Steven N. Cousins, a Financial and Real Estate Services partner at Armstrong Teasdale, was honored by The Missouri Bar Foundation with its 2017 Martin J. Purcell award. The award acknowledges outstanding professionalism in a Missouri lawyer who has consistently demonstrated an exceptional degree of competency, integrity and civility in both professional and civic activities. Purcell was president of The Missouri Bar in 1968-69.
Though Cousins counts many colleagues at Armstrong Teasdale – where he was the firm’s first African-American lawyer, its first African-American partner, and its first African American to serve on the Executive Committee – as mentors, his most formative teacher was not an attorney. He was an exterminator. His father, Frank Cousins, rose from poverty to become a successful businessman.
“My father went to college for a few years, went to Stowe College, and then dropped out and went to the service,” Steven Cousins said. “He was sort of the star of the family, and when he decided to go into the service and not complete his education, he was sort of frowned upon, because he wasn’t a high performer, but he always had confidence and knew exactly who he was.”
Though Frank Cousins had role models and family members who were successful in business, he chose to join the military instead of following that path. When he left the service, he took on three jobs to support his family. He worked at a hospital, as a painter and, most notably, as a jazz musician who played the saxophone with Chuck Berry.
During this time, Frank Cousins and his wife had four children, and Frank found that working three jobs was not enough to lift his family out of poverty. He came up with a new plan: to found his own company.
“So imagine having four kids, quitting three jobs, and saying, ‘I’ve got an idea,’ which is ‘I’m going to create a pest control company,’” Steven Cousins said. “Which drove my mother nuts. She said, ‘Are you crazy? We’ve got kids to support.’ But he had confidence in his ability. He was gonna read up on the area and focus, and that’s what he did.”
Frank’s company, Allied Exterminators, ultimately was successful. Its clients ranged, Steven Cousins said, from low-income people and residential buildings to high-income customers and commercial buildings.
When Frank remarried after the death of his first wife, they were able to move to St. Louis County and send their four children, Steven Cousins’ younger half-siblings, to private schools. But Frank never forgot where he came from.
“For a lot of poor people who couldn’t afford to get rid of pests, insects, he’d work free,” Steven Cousins said. “Just to sort of make their world better, he did that all the time. So a lot of people who have become prosperous, sort of pulled themselves up by their bootstraps, they have in their background poverty. So a lot of them know my father and know his company, Allied Exterminators, because he did work for free. And didn’t brag about it, just did it.”
Steven Cousins credits his father as one of the biggest influences on his life and his best career advisor. It was his father who encouraged Steven to pursue the new field of bankruptcy law a few years after the bankruptcy code was released in 1978. At the time, Cousins thought he would take the traditional path to success for associates at the firm, working in tax law. His father asked him three questions when asked for guidance.
“Well, Steve, how many people are in the tax department?”
“Well, how many people will be in the bankruptcy department?”
“Who’s the president?”
“Well, there goes the inventory,” Frank Cousins said. “By the time he gets through screwing up the economy, you’ll have a lot of work to do.”
“And it was true,” his son recalled many years later. “He screwed up the economy.”
This anecdote portrays Frank Cousins’ style of offering advice.
“He always had confidence in his ability, and he was a straight talker, straight shooter, a very smart man who would, in a very unvarnished way, tell you exactly what he thought about you – including his customers, sometimes, if he didn’t agree with them,” Steven Cousins said.
“When I usually walk into a place these days and tell them my father’s Frank Cousins, if it’s poor black folks, including some civil rights leaders who knew my father or whose fathers and mothers knew my father, I say ‘If I’m half the man that my father was, I’ll be a great man.’” They say, “No, no. If you were anything like your dad you’d be a great man.”