An Interview with Jeff O’Hara, Owner of PRA New Orleans

by Jerome Knyszewski
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Jeff O'Hara, owner of PRA New Orleans

Jeff O’Hara is the owner of PRA New Orleans, which is an award-winning “Destination Management Company,” specializing in designing and creating corporate events and experiences in the city.

At PRA New Orleans, Jeff O’Hara brings his unique skills and expertise to bear on letting loose his team’s special creative spirit so that they may provide their clients with special and unforgettable experiences during corporate events or meetings. To develop a successful culture, he also partners with the leading professionals working in the “Meeting Planning and Incentive Community.”

Clients who want to hold events in New Orleans can rely on the top-level local support Jeff O’Hara and PRA New Orleans can provide them. If you want your events in New Orleans to be executed perfectly, you need to be confident in the local support available on the ground. This is where PRA New Orleans comes in. With PRA, clients are sure to receive experiences that no other provider can deliver, inspired by the team’s years of creative experience and knowledge.

Aside from running PRA, Jeff O’Hara is also an author of several books, such as “Have Fun, Fight Back” and “Keep the Party Going.” The latter book recounts Jeff’s experience working in New Orleans’ events industry. In 2018, the book was published by Inc. Magazine under its “Inc. Original” imprint.  

Jeff O’Hara also invests actively in early-stage companies. At the same time, he also spends time mentoring these companies, along with companies he finds promising.

Check out more interviews with experienced business owners here.

Jerome Knyszewski: Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?

Jeff O’Hara: I started my post college career working for Sheraton Hotels, and always figured that I would have a long career working my way up the corporate ladder. As it turns out, I did not like the politics of a large company and liked being told what to do even less (should have seen this coming as I left home when I was 16). So, fed up with a new General Manager, I quit on the spot one day with no job prospects in front of me. Given the above, I quickly decided I would be better off starting my own business. Since 1997, I have founded 10 companies and worked my way through the previous economic crashes of 9/11, Hurricane Katrina and the Great Recession — all of which were particularly hard on the hospitality industry.

Jerome Knyszewski: Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?

Jeff O’Hara: I always joke that I turned 30 and had a “mid life crisis”. I had been in the corporate world for 8 years and couldn’t take the politics, the idiots and the meetings that took up so much of my energy. We got a new General Manager that I really didn’t get along with, and one day I decided I had had enough and walked out with no plan. At that point my frame of mind became that I had to figure out how do this myself, because I could not go back to working for somebody else.

At the start of the journey, the middle of the journey, further in the journey — there have been many hard times. Owning a hospitality business in the wake of 9/11, Hurricane Katrina and the Great Recession (and now COVID (with the rest of that story still to unfold) crushed our industry and my business. I have been broke more times than I can count, negotiated with far more creditors than I can remember and taken on all kinds of clients that a sane person would avoid just to make it through.

But did I ever consider giving up? HELL, NO! Going back to my opening statement, once you decide that you can’t work for someone else, you have no choice but to figure it out.

Jerome Knyszewski: Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘takeaways’ you learned from that?

Jeff O’Hara: One of the businesses I started was developing a historic mansion in the Garden District of New Orleans into a small hotel. It had been previously owned by a woman known as the “Cat Lady of St. Charles Avenue”, and after she passed away her son had let it turn into basically a flophouse. So it needed a lot of work. Much more than we anticipated. And you could still smell the cats. By the time we got it open, we were a year behind schedule and a million dollars over budget. We were in a rush to get it open in time for Mardi Gras as the parades passed right in front of the property and I had sold out all of the rooms fully pre-paid. We were still painting when the first guests checked in on the Friday before Mardi Gras. All seemed fine over the weekend and everyone took the “just opened glitches” in stride while they enjoyed the festivities. That was until the morning of Fat Tuesday, Mardi Gras Day. It was then that the sewage starting backing up into the bathtubs in the guest rooms. I called every plumber in the book, all of them that advertised 24 hours/ 7 day a week service. After leaving about 10 messages, one plumber actually answered and he said “no chance” on Mardi Gras Day. At a loss, and with guests growing more impatient by the minute, I looked for the external sewage line, and found a drain under the building with a valve on it. I opened the valve and gallons of sewage poured out. I was suddenly ankle deep in it. BUT, the problem was fixed for the moment and everybody could go about their day (except me, who needed a serious cleaning!). All I could do was laugh at myself.

The lesson here is that we really should have had at least a week of a soft opening to work the kinks out, and pushed the contractors to make that deadline. That lesson applies to more in business than just contractors. From software launches to big client proposals, ALWAYS give yourself time to work the out the kinks in front of a friendly audience.

Jerome Knyszewski: Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things one should know in order to lead a company from Good to Great? Please share a story or an example for each.

