Many of us had an uncle who fought in World War II – the most significant event of their lifetimes – and yet didn’t talk about it much.

Richard Zuschlag’s war was Hurricane Katrina, the 2005 disaster that left more than 1,200 people dead, caused more than $100 billion in damages and laid bare every weakness in storm preparedness and emergency response. His company, Acadian Ambulance, based in Lafayette, La., was a notable hero of Katrina. But that’s not a topic Zuschlag comes easily or comfortably to, his feelings still raw.

I don’t know about you, but that’s how I prefer my heroes – reticent. So, I’ll leave Katrina until the very last and instead start off with the story of how you build a company that helps protect and strengthen an entire region.

Today, Acadian employs more than 4,000, providing emergency medical services across South Louisiana and much of Texas. Its scale allows it to operate with the latest technology, investing $20 million a year in ambulances, helicopters and medical equipment. An unusual employee ownership structure binds workers to the company – and to each other, a strength in dangerous situations – and Acadian pays out about $15 million a year to retirees in exchange for long-held company stock.

Louisiana ranks near the bottom in median income and is among the most impoverished states, so Acadian’s employees and retirees are also a notable source of economic stability. Acadian is today the largest privately held company based in Lafayette, according to rankings by ABiz, a local business publication.

In 1971, funeral homes, which had long operated bare-bones ambulances as a sideline, were being forced from the business by federal regulations. Zuschlag, a transplant to Lafayette from Pennsylvania, saw opportunity and teamed up with two partners to start a subscription-based ambulance service. They charged households $15 a year to belong. Acadian signed up 8,400 accounts. And with two ambulances and eight medics (including the partners), it launched, covering the 279 square miles of Lafayette Parish.

Acadian’s service was an improvement and local officials, initially skeptical of the young operators, were won over.

More parishes signed on. Membership ranks grew, as did the fleet of ambulances. More medics were hired. “We never had a plan,” Zuschlag says. “We just went out and expanded.” While Acadian may have lacked a formal strategic plan, its North Star, in a state desperately in need of its service, was a devotion to public safety. Parking its ambulances, free of charge, at high school football games was an early demonstration of its values. Over time, the revenue model would shift from memberships to insurance and government reimbursement. And as licensing requirements grew more stringent, Acadian built its own academy, training hundreds of EMTs a year.

By the 1980s, Acadian launched helicopter service to shorten transport times across the region. Its growing scale allowed it to respond to a federal prison uprising in 1987, transporting 20 patients from the scene, even though the facility was outside its service area. More recently, at the scene of a foggy-morning pileup of scores of cars, in 2012, Acadian responded with 40 medics and carried 37 victims off to area hospitals. “We’ve got a lot we can throw at an emergency,” says Zuschlag.

In 1993, the partners wanted to take some cash out of the successful business and retain control. They found selling 30% of the company to an employee stock ownership plan, or ESOP, brought tax benefits for them, the company and its employees. The operating advantages of an ESOP would become apparent over time.

ESOPs, incidentally, had their start in Louisiana. Louis O. Kelso, a corporate lawyer from Colorado, had for years been promoting the idea of employee ownership. But it wasn’t until the early 1970s, when he had dinner with Russell Long, Democrat of Louisiana and chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, that the idea found its sponsor. Long included ESOP-enabling measures in a far-reaching labor law package in 1974, which became law, and today more than 7,000 ESOPs employ millions of workers.

The ambulance industry, meanwhile, was consolidating. And in the late 1990s Acadian received a lucrative offer to sell. Zuschlag’s original partners, Richard Strulese and Roland Dugas, wanted to take the offer. Zuschlag opposed it. And to the credit of Strulese and Dugas, they agreed to have the ESOP buy them out instead, at a price that ultimately was below what they might have received from a corporate acquirer; they were persuaded that ESOP ownership would be better for Acadian’s employees and for the communities it operated in. To get bank financing, Zuschlag had to personally guarantee the buyout loan, so there was cost to him, as well, in pursuing his vision for Acadian. Zuschlag is now 68 and still CEO.

