When more than 1,000 entrepreneurs gather at the Black Enterprise Entrepreneurs Conference + Expo in Columbus, Ohio May 14-17, they will witness the presentation of the coveted A. G. Gaston Lifetime Achievement Award which “recognizes the entrepreneurial spirit and the guiding light of an individual who has established an extended and consistently distinguished record of success.” The award was named in honor of Arthur George Gaston, who was named BLACK ENTERPRISE‘s Entrepreneur of the Century in 1992 – a legendary businessman who built a conglomerate in segregated Birmingham, Alabama, becoming one of the nation’s first African American multimillionaires and a financial supporter of the Civil Rights Movement.
1996: The first recipient of the A.G. Gaston Lifetime Achievement Award was advertising industry visionary Thomas J. Burrell, founder and CEO of Burrell Communications Group. The reason: His “reputation for sharing his knowledge and expertise [as well as the fact] that he is an inspirational leader of the African American community.” He became known as the “Dean of Black Advertising” after gaining a track record for breaking barriers within the media industry as well as serving as a mentor and advocate for minorities in advertising, marketing and media. Gaining A-list clients like P&G, Coca-Cola and McDonald’s Corp. by developing targeted campaigns that reflected relevant, authentic portrayals of African Americans in their use of clients’ products, his firm became the nation’s largest black-owned agency in the 1980s and one of the first to handle a general market account.
Black Enterprise Marathon Men Cover
1997: To celebrate the 25th anniversary of the BE 100s – our rankings of the nation’s largest black-owned businesses – we saluted the CEOs of companies that had made the list since its inception: Our “Marathon Men.” Those honored were John H. Johnson, chairman and CEO of Johnson Publishing Co., home of Ebony and Jet Magazines as well as Fashion Fair Cosmetics; Herman J. Russell, CEO of H. J. Russell & Co., the nation’s largest black-owned construction firm; Edward Lewis, CEO & publisher and Clarence Smith, president of Essence Communications, Inc., parent of Essence magazine and ESSENCE Music Festival; Nathan G. Conyers, CEO of Conyers Riverside Ford Inc., the oldest black dealership and Earl G. Graves, Sr., chairman and publisher of BLACK ENTERPRISE.
1998: The late politician, Tuskegee Airman, and civil rights activist Percy Sutton purchased a single radio station in New York City in 1972 for $1.9 million – with 50 original shareholders, including Jesse Jackson, future New York City Mayor David Dinkins, Malcolm X’s widow Betty Shabazz, and the Sutton family owning more than 51% – and grew it into media conglomerate Inner City Broadcasting. His model of R&B, talk radio, and community service would be replicated nationwide. The company eventually went on to add WBLS-FM, one of New York City’s top ranked radio stations, along with stations in San Francisco, Los Angeles, and San Antonio. After saving the famed Apollo Theater in 1981, his company produced the hit television show, Showtime at the Apollo, as well as produced a generation of civic-minded entrepreneurs.
2000: As president and CEO of Atlanta Life Insurance Co. – founded in 1905 by former slave turned millionaire Alonzo Herndon – Jesse Hill, Jr. applied his business acumen and razor-sharp financial skills to build the institution into one of the largest black financial services companies. During his tenure, Atlanta Life became the only insurer to the BE Insurance Company of the Year twice in a decade – in 1982 and 1988. He took it to new heights by growing assets and boosting policyholders through mergers and acquisitions—even hostile takeovers. He also added sophisticated insurance products and new technology.
2001: The founder of Motown Entertainment built an institution that dominated the BE 100s for 15 years, from its inception in 1973 to 1988 when he sold the company. An inductee into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, he is credited with not only creating America’s soundtrack with such hit makers as Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder but also designing a business model emulated by entrepreneurs within the entertainment industry such as Russell Simmons, Sean “P. Diddy” Combs and Jay-Z.
George and Joan Johnson
2002: Founders of Johnson Products Co., among the top 20 BE 100s companies for two decades, George and Joan Johnson built one of the nation’s largest black-owned haircare companies as well as created enduring brands such as Afro Sheen and Ultra Sheen. Starting from humble beginnings – in 1954, George launched the enterprise with a $250 vacation loan – the Chicago-based company would expand its brands and make history in the process. In 1971, it became the first black advertiser to sponsor a nationally syndicated TV show, “Soul Train,” and the first publicly held black-owned company traded on the American Stock Exchange.
