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The Midas Touch of Business Mogul, Ruth Ann Menutis

Sep 07, 2016 03:39PM ● By Marisa Olson

The Midas Touch of Business Mogul, Ruth Ann Menutis

By Marisa Olson

Plenty of people told me I couldn’t succeed. I didn’t listen to them.
– R.A. Menutis, President and CEO, Branded Works, Inc.

Decades before American business women coined the phrase glass ceiling, Ruth Ann Menutis had already scaled the professional ladder and shattered the barrier. However, becoming an entrepreneurial pioneer in a male-dominated world never was the driving force of her ambition. For Menutis, success, quite simply, means doing what she loves: running her own business.

Prevailing professional orthodoxy decrees that to be successful, one must know what one “wants to do in life,” to “focus” on a single path. Menutis never heard that advice, but if she had, would never have heeded it. Yet she serves as an amazing example to every small business owner. Menutis has risen to the top in several industries: as a nationally recognized fashion designer, head of a national retail clothing chain, president and CEO of a national snack food company, commercial real estate developer.

She has elevated entrepreneurship into an art form, creating, imagining and re-imagining commercial landscapes and major real estate projects that drive economic development by empowering the small businesses within her sphere.

Menutis Relocates Her Company, Branded Works, from the French Quarter to the Oil Center

In the late 1950s, the Lafayette native left her home to begin a career in Houston, and eventually established her company’s headquarters in the French Quarter. For over three decades, she and her family lived in New Orleans, but Menutis longed for home, and in 2002 bought a second residence in Lafayette. After Katrina wiped out her company office and New Orleans investment properties, she relocated her company, Branded Works, to the Oil Center, completing her transition to the Hub City.

The Driving Force Behind The Oil Center’s Economic Revitalization

Without wasting a moment, she purchased, overhauled and set up shop in what is now the Travis Technology Center, a 33,000 square foot building she has filled to capacity with a multitude of small business tenants, revitalizing the Oil Center in the process. While renovation was underway at the technology center, she purchased a row of retail space on Heymann Boulevard that includes Café Bella, The Palmetto Club, Bon Temps Grill, and Ballin’s. 

Ten years later, the center functions as a bustling hub for the small business owners who share space alongside Menutis’ national operations. She views the center as an incubator for small business, and takes personal interest in her tenants’ growth and success.

Jimmie Menutis joined his wife’s revitalization campaign, opening American Pop Art, also on Heymann. Son, Dimitri has condominium development projects underway on South College, and, with his mother, co-owns franchises for Raising Cane's Chicken Fingers and Pinkberry Yogurt, which they operate in several major airports including Boston, LaGuardia, San Antonio and LAX.

The Original Mello Joy Coffee Girl

The daughter of a Lafayette farmer, Ruth Ann Pellerin began her first job at KLFY-TV as station traffic manager while attending Judice High School. Every day after school, Pellerin drove her little green Chevy to the station, sometimes working as late as 10 p.m. The fifteen-year-old honor student was president of several student organizations, and demonstrated an early civic-minded awareness. Her curiosity, creative energy and buoyant joi de vivre seemed boundless.

Paul Declouet, the station owner and Pellerin’s godfather, saw great promise in the precocious teen, and hoped to instill in her direction, and aspirations for higher education and a professional career. His admirable, avuncular intentions received strong support from Pellerin’s parents.

Pellerin’s mother had enrolled her daughter into elementary school at the early age of five, making Pellerin sixteen when she graduated from high school and entered college. While attending what’s currently known as University of Louisiana at Lafayette, she continued at KLFY as traffic manager, and also performed commercial spots for local sponsors, including Mello Joy.

During the station’s live television show, Meet Your Neighbor, then hosted by Bill Cochran, she served Mello Joy coffee to guests and studio members, and so Ruth Ann became Lafayette’s first Mello Joy Coffee Girl. Looking back, Menutis laughs: “Sometimes, Bill would throw me a line and say, ‘How’s that coffee, Ruth Ann?’”  

A Change In the Air

When Trans-Texas Airways made its inaugural flight into Lafayette, two of the airline’s pilots appeared as guests on Cochran’s show. During break, they encouraged Pellerin to interview for a hostess position with Trans-Texas, giving her and other staff complimentary tickets for a brief flight that circled Lafayette. Before leaving the studio that evening, she asked herself, “Do I really want to do this job the rest of my life?” She wasn’t 100% sure, but gave it no more thought. She was dying to fly. The next day, she drove to the airport. After takeoff, she peered through the small passenger window, looking down through the clouds. On the spur of the moment, she asked for an application and interviewed during the flight. She landed the job.  

