David Cooper has written and published an entertaining book called The Laundry Man. It is a fun tale that weaves through a fictional Mississippi family that draws on David’s life and experiences growing up Southern.

 As a student at the University of Alabama, David operated a college laundry business that he “bought” from his older brother, Angus Cooper.  David tells me Angus to this day claims he was never paid! They’ve had a lot of fun with that over the years.

Throughout the book, you will recognize people, places, and events that recollect a life of sports, college and fraternity, career, marriage, and children. I enjoyed the aspects of his social life, especially Mardi Gras, his hunting tales, and the building of his career. There are some unexpected twists and turns that conjure up emotions that sometimes hit close to home.

You can tell that David enjoys telling tales. He has earned a reputation for his weekly newsletter columns, which he sends to members of The Supper Club at Sweetwater Branch in Point Clear. This is one of The Cooper Group’s restaurant operations that include Felix’s Fish Camp and The BLUEGILL Restaurant on the Causeway, as well as Ruth’s Chris Steak House in Mobile.

We sat down for a long talk after Christmas in his office at Ruth’s Chris to discuss the book and other things of mutual interest. I’ve known David most of my life. He served on the Board of Visitors at the Culverhouse College of Commerce when I was its Director of Development during the first capital campaign. His family rented the house next door in Point  Clear when I was a child.

I learned that David is a crooner, had a band in high school, and played often for $30 at the CYO parties. In college, he was a member of the Alabama Cavaliers, a student singing group. He also played with a dance band with the likes of Lester Lanin, who was the house band at the Hotel St. Moritz in New York, now the Ritz Carlton in Midtown Manhattan. While in high school,  he interned for a couple of summers at Howard Barney Advertising in Mobile 

As a member of the Board of Visitors, David was always available and took his role as a board member seriously. “In the 70s, there was a desire for boards to add younger people, and I benefited from that,” he says. He has served on 27 civic and corporate boards throughout his career. Each board was rewarded with a man who put forth full effort to contribute, offer advice, and serve in the best interest of the organization or business. I greatly appreciated his time on behalf of the Culverhouse College of Commerce.

When he was Chairman of the Infirmary Health board, it wasn’t unusual for David to walk the halls of the hospital at 3 AM to see how patients were being tended to. “How you treat patients, who really are your customers, when no one is looking, is important,” he says. “I wanted to see if  the staff were filling ice buckets and emptying trash cans in the middle of the night.” This is dedication and one of the hallmarks that makes David a coveted board member as well as a  successful businessman.

We both grew up working on the industrial waterfront. David and his brother, Angus, represented the third-generation operators of the family stevedoring business.  Under their leadership, Cooper Stevedoring saw tremendous growth. As the company grew, it merged with a long-established family stevedoring company in New Orleans, and the name changed to Cooper/T. Smith. As new businesses were formed, the name changed again to The Cooper Group, Inc. to reflect its worldwide operations.

In addition to his laundry business in college, David ran several other businesses and thought Tuscaloosa might become his permanent home. He eventually returned to Mobile and joined the family business only to realize that being on the docks wasn’t his thing. 

That’s when his marketing and business development skills kicked into high gear. He quickly designed the simple company logo that is still in use today with slight modifications over the years to reflect their rapidly growing businesses. David’s keen eye and attention to detail morphed into perhaps the best corporate and client entertainment operation I’ve ever witnessed. 

Along the way, the company hosted client events at Grand Central Station, flying in their chefs and seafood from the Gulf Coast to New York. They also invited customers to Mardi Gras in New Orleans, not to just see it, but to participate as masked riders on floats they had built. They have a camp barge constructed for duck hunting and fishing in Lake Charles and Venice, Louisiana. The list of ways in which the Cooper family entertains is legendary.

David’s eye for entertaining detail knows no bounds. As President of the Mobile Carnival Association, he made many important decisions. He envisioned and developed the corner of Broad and Dauphin Street into a coveted area to watch parades and made this area into the home of the Infant Mystics Den and Float Barn. 

I asked David how he ended up in the restaurant business. “We took customers to the original Ruth’s Chris Steak House in New Orleans and I became good friends with Ruth Fertel, the owner. Ruth’s Chris opened in Mobile when they began franchising. We weren’t the original owners and they were about to close the Mobile location in 1997. I didn’t want to see it close and went to see Ruth about keeping it open.”

A deal was struck and the Coopers were suddenly in the restaurant business. “When I called Angus I said, "Guess what, we now own Ruth’s Chris.” He asked, “How much are we going to lose?” David said, “I don’t know, but you own half!” By 1999, Ruth’s Chris Mobile had won all sorts of national awards.

“We do lots of things that other Ruth’s Chris don’t do. We still have white starched coats for our servers and created the ‘Chrissie‘ (a delicious ice cream after-dinner dessert drink) that none of the other Ruth’s Chris serve. We acquired Constantine’s Restaurant’s recipes, considered the best restaurant in Mobile in our youth, and brought them back.” 

One prominent lady in Mobile is always greeted at the door with her Scotch on the rocks. Originally, the server asked, “What if she doesn’t want a Scotch?” David said, “Then throw it out.” When asked if the Sotch was to her satisfaction, the guest replied, “It’s perfect!.” It is the attention to detail that David Cooper brings to any endeavor.

The Cooper Group is successful beyond measure. David credits his relationship with his brother, Angus, to the fact that they never keep score. If they lost a customer, they would travel across the globe to thank them for their business. “You have to be willing to inconvenience yourself.” 

David appreciates the friends he’s made along the way. “Arthur Outlaw took me under his wing when he was mayor and got me involved in so many things. Mardi Gras has been good to me, it’s opened doors. My friends from college are still close friends.”

The keys to success? “Don’t take yourself too seriously. Have respect and self-confidence. Most successful people are truly humble people. I’ve had such a varied life and I love people from all walks of life. You can find something good in everyone if you take the time to invest in them.”

David, now 78 years old, is still leading an active life in Mobile, Point Clear, and Cashiers, NC. He has been recognized by the business community for his lifetime achievements and was inducted into the Alabama Business Hall of Fame and the State of Alabama Academy of Honor. His beloved University of Alabama presented him with the Transportation Award. 

David and Angus have passed the torch to the next generation to manage The Cooper Group. Angus remains as Chairman and David is Vice-Chairman of the Board. David says he and his wife of fifty years, Joanne are enjoying life to the fullest. He certainly “wrote the book” on how to be a gracious host. You can find Laundry Man, The Life and Times of William Beauregard Butler, Jr. at local specialty shops, or any of the fine dining establishments in the Cooper Restaurant Group. 

Thank you, David.  What a treat!  

Jan 17, 2024
People & Business Profiles

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