, we shook hands and the next day we signed papers and went into two empty buildings,” Mark Schneider said.

But like most New Orleans businesses in the early days of September 2005, Schneider Paper couldn’t be sure what it had for customers and employees. Schneider said guidance came from their father, Tony, who died three years ago.

“Dad said, ‘Order (merchandise), put it in the warehouse. People are going to come back,’” Schneider recalled.

“My dad was the glue that kept us all together,” he said, “because people were really in an emotional state back then.”

Schneider said he and 11 other family members and three dogs were living in a one-bedroom, one-bathroom condo on College Drive.

“I could have just camped out in my car to make it work, but when you’ve got a wife and five kids, it doesn’t operate the same way,” he said.

In the days after the storm, many displaced companies were looking for space of all types — office, industrial, warehouse, residential — and it leased quickly. DiVincenti also leased space and eventually sold the space to New Orleans food wholesaler Lacassagne, which is still near Schneider Paper today.

“I was glad to be able to help them,” DiVincenti said. “I was blessed to be able to find a home for each piece of property I had and help people out.”

The Schneider brothers began finding and taking in their employees and locating customers. They also had to deal with countless difficulties: no file cabinets, all the paperwork in boxes, pest control, a lack of pallets, which they ended up securing with the help of Wal-Mart and Home Depot.

“The things that are just basic things you need for your business,” he said.

One critical item was the company’s main computer with all its records. Schneider said they accompanied a SWAT team as far as the Causeway, then talked them through the flooded building via Nextel units into the main office.

“When I say they ripped the computer out? They really ripped the computer out and brought it to us,” he said.

From there, Schneider Paper began rebuilding the business. The company lost about a third of its inventory in the storm. It salvaged most of the forklift equipment, but all 11 delivery trucks were lost.

“It wasn’t fun; let’s put it that way. It wasn’t fun at all.”

Nevertheless, the company was shipping again in two or three weeks. Schneider said the company spent the ensuing years rebuilding its workforce and leasing additional warehouse space as needed and buying its main building in 2006.

“We put our emphasis on improving our operations and providing the services necessary to our recovering customer base,” Schneider said. “This period was slow, steady and painful for all of us.”

But the new location allowed Schneider Paper to expand, not just eastward, but to the west and north.

Schneider said the move to Baton Rouge works because it can still service its New Orleans and Mississippi clientèle while being more in the center of its distribution footprint. That allows access to new customers in Lafayette and other points west.

“Logistically, I think, this is a better spot in terms of how we’re going to move the business,” he said.

“We’re moving probably a little bit more units than we were moving before the storm,” he said, noting the company doesn’t do as much business in New Orleans primarily because the business base there is smaller.

“The customers we mainly lost were the people who didn’t go back into business,” he said. “Then there were customers that left us because they knew we couldn’t handle it (initially) but came back to us.”

Schneider said about a third of the company’s current employees worked there before the storm, primarily in sales, office staff and management. A lot of them are family.

“We did have a lot of people that made the journey back to us here,” he said. “Some found lodging, some commuted, but after awhile they couldn’t do it anymore.

“Baton Rouge has a good workforce,” he said. “We’ve got some good people here.”

Schneider Paper has high hopes for the cash-and-carry outlet it opened in its main building in December. The company had success with a similar operation in New Orleans and a party supply store in Kenner. Those were total losses.

The company even had a grand opening scheduled for cash-and-carry in Gulfport … the day Katrina hit. That location is no more as well.

Schneider said the retail outlet allows the company and its employees to engage customers face-to-face, as well as raise its profile with the public.

“We’re looking for people to know we’re here because it does help market you,” he said, noting a conference room will become a place where the company can do demonstrations of some of its cleaning machines and products.

“We hope to expand it more and get to where we were when we were in New Orleans. The store did unbelievable,” he said.

Schneider still lives in New Orleans, but stays in a condo in Baton Rouge two nights a week so he can be at the office for much of the week.

“Personally, I was way, way too busy the first two or three years to (miss) anything,” he said. “But I do miss not being home every night. That wasn’t how I was raised, I was raised that you wake up early, you work long and hard and then you come home to your family and I’m not doing that …”

“You know what though? It’s working out,” Schneider reflected further. “I can go back and back and back, but what happened, happened, and I got to go for the present and the future. That’s just the way it works.”

Editor’s note: This story was changed on April 8, 2013, to properly identify the location of the former Union Brewery. The building is between the North Claiborne and North Robertson overpasses.