Lessons From The Top

Three of 11 Titans of the B.E. 100s share their trials and triumphs on the climb up

Who runs the nation’s largest black-owned companies? Bootstrap entrepreneurs. Master dealmakers. Innovative inventors. High-risk venturers. This self-made group of African Americans has been the vanguard of an entrepreneurial revolution.

Achieving despite lack of capital, diminished access and outright racism, they used imagination and drive to seize opportunities and break barriers. All stand among black America’s wealthiest and most powerful players.

The ascension of the be 100s-the companies that black enterprise magazine has ranked and chronicled for more than 25 years-represents the economic evolution of African Americans since
World War II. Black businesses have shown significant growth over the past quarter of a century. The original Top 100, which included industrial, service and professional businesses, had total annual
sales of $473.4 million and employed a total of 9,267 people. Today, these companies have revenues exceeding $14 billion and more than 55,000 employees on their payrolls.

Whether they are bootstrappers, innovators or financial engineers, there are common traits shared by these business titans:

  • Vision. All envisioned products and services that filled a void in the consumer market and, in turn, revolutionized and advanced whole industries.
  • Order. All know their sectors intimately and have tightly structured their organizations. These chief executives find talented employees and advisers to lift their concern to the next level.
  • Focus. Many have built their companies from the ground up and have been relentless in doing so.
  • Passion. These CEOs love the companies that they run and become energized by new ventures-and adventures.

In the course of 25 years, this new breed of entrepreneur has become rich, prominent and powerful. They were able to do so because they kept their enterprises in step with-and, in some cases, ahead of-the times.

JOHN H. JOHNSON
Johnson Publishing Co. Inc.
The end of World War II brought veterans, black and white, home to find jobs and start families. Their return signaled the promise of affluence. In 1945, John H. Johnson, all
of 27, was being drawn into exploring new frontiers.

Through informal research, the young publisher [of The Negro Digest] found that large numbers of blacks were buying Life, the popular pictorial magazine, from newsstands on Chicago’s South Side. These readers would be far more interested in a similar publication that revealed the positive aspects of black life.

Ebony hit newsstands on November 1, 1945. Black readers scooped up the Life-sized publication, chock-full of articles and striking black-and-white photos chronicling black achievement. Johnson set high standards for himself, announcing that he would not accept one page of advertising until he guaranteed a circulation of 100,000. With virtually no competition, the magazine surpassed its circulation goal in one year. The Audit Bureau of Circulations revealed that Ebony’s paid sales of more than 300,000 by the end of 1946 made it the most widely circulated black publication in the world.

But, in pushing Ebony, Johnson broke one of his cardinal rules: he grew too fast. Ebony was draining the company’s coffers. As a result, from 1945 to 1947, Johnson was forced to do everything he could to keep his fledgling company from sinking. He postponed the payment of bills, stalled

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