2003: For more than a half century, John W. Barfield demonstrated his entrepreneurial prowess by building a one-man janitorial service into The Bartech Group Inc., a BE 100s leader. In 1951, he and his wife, Betty, launched a part-time janitorial service and expanded the enterprise through obsessive attention to detail, winning major corporate clients like General Motors and Burroughs Corp. In the 1970s, he diversified his operations by launching Barfield Manufacturing, producing parts for The Big Three auto makers. Then in 1984, the company made history when its small technical services subsidiary merged with Day & Zimmerman, a then-engineering and construction giant, in one of the first major mergers between a majority-owned company and a black-owned business. Bartech emerged from that deal and became an innovator within the tech and staffing sectors for almost 30 years. (Photo is courtesy of The HistoryMakers)
2004: Considered the “Godfather of Black Entertainment,” Clarence Avant’s reach extended from Hollywood to the White House. He created thriving entertainment companies and paved the way for legions of African Americans to become industry leaders. A talented dealmaker, he formed Sussex Records, a BE 100s company that became home to 1970s chartbusters Bill Withers and Dennis Coffey; created Tabu Records, which produced hits from Kool & the Gang, Alexander O’Neal and the S.O.S. Band; and was instrumental in helping launch LaFace Records and careers of top producers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis. He also made history when he purchased KAGB-FM, one of the first black-owned FM stations in Metro Los Angeles.
2005: Alden McDonald has served as president and CEO of New Orleans-based Liberty Bank & Trust since the bank’s inception in 1972, making him the nation’s longest tenured African American financial executive. He has grown the institution from $2 million in start-up capital to $536 million in assets in 2013, a mainstay on the BE BANKS List. He received his honor before the devastation of Hurricane Katrina in 2006 and the financial meltdown of 2008 but those crises proved why McDonald was so worthy. His rock-solid leadership and dedication to customers and community fortified the institution. McDonald’s recent orchestration of mergers and acquisitions as well as creation of new products and services have secured Liberty’s leadership among minority-owned financial services companies.
2007: The “Dean of Black Economists,” the late Andrew F. Brimmer played a critical role in the development of financial institutions, advancement of local and national government and expansion of enterprises, large and small. The first African American to serve as a Federal Reserve Board Governor, Brimmer was among those responsible for maintaining the stability of the nation’s financial system. After he left the Fed in 1974 and served decades as a Harvard University professor and then CEO of his own consulting firm, he was tapped in 1995 to rescue Washington, D.C. from financial collapse as chairman of the D.C. Financial Control Board. A mentor to a generation of black economists and tireless advocate for black business development, Brimmer was tapped by our Publisher Earl G. Graves. Sr. to become a member of the first BE Board of Advisers and a founding member of the BE Board of Economists.
2008: As president and chairman of the food distibution company The James Corp., the late C.H. James II dedicated 36 years of his life to molding a multigenerational business into a BE 100s company. A rarity among African American CEOS, James represented the third generation to operate the James Produce Co. and C.H. James & Co. which was established by his grandfather, C.H. James, in 1883. C.H. James & Co. appeared on the BE 100s for decades and was named BE Company of the Year in 1976 and 1992. The business was taken over by the fourth-generation CEO, his son C.H. James III who expanded it several times and maintained its status as a BE 100s company for years.
The “King of Chemicals” was one of Indiana’s most successful businessmen and is the founder and CEO of Mays Chemical Co., which he started in 1980. The company rapidly expanded as one of the largest distributors of chemicals and raw materials, and today, is one of the 15 largest chemical distribution companies in the country.
2010: The late Don Barden was know for entering uncharted territory for black entrepreneurs. As such, the titan developed the largest black cable television operator as CEO of Detroit-based Barden Communications Inc. and then managed the only black-owned gaming conglomerate with properties in Las Vegas and Gary, Indiana as head of The Barden Cos. Inc., The Majestic Star and Fitzgeralds Casinos and Hotels. A mentor to generations of black professionals and entrepreneurs, Barden earned BE Company of the Year honors in two industries: In 1992 for Barden Communications and in 2003 for The Barden Cos.
2011: Eddie Brown, considered one of the world’s most renowned stock pickers, founded Brown Capital Management Inc. in 1983. Over the decades, he has grown his firm into one of the nation’s largest black asset managers and developed a series of mutual funds, giving a number of African Americans the often elusive opportunity to serve as portfolio managers.
2012: To attract clients to his UniWorld Group Inc., Byron Lewis created innovative programs such as black radio soap operas and the nationally syndicated television program, “America’s Black Forum.” UniWorld was one of the first agencies to focus on multicultural micro-segments, targeting the Latino and Caribbean communities.
2013: Robert L. Johnson is what has become known as a serial entrepreneur – and history maker. His first business milestone was taking BET public in 1991, the first time a black-owned company was traded on the New York Stock Exchange. In 2000, he sold the cable network to Viacom for $3.2 billion, making him the first African American billionaire. He acquired the Charlotte Bobcats in 2003, creating the first NBA franchise owned by an African American before he sold his interest years later. Still striking deals and forming partnerships, he has two thriving BE 100s companies – a billion-dollar black auto dealership and a top-ranked private equity firm.