As so many ESOP companies have found, employee ownership improves performance.  Acadian has experienced lower turnover, less than 20% overall. That’s particularly impressive in the high-turnover ambulance industry, and in a region where the energy industry during its periodic booms pays top dollar to attract labor. Acadian promotes from within to provide a career path for workers. Its top 20 executives have combined 520 years of service.

Employee ownership makes for a cost-conscious workforce. Even little things matter.  Heidi Luquette, 28, an orientation coordinator for hundreds of new EMTs a year, without being asked decided that the $10-a-head box lunches could be better and less expensive, and she and others in the training operation now shop for individual items to build the meals. “It’s my company,” says Luquette, the mother of two small children. “It’s the way I run my own house.”

When an Acadian ambulance is needlessly idling its engine, a co-worker will politely tell the driver, “you’re wasting my ESOP,” says Charles Murphy, a long-time paramedic involved in training. Acadian saves about $1 million on fuel annually by reducing idling. Its internal website carries an idling-to-fuel savings calculator.

Right now, the company is aggressively phasing out 8-mile-per-gallon ambulances, buying pricier vehicles that get twice the mileage, and that cuts annual fuel costs by $2 million, says David Kelly, chief financial officer. Further savings are won by encouraging low absenteeism (and thus reduced overtime expense) – unused sick days can be sold back to the company; and via safe driving – the operating district with the best record gets a steak dinner each year.

“We wouldn’t be the same company without the ESOP,” Kelly says. “The culture, the mindset and the attitude of the employees has gotten better and better.”

All that scrimping pays off when retirement comes around. Acadian’s ESOP comes in the form of a 401(k) match, which is unusual. The company contributes up to 6% of an employee’s salary in the form of ESOP shares.

Ben Sarro spent 37 years at Acadian as a paramedic. Many of his friends around Franklinton, Louisiana, just north of New Orleans, worked as long and as hard as he did, but have next to nothing in retirement savings. Sarro’s combined 401(k) savings and ESOP stock in 2013 came to just under $1 million. With Social Security, Sarro and his wife of 35 years (she was one of his early paramedic partners before quitting to raise children), Paulette, are self-sufficient and enjoying retirement.

The ESOP shares, appraised annually by an outside firm, have grown in value roughly 14% a year since 1993, vastly outperforming the S&P 500 and other benchmarks. Acadian ESOP shares, which might account for half of a retiree’s savings, currently exceed $500,000 for more than 100  of its long-term employees. Today, Acadian is 80% employee owned through its ESOP and 20%  owned by Zuschlag and his family.

As Hurricane Katrina bore down on the Gulf Coast in 2005, the homes of many Acadian employees were swamped. But they came to work – in support of communities and of each other. “We’d entered the New Orleans market just six months earlier,” Zuschlag recalls. “Pretty quick we realized our radio network was the only one working. Phones were out. Cell towers were down.”

Acadian didn’t wait for public sector marching orders. It sent ambulances, helicopters and people into the worst of the chaos, rescuing hundreds and helping to organize state and federal reinforcements when they finally arrived.

“Its medics improvised as they went along,” the New York Times columnist John Tierney marveled in the wake of the storm. “Trees and light posts were cut down so helicopters could land. Medics commandeered three tractor-trailers to move patients out of a hospital. They packed newborns in cardboard boxes to squeeze more of them into the helicopter.” The storm response overall was a disaster. But Acadian was one of a handful of organizations notable for its exemplary performance.

“The most important time in my life is the 18 days I spent dispatching our people and equipment for Katrina,” says Zuschlag. Tears fill his eyes and he stops to compose himself, sitting in Acadian’s headquarters in Lafayette, 135 miles west of New Orleans.

Acadian’s Katrina reputation helped it expand across Texas in the past decade, nearly doubling the size of the company. With revenues of about $400 million, Acadian has been consistently profitable over the past 25 years, even during the Great Recession and the recent oil-price decline, which hurt the company’s offshore medical services operation.

Zuschlag tells me he currently plans to work another 5 years, to 73, and hopes to sell his shares to the ESOP, making Acadian 100% employee owned.