ENTERPRISE,” he says. “It’s not family-owned and there wasn’t an heir apparent. The comparisons are inaccurate at best and unfair at worse.”
However, the founder of one BE 100S company with a major multinational corporate partner managed to keep the institution in black hands. When Thomas J. Burrell decided to step down from his post as chairman and CEO of his Chicago-based firm, Burrell Communications Group (No. 3 on the BE ADVERTISING list with $190 million in billings), he carefully crafted a succession plan that gave his three top managers an even share of the 51% majority ownership the firm retained after its merger with Publicis Groupe. The French global advertising and communications agency still retains its 49% minority stake.
Says Rev. Al Sharpton, president of the National Action Network, a New York-based activist group, “in this era of megamergers, we must be careful as we expand our resources that we do not eradicate black institutions with an independent voice. If we are not cautious, we will become a community with no independent institutions to combat racism and discrimination as well as interpret our culture and tell our story.”
The former presidential candidate says he met with Lewis shortly after the announcement of the sale. Sharpton said Lewis told him that he sold Essence to Time Inc., in part, “to do what Bob Johnson did”—use the proceeds, clout, and connections from his corporate dealings to build other black institutions. But Sharpton counters that there are a number of African Americans in the financial community with the ability to raise the capital to purchase Essence and, at the same time, maintain black ownership. He argues that black entrepreneur
s and financiers should have at least been given the option to make a bid. “Although blacks may have not been able to amass the $3.9 billion it took to buy BET, they could have put together the funds needed to purchase Essence,” Sharpton asserts. “I told them that we should bring these opportunities to the dinner table [before bringing them to] the neighbors first, so we can keep things in the family.”
Sharpton says that the preservation of black institutions is such a pressing issue that he intends to call an emergency summit to assemble black entrepreneurs and financiers to develop strategies and create funds that would have the available capital to acquire black-owned businesses.
Since its inception, the Essence that was co-founded by Lewis and his partner, Clarence O. Smith (along with Cecil Hollingsworth and Johnathan Blount), was rooted in the same basic editorial and business philosophy as the other two top African American publishing companies—one of black independence and empowerment. In fact, when Essence forged the alliance with Time in 2000, Lewis asserted the company would maintain its commitment to black ownership. As the partnership with Time was set in motion, however, it became clear that Essence would eventually surrender control.
When ECP and Time became partners five years ago, the merger was considered an example of a workable partnership between a black entrepreneurial-based firm