When Pellerin told Declouet she was quitting to become a flight hostess, he was incredulous and lectured her to no avail. Dropping out of college and abandoning a bright future in broadcasting was a “dumb” mistake. Exasperated, he bellowed, “You will never amount to anything!” His words stung, but Ruth Ann Pellerin was determined to explore the world. She was eighteen.

Leaving Home

Although saddened by their daughter’s decision to leave home, the Pellerins remained supportive and hopeful. Ruth Ann quickly packed and moved to Houston to embark on her new career as a hostess with Trans-Texas at Hobby Airport. She shared an apartment with her best friend, Pat Thorpe, and best friend’s aunt, Juanita, both of whom also worked for the airline as a stewardess and a check hostess.

Pat and Juanita introduced the pretty bookworm to Houston’s glamorous nightclub scene. One evening while they were out on the town, Juanita brought a date, Jimmie Menutis, the owner of Houston’s premiere nightclub (appropriately named), Jimmie Menutis’ Lounge and Club. The club’s world famous acts included Fats Domino, Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis, Bo Diddley and Louis Armstrong. Menutis’ was the first desegregated music club in Texas, and the state’s only desegregated venue at the time. Menutis and Pellerin became acquainted. A year later, they would be married.

Destination Dallas

Pellerin thrived in the big city, and was promoted to check hostess at Dallas Fort Worth Airport. Because a full-time position with the airline was only 17 hours per week, she took a second job modeling at Dallas’ Apparel Mart where she was introduced to some of the nation’s top fashion designers.

At the advent of the 60’s, women’s fashion was undergoing radical transformation, and visiting designers in Dallas were eager to know the tastes of the younger generation, even asking their model’s opinions on prototypes. Menutis proved a true muse in more ways than one. Her insights heavily influenced their creations, and her instincts proved uncanny, as she seemed to possess an innate ability to modify designs that resonated with the stylishly discerning, modern young woman.

Ironically, Pellerin had bought her first dress only after moving to Houston. Before then, all her clothes were intricately and beautifully handmade by her mother, an exceptional seamstress who enjoyed experimenting with fabrics. Pellerin had acquired her mother’s skill and creativity in design, which proved an invaluable advantage in her modeling, and naturally led to a new line of work.

My Big Greek Cajun Wedding

Before Pellerin was promoted again and moved any farther from Houston, Jimmie Menutis proposed to his Cajun sweetheart. She returned to Houston and converted to the Greek Orthodox Church, fully embracing her new family and community. The close couple recently celebrated their 56th wedding anniversary, and, for over four decades, Ruth Ann has been an active member of The Daughters of Penelope, a New Orleans’ civic organization dedicated to the promotion of Greek culture, philanthropy, education, and family.

A Designer Is Born

In 1960, a traditional, Greek wife did not work outside the home, and Jimmie was old school. However, the world was changing, and Ruth Ann had made an early departure from convention, so she continued modeling, traveling and designing while raising a family. Jimmie came around, taking newfound pride in his wife when she opened Ruth Ann Fashions, a clothing boutique in Houston’s Towers Hotel. The upscale shop primarily featured Menutis’ own creations, but also a few lines by major designers such as Mr. Blackwell and Claralura of California, a brand owned by the Miami-based designer, Mel Warshaw.

Like the designers Menutis had known in Dallas, Warshaw marveled at her flair for design, and sparked a collaboration that would last several years. Each new fashion season, he flew her to his Miami atelier, involving her in the initial concept and complete design process for his lines, including Claralura and Miss Jane of Miami. It was a brilliant partnership.

Menutis’ contributions were original and so admired by buyers that Warshaw opened a division in his company dedicated to Menutis, naming it, More by Ruth Ann, and giving her full creative license to design her own collection. Soon, More by Ruth Ann became more profitable than Warshaw’s Miss Jane line. “Consequently,” Menutis reveals, “[Warshaw] started putting all my ideas under his Miss Jane label.”

Warshaw also introduced Menutis to the designer who created the collection for American Airlines’ annual fashion show, which cinched a contact designing fashions for their models on a national billboard. That year, Menutis’ designs won the The National Designers Award. She had come into her own as a nationally recognized, American fashion designer.