Jeff O’Hara:

  1. Know your numbers inside and out. In the last year, three different companies that I invested in suddenly realized they were burning cash at an unsustainable rate. All three reported great quarterly metrics every quarter, but they didn’t realize they had a burn problem. There is no excuse for that catching owners by surprise. While operating at a loss is a normal part of a high growth company (and highly encouraged by Silicon Valley types), if you get caught at the edge of the cash cliff, the terms of new financing are harsh for you and your investors, if you can get it at all. The time to ensure a solid cash position is before you need it.
  2. Focus on your margins. A few years ago I read a great book called The 1% Windfall by Rafi Mohammed. Its simple premise is that if you improve your gross margin by one percent, you will increase your bottom line by twenty percent. Wow, that must be magic! A twenty-percent return just like that. And hey, a one-percent increase in gross margin seems achievable enough. It actually is just about as simple as that. Most businesses run about a five-percent net profit margin. Your fixed costs are, well, fixed, so by definition they stay the same regardless of your revenue level or gross margin. Any increase in gross margin therefore flows right to your bottom line. So if your typical net profit is five percent, an additional one percent is a twenty-percent increase in your net profit. Voilà!

We implemented this and focused on growing margins on the parts of our service that we added the most value to, and were actually able to grow 4%, not just 1.

3. The most valuable asset you have is time. It is the only thing that is not replaceable. I have been broke more times than I can count and came back. Lost everything I owned — twice. Lost loves, but new ones came along. The only thing you cannot get back once it is lost is time, so invest your time with the preciousness it deserves. Hold your schedule to this standard: The things you do should advance you toward your goals, be they personal or professional. And resist people who abuse your time.

4. Hire amazing people and empower them to make your customers love you. This is an age old concept (which many companies don’t even try to do regardless of its age….) but in this era is even harder to implement that you think. The younger generation has been raised in a way that everything has been done for them and all of the answers provided for them. So pushing them to think on their feet is a challenge, even when they are smart, motivated individuals. You have to put an emphasis on building their confidence to take initiative (and with initiative comes responsibility, another tough concept for the younger set). So you have to build their confidence to make decisions and think independently. They thank you for it after a while. Great leaders don’t create followers, they create more leaders.

5. Do the hard stuff first. This is also known as “eating the frog.” If you tackle the hardest tasks in front of you first, you will have created an accomplishment, and that will make the rest of what you need to do seem easy. This is based on a quotation attributed to Mark Twain: “Eat a live frog first thing in the morning and nothing worse will happen to you the rest of the day.” So don’t procrastinate — eat the frog!

Jerome Knyszewski: Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. Can you help articulate for our readers a few reasons why a business should consider becoming a purpose driven business, or consider having a social impact angle?

Jeff O’Hara: This is an interesting topic — a lot of what you see in the field is touchy feely stuff and companies doing initiatives so that the C-Suite folks can pat themselves on the back and say they are doing something. But on the ground they are really having little impact. The people closest to it see this and it has the opposite effect on morale and engagement. But somebody gets an award or a recognition and they put out a press release. How many companies brag about how much they recycle and then the stuff goes on a barge all the way to China to be processed and half of it ends up in the ocean anyway? The barge alone is exponentially worse for the environment than just putting the water bottles in the landfill.

That said, I think most people really do want a world that is a better place and are more engaged with a company that allows them to impact that. But it has to be something that really works.

Jerome Knyszewski: As you know, “conversion” means to convert a visit into a sale. In your experience what are the best strategies a business should use to increase conversion rates?

Jeff O’Hara: Years ago I took a look at where we were spending our time in the sales pipeline. I discovered that we were spending a disproportionate amount of time on clients that were not good prospects from a profitability and time investment standpoint. So I made a decision to say Thanks But No Thanks to that type of client. We then were able to focus on the customers that best fit the type of service we provide. So by reducing the amount of prospects in our pipeline, our conversion rate went up and we converted more of the right kind of customer.

Jerome Knyszewski: Of course, the main way to increase conversion rates is to create a trusted and beloved brand. Can you share a few ways that a business can earn a reputation as a trusted and beloved brand?

Jeff O’Hara:

1) Hire great people 2) Create an environment in which they will thrive. Repeat those steps as you grow and never lose sight of it. Great people will make customers love your brand.

Be different. Every company has competitors the provide similar products or services. What makes your brand different? Do your customers know that? Do your customers talk about it? You have to find some things that truly make you different — things that customers will recognize and be willing to pay for — and be memorable in your delivery of those differentiators.

Jerome Knyszewski: How can our readers further follow you online?

Jeff O’Hara: You can find me on LinkedIn.

Jerome Knyszewski: This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent with this!

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