When the annual Caerus Mardi Gras parade rolls down Hattiesburg’s Hardy Street each year, it’s because of the support of Keith and Melissa Davis Saucier and the family business – Keith’s Superstores.
With five years of parades under their belts, they’ve pretty much got things down to a science.
While Saucier is quick to tell you his staff has been the biggest catalyst in making the event a success, if not for the support the company has thrown behind the parade, it might never have rolled down Hardy Street with the Keith’s cheetah at the helm.
In addition to serving as Caerus founder, Keith’s Superstores also serves as the chief sponsor with the support of Magnolia Graphics.
This year’s parade theme is simply Mardi Gras.
“The parade and ball have been so welcomed in our area that we feel more folks will participate if they could use décor from one year to the next, making it more affordable as well,” said Melissa Saucier, who serves as parade director. “We encourage each Krewe or organization to decorate with a theme of their choosing.”
This year’s parade steps off at 11 a.m. Saturday, Feb. 11., on its regular route, with lineup alongside Hwy. 49’s Service Road, south from Fourth Street up to Boot Country, proceeding along the service road south to Hardy Street, right on Hardy proceeding west to 38th Avenue and ending at Morningside Drive.
Fueling a future
Saucier’s involvement in the petroleum business goes back to when he was 13. Working for his uncle, and his father, L.B. Saucier, at what was then known as Big K Oil Company (Big K had formerly been known as Hattiesburg 66 when his uncle started it in 1966).
In more recent years, Saucier has added scouting for new store locations and the construction of such to his job duties.
Keith’s currently has 30 superstores (Lucedale, Ellisville, Pass Christian, D’Iberville, Gautier, Moselle, Purvis, Lumberton, Seminary, Columbia, Hattiesburg, Mt. Olive, Sumrall, Wiggins, Petal, Kiln, Waveland, Bay St. Louis, Picayune, Carriere, Poplarville and Waynesboro).
In addition to the petroleum side of the business, Saucier also owns and operates six companies, which are run out of the corporate hub in Hattiesburg – including Huddle House restaurants, Sav-A-Lot grocery stores, two trucking companies with more than 15 18-wheelers on the road, three bulk plants with expectations of greater growth going forward and convenience stores and entertainment venues.
In all of his companies, he employs about 500.
A family thing
Saucier attended North Forrest High School, Jones County Junior College and the University of Southern Mississippi before finishing with a Bachelor’s Degree in Business Administration at William Carey University. And as he studied, he continued working.
Being the only son (he has a sister, Karen, who works with the company), Saucier felt compelled to follow in the footsteps of the other men in the family.
“It’s what I grew up doing and felt comfortable doing,” he said. “It was part of my long-term plan. And for someone who liked to own real estate, it was a way to do it. You know, when you’re your own tenant, you can’t blame anybody but yourself. It was scary at first, but fun, I enjoy it.”
As a child, Saucier’s family lived in Baxterville and Petal before moving to a farm in Eatonville where he and Melissa currently reside with their family and a lot of four-legged family members.
And much like during his teen years, he finds himself doing whatever needs doing. “There’s always something to do, always projects going on,” he said. A lot of times he finds himself out in the field visiting his various stores just to see how and what things are going on.
“We (Keith’s Superstores) are ever growing to become the South’s fastest and friendliest place to shop,” which is the company slogan.
Along the way, Saucier had to change the name of the business. “When employees at our stores answered the phone, they’d say, “Keith’s Hattiesburg or Keith’s Picayune,” wherever they were and it just stuck. That’s how we became Keith’s,” he explained. And for the company he wanted a symbol that would relay the quick service the convenience stores and gas pumps offered. He chose the cheetah.
And while he’s a busy man with a lot of responsibility, Saucier doesn’t let that get in the way of spending time with his and Melissa’s six children – Brent, Ruslan, Julia and a set of triplets, Brace, Brody and Brooks.
But it’s not just his children and those of his employees of which he is so supportive. The company also helps out where it can through charitable donations and sponsorships for children.
“We probably get $50,000 in requests every month, from anywhere we have stores” he said, explaining that once a month a panel of staff members get together to sift through the many requests and provide where they can to children’s organizations and churches which target children’s needs.
“We set our donation budget on the previous month,” he said. “There’s no way we could ever fund every request we receive.”
“He will try to stretch his gifts among many children instead of just one,” said Melissa. “He puts an honest effort to supporting local schools, churches, children’s hospitals and organizations in the state.”
Saucier owns a Cinderella carriage, a stage coach and other wagons which have appeared in area Christmas parades and other events. “We always had a good time in parades, throwing candy and seeing the faces of the children,” he said. It was the looks on those children’s faces that spurred his interest in a Mardi Gras parade. “I had an idea that this type of parade is what I’d like to do. That’s where Melissa comes in,” he said of the work she has done as parade director. “While it could have been a hit and miss or no follow-thru, she took the ball and ran with it and made the parade a reality. That’s what she does. She did most of the work, I’m not going to lie to you. I might have had the idea and we discussed it, but she made it a reality.”
In 2011, the Caerus Parade Group LLC was formed to put on the first such parade the Hub City had ever seen.
“He did all this for the children to enjoy,” said Melissa, who as parade director handles much of the workload, including the publicity, with the help of other KeithCo employees. “He had the hope that a parade in Hattiesburg would allow local children to experience Mardi Gras that some children might otherwise never get to see.”
The Mardi Gras ball was added in recent years as a charitable event. “It was Melissa’s idea to add the ball,” Saucier said of the event which has also been well received. “People like it and I’ve heard so many say they want to be a part of it and that’s great. Melissa is a great event planner.”
Melissa said the ball was a great success, and again, brought something, like never before, to Hattiesburg.
Magnolia Graphics, another local family-owned and operated business helps with all the design work, social media, signage, banners and T-shirts, according to Melissa. “Lance and Gwen Sanderford, along with their daughters, Grace and Bailey, put a world of ‘behind the scenes’ work into the parade,” she said.
Saucier has been surprised with the growth and popularity of the Mardi Gras events, “It’s really been good and has been well received,” he said. “That’s the kind of place Hattiesburg is.”
Saucier said he believes the number of those attending the Caerus parade competes with some of those parades on the Coast. “We wanted to try and keep it family oriented and a Saturday parade during the day helps with that effort. It also works better with schedules and reaches more kids on Saturday,” he said. “We’ve tried to work around everybody’s schedule and get along with everybody.”
Because local groups and businesses couldn’t find floats to decorate, Saucier, stepped up to the plate again. Having access to cotton trailers in North Mississippi, he got employees together to build the floats and rents them out on a two-year contract basis. “It went over well,” he said. The money raised helps make repairs to the floats, whether new flooring, roof or siding. Each float holds about 40 people, has a roof and a toilet.
“We’re not in the float business, but it allowed us to give our parade some big floats by making them accessible,” he said.
The Sauciers love what they do. It’s evident hearing them talk about it.
“We are really big about supporting local,” he said. “It’s never as important as it is today and unfortunately a lot of people don’t realize that. When they spend their money in some stores, it’s sent out of state automatically. It doesn’t stay local. We really push buying local and not just with our businesses, but with everybody. You can look at a lot of towns and see the mom and pop businesses they’ve lost because of big box stores. Shopping local allows businesses to grow, which means things are better for the residents. It enables them to do a lot of projects.”
It’s such projects that Saucier and his team have coming up in the future. “We just love what we do and business is fun for us,” he said. “There’s a lot more we want to do. We hope to be here a long time.”