By the time he was seven years old John Austin LeDay said he was considered “a man,” in the tiny, rural French-speaking town of Basile, Louisiana, where he was born.
That was old enough to start working on the family farm, and leaving his one-room school house in third grade, that’s exactly what he did.
Fast forward to 2008, and you find the trim and feisty 76-year-old as founder and CEO of a South Los Angeles business that pulls in millions of dollars in sales of janitorial products annually. This year, he will also be honored by the Black Business Association of Los Angeles with a lifetime membership award.
The company he founded, Southend Janitorial Supplies, opened its doors in 1961 just a few years before the Watts civil unrest and by 1974 was listed number 34 on the Black Enterprise Top 100 Businesses with $2.1 million in revenue.
If you ask LeDay why he started the company, he will simply say, ‘I don’t know’ and direct you to a higher power.
“God has a plan for all of us,” said LeDay, sitting behind a paper-strewn desk with a cowboy hat planted firmly on his head. “I was working for another company as a truck driver, and I went from there to the shipping department to the manufacturing department to sales manager.”
That company manufactured floor wax, and five years after first climbing into the driver’s seat of the company’s truck he was at the helm of his own janitorial supply manufacturing firm.
While he may not know exactly what caused him to branch out into entrepreneurship, LeDay had a number of examples in his family to give him an idea of what owning a business was like. In addition to the family farm in Basile where he worked as a child until he was 15 years old, he worked on his uncle’s ranch in Beaumont, TX.
LeDay, the seventh of 18 children, also said while he was growing up, his father owned a grocery store. After returning from the armed service in the early 1950s, LeDay moved with his family to Los Angeles. There he watched his father operate a string of gas stations including the Signal and Mobile brands.
What made the father of two daughters opt for manufacturing instead of merely distributing janitorial products was a very simple concept: “By manufacturing our product, we had more control, and we were more competitive. If we bought from someone, we would have had a middle man.”
When he opened Southend Janitorial Supplies, LeDay was only 30 years old with an idea but no money. He got the $3,500 start-up capital from his brother, Edgar. “It took two years to start to see something happen,” remembered LeDay, who at times wondered if his colleagues were right, when they called him crazy for leaving a good job as a sales manager. “. . . you didn’t see that many blacks in such a position,” added the entrepreneur.
But LeDay was tenacious and came up with a strategy that would eventually net him the get-over-the-hump account he needed.
While continuing to work building Southend Janitorial during the day, LeDay got a contract to handle the maintenance at Food Fair stores.
“I had three crews and they (Food Fair) had 80 stores. I would go out at night and make sure the maintenance work was done, then come back and work Southend Janitorial during the day.”
LeDay got the contract because Food Fair was having problems with its maintenance supervisor, and the canny entrepreneur volunteered to take over the duties at no charge. Starting out with 10 stores, he did such a good job they gave him 10 more stores, and then the entire chain.
The game plan was simple, recounted LeDay. His maintenance crews were taking care of the stores using his products, consequently it would only be a matter of time before he could get his products into the warehouse. And because he was the maintenance supervisor, he was the person responsible for dealing with all the other companies attempting to sell their products into Food Fair.
LeDay kept the Food Fair account until the company sold out to Ralph’s.
That way of business is typical for LeDay, who has had a national contract with Amtrak for more than three decades, and after beating 11 other companies to win a contract with Rockwell International, kept that account for 35 years until the company was sold to Boeing.
While his business acumen has helped him grow his company, LeDay is most proud of his volunteer work that has specifically benefited the African American business and local community in general.
In 1963, LeDay was involved with the Los Angeles arm of Operation Breadbasket, an organization that brought together local leaders like Bishop H. H. Brookins, Al McFadden, and attorney Hank Sands to further the aims of the Jesse Jackson-founded nonprofit.
He was also chairman of a group called Community Pride, which was founded after the 1965 Watts civil unrest, and among the organization’s efforts were rehabilitating burned-out buildings in the impacted area and reorganizing the community.
The entrepreneur was also one of 13 businessmen that co-founded the Black Business Association of Los Angeles, and recalled that the tactics they used of asking major corporations to give them advice on how to best become a supplier were so successful that people were eager to come talk with them.
“We would find CEOs and invite them to come sit on the ‘hot seat,’” explained LeDay, adding that initially corporate big wigs were nervous about the process “. . . but the hot seat only meant we were interested in how we could get in to do business with their company. It wasn’t a hostile thing. . . and once they found out it wasn’t hostile but more of a polite approach for their advice; that we were looking for their help on how we could fit in and what we had to do, companies wanted to come meet with us.”
LeDay said the BBA’s approach was instrumental in encouraging many local corporations to put in place a minority business representative.
The BBA/LA is honoring LeDay with a lifetime membership award at its 34th Annual Awards dinner May 22 at the Omni Hotel in downtown Los Angeles.
This award is perhaps most illustrative of the sort of unspoken LeDay business philosophy: Use the right approach and a long-term relationship will be the result.