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New Orleanian of the Year: Robert Merrick 

The real estate mogul and philanthropist talks about the importance of giving

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Photo by Cheryl Gerber

If Robert Merrick's car had a bumper sticker, it likely would say, "I'd rather be hunting." At least that's what New Orleans' foremost real estate mogul would have people believe.

  Merrick says his favorite times are the days he spends fly-fishing in Mexico or stalking wild turkeys in rural Mississippi, and he prefers the peace of the woods to his plush office in the Warehouse District headquarters of Latter & Blum. But if that's really the case, it's a mystery how he ever finds the time to don his outdoor gear.

  Over the past several decades, Merrick has built the largest real estate business in the Gulf South and one of the largest in the country.

  And when he wasn't doing real estate deals, he was engrossed in charitable work, becoming one of the foremost benefactors of nonprofit organizations in the region. The Latter & Blum chairman has showered millions of dollars and many volunteer hours on dozens of groups, with some of his most substantial investments benefiting the American Red Cross, Boy Scouts of America, Junior Achievement, Habitat for Humanity, March of Dimes, the Fore Kids Foundation and the University of New Orleans.

  In the past year, his charitable efforts hit a new high when he made a single $1 million gift to the United Way of Southeast Louisiana, becoming the first person in the state to join an elite circle of million-dollar donors to United Way worldwide.

  All this giving, of course, was enabled by Merrick's prowess in real estate.

  Though today his com- pany is best known by many as the dominant player in housing sales across south Louisiana, Merrick, now 70, built his career on a foundation not of home sales but commercial real estate. "Years ago, I couldn't spell 'residential'," he jokes.

  Born in New Orleans, and just 14 years old when his father died, Merrick found a mentor in the man his mother later married, real estate appraisal expert Max Derbes Sr. Merrick began working in Derbes' appraisal business while still in high school and continued during summers leading to his graduation from Tulane University.

  Later recognizing that "you couldn't make a whole lot of money" in appraising, Merrick delved into real estate development and commercial and industrial property brokerage.

"Bob Merrick is a true real estate visionary and one of our region's great humanitarians."UNO President Peter Fos

  Teaming with another mentor, Baton Rouge real estate pro Heidel Brown, Merrick earned his brokerage chops through numerous transactions for industrial sites along the lower Mississippi River.

  Merrick and various partners also built millions of square feet of warehouse space throughout the region. And when a willing buyer appeared in the mid-1980s, Merrick sold his entire portfolio of warehouses and found himself flush with cash.

He bought Latter & Blum in 1986, a year that showed little promise for real estate. Oil prices at the time hovered around $10 a barrel, a devastatingly low level for a region economically dependent on the energy business. Rising unemployment and business failures produced a flood of loan defaults, and as lenders swung their foreclosure axes, the real estate market led the economy toward a free fall.

  "Every day somebody in New Orleans went bankrupt, and every month a savings and loan went bankrupt," Merrick recalls.

  The conditions helped him snag Latter & Blum at a good price, but keeping the company on its feet in the face of a severe recession was a challenge. Merrick followed his mentors' advice that tough times often present buying opportunities. Latter & Blum went on an acquisition binge, and Merrick rapidly brought almost 40 real estate firms under the company's wing.

  As he expanded the bus-iness, he slashed overhead and focused on efficiency. His agents brokered and managed properties wherever they could, and Merrick pared down the company's debt by selling nearly all the real estate he still owned.

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  Gradually the economy began to improve, and in 1990 Latter & Blum emerged from a sea of red ink.

  "It took four years and basically all my cash to turn this company around," Merrick says.

  Latter & Blum continued to grow, making a big leap in 1994 when it acquired Baton Rouge-based C.J. Brown Realtors, a well-known firm founded by the father of Heidel Brown. The merger became particularly valuable a decade later, when the post-Hurricane Katrina flood devastated New Orleans, destroyed a number of Latter & Blum offices and sent local agents scattering to new locales.

  "For a week or so, I didn't think I had a company left," Merrick says.

Through the ups and downs of several decades, Merrick maintained his commitments to charitable organizations. His latest contribution to the United Way, for instance, was "a byproduct of a longstanding relationship," according to Michael Williamson, president of United Way of Southeast Louisiana.

  Williamson says Merrick began supporting the organization when he first acquired Latter & Blum, serving as a United Way board member and chairman, chairing an annual fundraising campaign, sponsoring various events and consistently making corporate contributions.

Over the past several decades, Merrick has built the largest real estate business in the Gulf South and one of the largest in the country [and became] one of the foremost benefactors of nonprofit organizations in the region.

  Last year, as Williamson began laying the ground-work to host a meeting in New Orleans of million-dollar donors for United Way worldwide, he realized the local organization did not yet have a million-dollar contributor to attend the meeting. Williamson gathered with a few board members, and they made the decision to approach Merrick.

  "Bob has always been very generous, but we just had never made that kind of 'ask' of him," Williamson says. When they made the request, he says, Merrick didn't hesitate to write the check.

  Over the years, Merrick's philanthropy has reached many other organizations as well. The American Red Cross honored him as its Humanitarian of the Year in 2005, and in 2012 named him to its Chairman's Council, which recognizes donors whose cumulative giving to the organization exceeds $1 million.

  In December 2014, the University of New Orleans (UNO) awarded Merrick an honorary doctorate. Merrick has chaired the UNO business school advisory board as well as the university's board of trustees. He endowed a chair in real estate; helped create the Max Derbes III Professorship in real estate; made substantial donations to the university's economic research division; and recently gave $100,000 to support scholarships and graduate programs in coastal sciences and engineering.

  "Bob Merrick is a true real estate visionary and one of our region's great humanitarians," UNO President Peter Fos said in announcing Merrick's honor.

As his company has prospered, Merrick's extended family has grown. The father of four daughters, he also is a grandfather, and family members often visit homes he has built in Poplarville, Mississippi, and in a national park south of Cancun, Mexico.

  Meanwhile, Latter & Blum continues to expand its territory and now operates 35 offices in Louisiana and Mississippi. Merrick expects to complete several more corporate acquisitions in the next few months and says the company's 2014 real estate transaction values will set a new high. In late December, he predicted Latter & Blum would end the year with $3 billion in sales.

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