Sherry Latour, the owner of Tops Appliances and Cabinetry, joins Discover Lafayette to discuss her career journey and how she came to offer a Business Accelerator and resources to many small business owners.
Sherry Latour bought Top’s 12 years ago, after retiring in a sound fiscal position. She had previously worked as the CEO of a $100 million oilfield service company owned by entrepreneur Eddie Soileau, who also built one of his companies, Sunland Construction, into the largest merit (non-union) pipeline contractor in the U.S.
Sherry’s business acumen has been gained on the job. She entered the workforce right after graduating from high school with a 4.0. While she took accounting classes in high school, she took a few courses thereafter but did not pursue a degree. “I just didn’t think I could pull off college, wanting to focus on family and having children.”
It was Eddie Soileau of Sunland who ended up mentoring Sherry and hired her as CEO of one of his companies. She had the opportunity to “dive deep, evaluate every system, and make it as clean and efficient as possible, adding value to its selling price. Once the company was sold to a private equity company, I worked to help merge with other companies the equity firm owned, got it compliant to go public, while growing. After we went public, I remained a few more years.”
She was 45 years old when she moved on. While she considered retirement, Soileau counseled her, “You’re not the type of person to retire.” So she looked for a company to buy and Tops fit the bill as it had all the elements she was looking for: “solid employee and customer base, good products to sell.”
Many people know Tops as the store on Johnston Street that sells appliances and cabinetry. TOPS has been in business for over 70 years.
Our interview focuses on what is going on both within and outside of the Tops building. Sherry not only sells high-end appliances but houses fifteen growing businesses. She has formed a business and mentoring community at TOPS to help small businesses thrive as they navigate start-up challenges or are looking for a more meaningful space to conduct business.
When Sherry purchased Tops, her immediate thought was business and not the sheer size of the property (64,000 square feet downstairs and 18,000 in the mezzanine) situated on 3.6 acres. One business that had previously been housed in Tops didn’t survive the economic downturn after the BP oil spill and the drilling moratorium. So she looked for other businesses that might want to utilize the space.
Today, inside Tops are construction-related businesses such as Architectural Windows & Doors and Brian S. Guidry Builders. Also found at TOPS are April Guillory Designs, and The Unconventional Dietician, Daphne Olivier, who holds cooking classes in TOPS’ live showroom. Cajun Crate, an eCommerce business that ships Louisiana non-perishable food products and Cousins Smokehouse is also housed in TOPS. You will also smell the heavenly waft of products created by Charlie and the Peanut Butter Factory as you walk in the store, along with the delicious Pies created by Acadian Slice! You won’t want to miss the lush offerings of Ginger Sprout Plant Co.’s offerings!
The relationships she has built with the entrepreneurs began organically through her work with Daphne Olivier, The Unconventional Dietician, who assisted Sherry in putting on cooking demos to help sell appliances. Daphne then introduced Sherry to Boyer Derise of Good Eats Kitchen, with whom she became a friend and consultant for his business. She poured over his business records and got his accounting straight, a task she loves. “I worked for food,” Sherry kids.
Derise was mentoring two other chefs in his small kitchen and had outgrown capacity. So Sherry built a commercial mixing kitchen in an unused space at Tops. Things developed quickly as she then met Tara Guidry of Cajun Crate, who introduced her to the owners of Cousins Smokehouse. The real growth was spurred by a call from the late Hammy Davis who said he was closing the Food Hub in North Lafayette and offered his help if she wanted to build one, which is now built and dubbed “The Cultivation Kitchen.” This state-approved facility now affords emerging food entrepreneurs the opportunity to operate legally as they grow their product line and market.
Sherry has always had a side consulting business to help others; she has a “Sherlock Holmes” approach to forensic accounting. Her consulting fees are typically less than what she ends up saving her clients by cutting insurance costs, finding opportunities for tax refunds, and incorporating efficiencies in operations. With the COVID disruption of supply delivery, Sherry has encouraged her tenants to begin ordering supplies sufficient to last for six or twelve months, in lieu of their typical practice of ordering one month at a time; this not only saves money but ensures having needed supplies on hand for order fulfillment. She also recommends technologies that help streamline business operations in ways small business owners may not be aware of.
The last thing most entrepreneurs want to do is dive into their accounting. She helps small businesses, who are mainly staffed by the sole owner, tweak their processes. As she speaks, you can see her eyes light up “I can get an insight into their company. I can listen to their dreams and make suggestions, giving them a path as to how they can grow. I love taking hobbies and helping turn them into businesses. People are searching for work-life balance while they put their dreams into action.”
The COVID crisis has impacted Tops, along with all other retailers and businesses, with an appliance shortage, shipping issues, and total disruption of normal business practices. Plus, employees had to adjust quickly to take care of children who were staying home from school during the shutdown. Sherry shortened hours of operation and closed on Fridays to help her employees juggle newfound responsibilities. Creative uses of staff time have been utilized and they used the time to train and build their teams, redesign the showroom, and build out rental spaces for the entrepreneurs housed at Tops with internal labor.
Sherry has also overseen the building of raised beds for growing food onsite. “I met the co-founder of Fightingville Fresh Market, Nicole Johnson, and started working with her. She and her partners helped me to start a growing program at Tops. We have developed raised beds, growing fruit, vegetables, and herbs on the property. We incorporated a few more tenants into the building. The market ran for five months, meeting more makers, learning about that world, and finding some great people that were willing to allow me to get involved in whatever way that make sense to help.”
Sherry says, “It’s been crazy. In all my business projections and contingency plans, the one thing I never planned for was not being able to get the products I sell. We are planning for the delays to continue through next year. I’m very proud of my staff, they have navigated many very difficult issues. We are all ready for things to get back to some normalcy, but it is still a way away. Working with the entrepreneurs has given me an outlet to put my energy into in a positive way. We have this great community in the building and all support each other.”
When asked about the feedback she gets from the entrepreneurs she works with, Sherry shares, “The one thing that surprised me the most came from a thirty-something-year-old man. Most of his mentors have been men so he got a very different perspective from me. I had not given that much thought until he stated that. The men that mentored me are now in their seventies or eighties, so there is 50 years difference between these two groups of men. The live-work balance is a high priority, they are very involved as fathers, and they are motivated to build their companies for a better quality of life. So, it gives me confidence that as a woman, I do have some wisdom to impart that will benefit them.”
Sherry counsels people to find endeavors that will feed their souls. When you are happy with the work you do, it doesn’t feel like work. “Follow your passion.” She also credits her own coaches, Wendy Hornung and Jeff Resweber, for helping her find her voice and confidence to follow her own passions.
As we closed, Sherry encouraged other business owners to be good stewards and share their green space, If you are interested in growing edible landscaping, she has built a team of gardeners who can offer assistance. Also, shop local!
Sherry Latour’s sweet voice is soft but her business acumen will stand up to any fierce titan of business. The resources she is providing in the form of affordable commercial space, microloans, and business mentoring are a true testament to her good stewardship. Thank you, Sherry, for providing your business incubator space and growing our local economy for this talented crop of entrepreneurs!
For more information on Tops, please visit https://www.topsdesigns.com/products/.
For more information on Sherry Latour’s consulting work, please call her at Tops at (337)984-4057.