From treehouse to king’s float, Larry Gibbs to reign at Argus’ Mardi Gras season parade

Growing up after World War II amid the frenzy of residential construction in New Orleans East, Larry Gibbs recognized early on that he wanted to spend the rest of his life building things. One of his first attempts, however, didn’t turn out so well.

“I built a treehouse in the back of our house,” Gibbs said, “and one day I was in the treehouse and the treehouse fell out of the tree. With me in it.

“And I said, ‘I’ve got to learn to build a little better’.”

That Gibbs did, obtaining a civil engineering degree from LSU after graduation from Cor Jesu High School and growing his own company into one of the largest construction outfits in southeast Louisiana. Its latest effort is in a four-company joint venture building the $1 billion passenger terminal at Louis Armstrong International Airport.

Along the way Gibbs has also worked to build community. He has coached baseball for more than 30 years at his neighborhood playground, paid to restore Andrew Jackson and Battle of New Orleans paintings damaged in Hurricane Katrina and become a major benefactor to a long list of nonprofit organizations.

“He’s one of the finest human beings I’ve ever met,” said Dennis Assaf, executive and artistic director of the Jefferson Performing Arts Society.

For accomplishments such as these, Gibbs, 71, has been chosen to reign as Argus XXXV in Metairie’s premier Fat Tuesday parade. Pragmatic, curious, focused, affable, humble and infectiously optimistic, Gibbs seems more comfortable in a hardhat and work boots than in a business suit and necktie – much less a mantle and crown. But that’s what he’ll don when the Krewe of Argus rolls on Mardi Gras at 10 a.m.

Gibbs was born in Columbus, Ohio, a son and nephew of veterinarians. His father married a New Orleans girl whose own father operated a veterinary clinic at Burgundy Street and Esplanade Avenue.

“I’m not a veterinarian because I’ve cleaned up mountains of dogs---,” Gibbs joked in a recent interview.

When he was a child, the Gibbs family moved from Ohio to Donaldsonville, then into public housing in New Orleans, then their own place in Gentilly and finally to New Orleans East.

“The place where I grew up was growing, and so there was a lot of house-building everywhere,” he said. “So I used to go and watch the houses go up, and it infatuated me. I would go to the job sites after hours and pick up some scrap lumber.”

When he wasn’t in school, mowing lawns, shining shoes at the barber shop or delivering The States-Item by bicycle on his afternoon newspaper route, Gibbs made use of the scrap lumber. After college, he worked for Brown & Root, the industrial construction giant, where he learned from blue-collar laborers twice his age that there was more to the business than engineering theory.

“If you were a carpenter, you got a blue hat. If you were an electrician, you got a red hat. I was characterized as a supervisor, and I got a gold hat,” he said. “Appreciate this: I’m 22 years old, I don’t know a hammer from a saw, I’m fresh out of college, I don’t know anything – and they give me a gold hat.”

Gibbs began absorbing the fundamentals of construction, moved to Tidelands Engineering for a time and landed at Lionel J. Favret Construction on commercial projects. One year the company gave him a $4,000 bonus, of which $1,000 went to taxes. “I never in my life had $3,000 before,” he said.

And with that, he struck out on his own at age 29, incorporating Gibbs Construction Co. on July 4, 1976, and getting a contractor’s license. “The whole idea was independence for the country, independence for me,” he said.

At first it was just Gibbs, by now living in River Ridge and working out of the front bedroom of his house. “I faked it a little bit. I’d write letters and I’d say, you know, ‘We have a full staff. The estimator is a graduate in civil engineering, and the superintendent is an engineer.’ So I’d just describe myself in five different ways.”

The Favrets helped him, and subcontractors with whom he’d worked at previous companies gave him preferential pricing.

And Gibbs always tried to remember the people who did the real building for him. In 2011 when low-income laborers working on a Gibbs job at the B.W. Cooper public housing complex told him they were making only $8.01 an hour, he declared, “Too low,” and ordered his subcontractors to pay $11 an hour.

These days, Gibbs Construction is one of the five largest construction companies in the New Orleans area. Gross revenue in 2018 was $163 million, according to CityBusiness, and Gibbs said the company has about 120 full-time employees, down from a peak of 250.

As part of a joint venture, the company helped build what is now called the Smoothie King Center. After Hurricane Katrina, it replaced siding on the Superdome and rebuilt more than a dozen schools in St. Bernard Parish. It built Champions Square. It’s worked in almost every hospital in the region, Gibbs said.

Those who know its chief executive officer describe a driven, down-to-earth man with a can-do attitude, one who brooks no discouraging words – and is prone to quote the Stoic philosopher Epictetus of ancient Greece.

“He’s got the most wonderful view of life. He just treats people the way he wants to be treated,” said Assaf, the arts organization director.

It was around 1998 that Assaf met this year’s Argus. Assaf wanted an orchestra pit for the arts organization’s home at the time, the East Jefferson High School auditorium, and he sought help from then-Parish President Michael J. Yenni, uncle of the current parish president. Next thing Assaf knew, Gibbs called him to meet at the auditorium.

Gibbs Construction built the orchestra pit gratis and got its subcontractors to donate or discount their bills, Assaf said. It was the first of many Gibbs gifts to the Jefferson Performing Arts Society.

“I’m a professional beggar, and this is a man who’s never gotten tired of my begging,” Assaf said.

Other beneficiaries of Gibbs include St. Martin’s Episcopal School and Jesuit and Brother Martin high schools.

Now, however, Gibbs is nearing retirement. He and his wife, Marian, have eight children, and Gibbs is turning over the business to one of them, daughter Lauren.

Before that, though, comes his ride as Argus XXXV on Tuesday, an honor he describes as humbling.

“It’s almost like magic. Every once in a while I have to pinch myself,” he said of his business success. “I feel like I’m just an average guy who tried to do the right thing.”

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Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified the daughter to whom Gibbs is turning over his company. He said March 6 he probably misspoke when he identified her in an earlier interview as Melissa instead of Lauren.

Drew Broach covers Jefferson Parish politics and education plus other odds and ends. Email: dbroach@nola.com. Facebook: Drew Broach TP. Twitter: drewbroach1