 The Perils of Success

Designing for Warshaw brought Menutis handsome royalties and due recognition. She garnered 3% of sales over $800,000 from a company that grossed $6 million annually. However, demand spiraled at such a dizzying rate that she could no longer keep pace, and yearned to spend more time with her family, and to concentrate on her own retail clothing business. Muse and designer parted company, but even after Menutis left the fashion business altogether, Warshaw still sought her inspired guidance on all his latest creations.

Under the name Ruth Ann Fashions, she focused on developing her own clothing line, expanding from one to four Houston locations, then a fifth on Bourbon Street in the French Quarter. In the Quarter, business skyrocketed. She closed all her Houston locations except the flagship store, and the entire family relocated to New Orleans. In a few short years, her presence grew from a single store with one employee to five locations with sixty-five employees. She expanded into eight locations on Bourbon Street, and two on Royal, where she set up company headquarters. Then, the chain went national when she opened a posh, Lexington Avenue boutique on Manhattan’s exclusive Upper East Side.

The rapid rise and expansion of Ruth Ann Fashions proved so overwhelming that operations were becoming unmanageable, and the venture seemed on the verge of collapsing under the weight of its very success. Ever enterprising, Menutis devised a brilliant solution.

Managers with Benefits

Rather than selling her stores to other chains and retailers, Menutis proposed to her store managers that they independently own and operate their twelve, respective locations in exchange for a percentage of the profits. Menutis would teach them everything she knew about business. It was a win-win, and she seemed born for her newest role as an entrepreneurial mentor. The stores continued to prosper, each of the managers-turned-small business owners became millionaires, and Menutis had more quality family time with Jimmie and their three beautiful children, Jamie, Dimitri, and Marika. She transformed from employer to property owner, began acquiring investment properties, and rose to key leadership positions in New Orleans’ business and arts districts.

New Orleans’ Embrace

During the 80’s and 90’s, Menutis led the revitalization of the French Quarter, transforming 15 distressed commercial properties into lucrative office buildings. She conceived of and launched the first French Quarter Festival, and was the major impetus behind Hollywood producers such as Francis Ford Copolla filming motion pictures in the Big Easy. She earned seats on numerous boards, including the New Orleans Chamber of Commerce, and presided as board president to the French Market Corporation and the Bourbon Street Merchants Association. The University of New Orleans chose her as its “Entrepreneur of the Year,” and asked her to teach classes in female entrepreneurship. Her touch was golden.

The Grove: A Tale of David versus Goliath

Having a keen eye for spotting trends, Menutis saw that the American lifestyle was growing increasingly hectic, but at the same time more health conscious, giving her the idea to form a healthy snack food business that would cater to busy air travelers. In 1980, she launched The Grove, opening a 42-foot square nut stand at the New Orleans International Airport. In ten years, she had expanded to ten major airports across the country. Just as her company was on the cusp of exponential growth, Host Marriott took note of the lucrative business, and formed its own version of Menutis’ company. In its first year, the corporate titan opened healthy snack food concessions in the same ten airports. It was going in for the kill.

Menutis stood firm: “I wasn’t going to let them do that.” She fought back, ousting the competitor from her territory, and forcing it to shut all ten locations. The Grove rebounded, rapidly expanding to 100 locations in 16 airports, then branching into gas stations and movie theatres. When she sold the company in 2004, the little nut stand had transformed into a multi-million dollar juggernaut.

Branded Works

Menutis turned her focus and energy to her other company, Branded Works, which she formed in 1994 as a joint venture with Hudson Group, an industry leader in airport concessions. Branded Works has acquired the rights to franchise Pinkberry Yogurt® and Raising Cane’s Chicken Fingers® in six major airports. As the company’s President and CEO, Menutis holds an interest in five of HG’s 100 airport locations, and frequents her stores in the Boston, New Jersey, LaGuardia, Charleston, Greenville and Burlington, Vermont airports.

New Ventures

 Menutis has seized every advantage conferred by chance. Through the decades, her keen vision and unshakeable tenacity have informed her decision-making, enabling her to recognize potential opportunities that others either overlooked or discarded. Today, Menutis focuses on running her company, assisting her children Dimitri and Jamie with their own ventures, mentoring small business owners, and above all, sharing quality time with her lifelong sweetheart Jimmie, now 92. Plans for the future include instituting Entrepreneurial programs for local high school juniors and seniors. Menutis is as beloved as she is successful, and her deepest wish is for others to experience the freedom and joy of running their own businesses. 

In The Issue - September 2016