Enterprise Sugar Factory: Trendsetter in Louisiana
Pierre Simeon Patout came to Louisiana from France with a dream of becoming the premier vintner of the South. He started his vineyard in 1825 in the community which came to be known as Patoutville. He quickly learned that Louisiana, despite sharing the same French language as the Loire River valley, did not share the grape growing climate.
Thanks to Etienne deBore’s perfection of the sugar crystallization process, Patout saw another opportunity. In 1829, he moved Enterprise Plantation into sugarcane cultivation and milling and began making sugar. Fast forward 190 years to 2019 and Enterprise is the oldest, continuously operated, family-owned sugar mill in the United States.
That’s quite an accomplishment especially when one considers most family businesses don’t make it past two generations. Enterprise is now owned by the seventh family generation of Pierre Simeon Patout. Enterprise, and the M. A. Patout and Son umbrella organization over it, is the 29th oldest family run business in the country. You don’t last that long without good leadership from the family.
Strong management from the Patout family kept the operation moving forward through the cataclysmic changes of the Industrial Revolution, Civil War and Reconstruction. When the mill was built it was the only steam-fired sugar mill in the country, a tremendous technological advantage over previous milling and sugar recovery methods. When Simeon died of yellow fever in 1847, his wife, Pauline “Appoline” Napoleone Fournier Patout took over the plantation. In her later years, her sons, Hippolyte Patout Sr. and Felix Patout maintained the business. When Appoline died, the brothers took ownership. Yellow fever struck again and took Hippolyte so Felix decided to sell his half-interest to Hippolyte’s wife, Mary Ann Schwing Patout.
Mary Ann, one of the most remarkable women of Louisiana’s 19th century history, maintained Enterprise with the help of her sons, Hippolyte Jr. and Willie Patout. Since Enterprise was not located on a waterway, they built a rail line to facilitate cane delivery. She installed a pipeline from Patoutville to Jeanerette and pumped Enterprise cane juice to her refinery on the banks of Bayou Teche. There sugar and molasses could be easily shipped to markets by barge. Mary Ann was also a large stockholder in New Iberia National Bank and became the first woman to sit on a Louisiana bank board. She later served as the bank’s president. Obviously, Mary Ann set a high bar for her descendants and they have been up to the task. Enterprise is the state’s largest milling operation and is one of three mills and an equipment company managed by the M. A. Patout and Son organization. Currently, Randall Romero is the chief executive office of M. A. Patout.
Romero said the Patout family, with 150 members, maintains a seven-member board of directors and stands behind its management.
“They hire good people and supports them in their decisions,” Romero said. “And they know we always need good people to keep the operation running smoothly.”
Will Legendre, the factory manager, gives a lot of credit to William “Billy” Patout III for making progressive changes in sugarcane mill operations. Billy began his career at Enterprise in 1956.
“Enterprise has always been a trendsetter in the sugarcane business,” Legendre said. “Enterprise recognized the trend was to increase cane supply. That was the key to survival. That was Billy’s vision and you can quote me on that.”
Enterprise was the first mill to grind more than two million tons in a season. Enterprise created Patout Equipment Company, a harvesting and trucking services operation for sugarcane farmers, to ensure they get cane harvested and delivered to the mill as efficiently as possible.
“That service, which began in 2005, allows the farmer to concentrate on growing the best crop he can and frees him from the added cost of buying a combine harvester and harvesting support equipment,” Romero said. “The farmer pays us a flat fee to provide that service for him. It has worked out well for us and the farmers.”
Among other innovations Enterprise incorporated that have now become the norm in the Louisiana sugarcane industry was the replacement of steam engines with steam turbines on the milling tandems. The mill was also the first to use continuous vacuum pans and instituted the use of vertical crystallizers.
A major innovation was the installation of a diffuser system to extract sugar from shredded cane billets. The diffuser operates separately from Enterprise’s traditional milling tandems. Enterprise’s cane diffuser is the only one in North America.
Legendre describes the diffuser unit as a giant coffee percolator.
Cane is loaded into a long box that resembles several cargo bins laid end to end. Inside the huge container is a perforated screen. The cane is dragged across the screen and hot water is percolated through the biomass. Sucrose is diffused or leached from the biomass, pumped out and processed into sugar.
“The initial cost of a diffuser is less expensive capital-wise than the standard milling tandem,” Legendre said. “It’s maintenance cost annually is less, and you get better extraction.”
Legendre said new equipment will be added to the diffuser line to help increase the mill’s overall capacity in time for the 2020 season.
“Last year we ground 2.5 million tons of cane and we’re at our capacity now,” Legendre said. “But we had to go 113 days to do it. We’d like to complete operations in 100 days and get our capacity up to 26,000 tons a day. We’re adding a mill which should increase its throughput by 15 to 20 percent on the diffuser side.”
Romero said Enterprise and the M. A. Patout family takes great pride in being a leader in the Louisiana sugar industry and values its employees and farmers but recognizes the sugar business is competing for the top talent with other industries.
“For the organization to have continual success into the future we need to reach out to the younger generations to promote employment opportunities in the Louisiana sugar industry whether it is in the factories or on the farms,” Romero said.
Legendre says Enterprise wants to recruit young engineers and other specialized industrial professionals into the mill.
“I grew up in the sugarcane industry,” Legendre said. “My father and grandfather were in it. I guess sugarcane is in my blood but there are a lot of other opportunities for young people in the oil field. The sugar industry needs more good people.”
Enterprise obviously has a highly skilled and motivated work force. Many of their farmers and employees are multi-generational. It shows in their output. They are producing more than 500 million pounds of raw sugar. If the past is prologue, Enterprise will figure out a way to recruit young professionals in an innovative manner. Innovation, it’s what they do.