Bad Hair Days

Today, few ethnic haircare products are owned by black companies. Their decades-long legacy has been lost to mainstream manufacturers.

third of the market controlled by just one company.

Whoever said never do business with family members obviously had the players in the haircare industry in mind. “Johnson Products, Soft Sheen, and Pro-Line were family corporations, as opposed to a company like Alberto-Culver or Revlon,” says Washington. “And in all three cases, it was family situations that led to their sale.”

Carson opened an old wound for the black community by acquiring Johnson Products from IVAX in 1998. In 1971, Johnson Products became the first African American-owned firm listed on the American Stock Exchange. In 1993, after George and Joan Johnson were involved in a somewhat messy divorce, Johnson Products Corp. and all of its brands, including Ultra Sheen, Gentle Treatment, and Posner, were sold for $67 million to IVAX. Talk about devastating. The leaders of the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition at that time called for a boycott of IVAX. Incidentally, George and Joan remarried in 1996 (see “Where Are They Now?” August 2000).

With Soft Sheen, Washington believes internal squabbling among Gardner family members who owned the company also led to the sale of the company to L’Oreal. “Again, I think that the internal situation overrode the commitment to stay a black corporation in a black industry,” says Washington.

Edward and Bettian Gardner began Soft Sheen as a black family-owned business over 30 years ago. Soft Sheen was the originator of Care free Curl, Wave Nouveau, Optimum Care relaxer, and some 150 other haircare and cosmetic products. At its pinnacle, Soft Sheen stood as a major economic and political force in Chicago. The company grew from an obscure $500,000 haircare-products manufacturer into an industrial powerhouse, exiting the be industrial/service 100 list at No. 18, with $95 million in sales for 1997, as the top haircare manufacturer.

Terri Gardner, daughter of Edward and Bettian Gardner and former president and CEO at Soft Sheen and current president of the Soft Sheen/Carson division at L’Oreal, admits that selling the company freed up other family members to explore other interests. She also claims that selling the company was a matter of growth and survival.

“We wanted to get to the next level, and doing so on our own would have been very difficult,” says Gardner, who decided to sell completely instead of compete. According to sources, at the time of the sale, Terri and her brother, Gary, who were running the company, were at odds. Instead of fighting it out with Terri, Gary relinquished control and went on to begin Namaste, producer of the Organic Root Stimulator brand of haircare products.

Under totally different circumstances, Comer Cottrell, CEO and founder of Pro-Line Corp. (No. 39 on the be industrial/service 100 list with $65 million in sales for 1998), sold the company to Alberto-Culver, manufacturer of Alberto VO5 and St. Ives Swiss Formula skincare brands. In March of this year, Alberto-Culver added Cottrell’s Pro-Line brands, Soft & Beautiful and Just for Me, to its ethnic line. Industry insiders suspect Cottrell sold the company because he was just tired

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