When BLACK ENTERPRISE presented the A.G. Gaston Lifetime Achievement Award honoring entrepreneurial excellence at its Second Annual Black Enterprise Entrepreneurs Conference in 1997, our editors did not honor just one exemplary business leader but a collection of titans. 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.
We called them “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; Nathan G. Conyers, owner of Conyers Riverside Ford Inc., the oldest black dealership.
Two of the five companies, Johnson Publishing and H.J. Russell & Co. had been well established and demonstrated staying power when the first listing of the then BLACK ENTERPRISE 100 was compiled and published in June 1973. The other three, Essence Communications, Conyers Riverside Ford and BE, were all launched in 1970 at a time when “Black Capitalism” was both a Washington policy initiative and thrust of black business and civil rights leaders promoting self-determination and empowerment.
In the June 1997 issue, our editors wrote of the Marathon Men as being trailblazers “who have paved roads where others feared to tread.” At the time, these CEOs maintained that they didn’t plan on selling their businesses because “too much blood, too much sweat and too many years have gone into them.”
The late John H. Johnson started JPC in 1942 with Negro Digest, the predecessor to Ebony and Jet, some 30 years before the first BE 100s list. He would create an international conglomerate that included magazines, book publishing, radio stations, a fashion show and cosmetic companies. For more than 60 years, he touched the lives of millions of African Americans in every facet of life, sharing their talents and potential, exposing injustice and racism, and shattering social and commercial barriers. At the same time, he introduced corporate America to the black consumer market.
Among the JPC brands housed in the Michigan Avenue building Johnson owned: Ebony, Jet, Ebony Fashion Fair, Fashion Fair Cosmetics and Supreme Life Insurance Co., the employer that launched his career that he would eventually place among the top 10 on the BE INSURANCE list. Due to these milestones and many more, Johnson was named BE’s Entrepreneur of the Decade in 1987.
A decade later when Johnson enjoyed Marathon Man status, the company was No. 2 on the BE INDUSTRIAL/SERVICE List with gross sales of $326 million. Today, JPC is run by its chairman Linda Johnson Rice, the founder’s daughter, and CEO Desiree Rogers, former White House Social Secretary. It is still positioned among the BE 100s. A speaker at our 2014 Women of Power Summit, Johnson Rice said that she sold an equity stake to JPMorgan Chase’s Special Investment Group and divested assets such as the office building to reposition the media and lifestyle company for the digital era.
Ranked No. 43 0n the 2013 BE INDUSTRIAL/SERVICE list with $70 million in revenue, JPC is a smaller, nimbler entity as Johnson Rice and Rogers seek to leverage its collection of media assets to connect with today’s consumers.
As chairman of H. J. Russell & Co., Herman Russell has changed the skylines of American cities and international hubs, developed business and political opportunities for African Americans, and broken barriers in the construction industry. One of the largest minority contractors, Russell has served as an advocate of and mentor to legions of black business owners nationwide. At the time that Russell received the award, his company was ranked No. 5 on the BE INDUSTRIAL/SERVICE List with $164 million in gross sales.
In addition to constructing the headquarters of corporate giants like Coca-Cola and Wachovia, H.J. Russell served as one of the contractors that built the stadium for the Summer 1996 Centennial Olympic Games in Atlanta. The stadium and other facilities became part of an urban renewal effort in one of the city’s badly deteriorated sections.
By 1997, Russell’s son, H. Jerome Russell, was named president and chief operating officer of the firm while youngest son, Michael, was named vice president of joint venture construction. His daughter and oldest child, Donata Russell Major, became vice president of Concessions International Corporation. The new structure was the first step in the transition to the next generation. Surprisingly, Russell exited the CEO’s office and filled the position with R.K. Sehgal, an outsider to the family business. Sehgal’s tenure was short-lived though: After the two disagreed about the firm’s direction, Russell returned to the helm by the end of 1998.
In 2003, Russell retired as CEO for a second time and installed his youngest son, Michael, into the top spot. Today, the firm continues to focus on high-profile construction projects as well as redevelop urban areas nationwide. In fact, it was ranked No. 15 on the 2013 BE INDUSTRIAL/SERVICE list with gross revenue of $248 million. The founder currently serves as the company’s chairman and spends much time involved with philanthropic ventures.
For more than 40 years, Essence magazine has celebrated the beauty and potential of African American women. Edward Lewis and Clarence Smith were among the original founders who the handled finance and operations and generated sales, respectively, and together transformed a single publication enterprise into Essence Communications, Inc, a diversified conglomerate that incorporated publishing, entertainment and licensing. Along the way, they were also savvy enough to tap Susan Taylor as Editor-In-Chief in 1981 – the face and voice of the brand for more than 25 years.
In 1995, to celebrate the magazine’s 25th anniversary, Lewis and Smith created the Essence Music Festival, which today is arguably one of the nation’s largest music festivals with more than a half million people traveling to New Orleans for empowerment sessions, networking opportunities and entertainment that includes big-name acts like Beyonce, Prince and Jill Scott.
ECI opened its door with just $130,000 and, by the time Lewis and Smith received the A.G. Gaston Award, it ranked No. 19 on the BE INDUSTRIAL/SERVICE List with gross sales of $93 million. The new millennium brought great change to the company with Time Inc.’s acquisition of a majority interest in 2005, Taylor’s departure from the company and the dissolution of the Lewis-Smith partnership, considered one of the most enduring unions in black business for more than three decades.
Known as the “Dean of Black Auto Dealers,” Nathan G. Conyers was one of 13 CEOs whose dealerships appeared on the first BE 100s rankings. His acumen kept the engine of his business humming for decades, making Conyers Riverside Ford Inc., the oldest black dealership on our roster at the time he received BE’s top honor. In 1997, his dealership had been ranked No. 34 on the BE AUTO DEALER 100 with gross sales of $49 million.
A lawyer by training, Conyers assumed responsibility of the dealership in a coin toss with his brother John Jr., the congressman, in 1970, fulfilling the dream of their father, a life-long Chrysler assembly line worker, of establishing a family business. He became a powerful advocate for African Americans in the industry, helping to create the National Black Dealers Association and serving as its first president in 1970. And by 1979, Conyers established the Ford Lincoln Mercury Black Dealers Association, leading the fight for minority dealers to gain much-needed financial support from federal agencies. Moreover, this top-notch entrepreneur known for his professionalism and service – he was a recipient of Time Magazine’s Quality Dealer Award – also playing the vital role of mentor to others within the sector. In fact, he had been credited with training scores of African American dealers, many of whom were women.
After 33 years in the business, Conyers closed the doors of the Detroit dealership and for years continued to operate within the industry as owner of Jaguar of Novi, another company among the BE 100s.
As founder and publisher of BLACK ENTERPRISE, Earl G. Graves. Sr. created a vehicle to provide information and advocacy that has enabled three generations of African Americans to build wealth through business ownership, career advancement, and money management. He used his media company to open doors for the best and brightest in the global business arena.
This “Champion of Black Business” used his media outlet and service on numerous corporate boards to serve as a powerful voice for diversity and inclusion within the executive suite and supply chain as well as wealth-building efforts for African Americans. This message was delivered through a magazine; website; two television shows, Black Enterprise Business Report and Our World with Black Enterprise; and a series of conferences. Key to his mission: Creation of empowerment and aspirational vehicles like the BE 100s – the national barometer of black business – and Wealth for Life.
An inductee into the U.S. Business Hall of Fame and recipient of the NAACP Spingarn Medal, Graves had also served as chairman and CEO of Pepsi-Cola of Washington, D.C., L.P., the nation’s largest minority-controlled Pepsi-Cola franchise from 1990 and to the end of 1998 when it was sold back to the parent company. In 1997, at the time of honor, Graves owned and operated two companies on the BE INDUSTRIAL/SERVICE list: Pepsi-Cola of Washington, D.C. ranked No. 33 with gross sales of $56 million, and Earl G. Graves, Ltd., parent of BE, at No. 73 with gross sales of $30 million.
In January 2006, Graves named his eldest son, Earl “Butch” Graves, Jr. as CEO. With that promotion, Graves Jr. represents the transition to the next generation of leadership, one that will continue the mission through expansion of the franchise across various media platforms.