Marathon Men

These CEOs have led their companies to perennial status on the B.E. 100s list. Here are their predictions for the next quarter century.

I returned, and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill, but time and chance happeneth to them all.
–Ecclesiastes 9:11

Arguably, Being In The Right Place At The Right time with the right idea played a role in helping these five BE 100s businesses get established. But chance does not a successful business or lasting prosperity make; it takes faith, determination, patience, perseverance and just plain guts to keep a business going when all others have given up.

Two of these five companies, Johnson Publishing Co. and H.J. Russell &: Co., were firmly established and enjoying some measure of success when the first list of the top 100 black-owned businesses, then called the BLACK ENTERPRISE 100, was compiled and published in June 1973. The other three, including Earl G. Graves Publishing Co. Inc. (BE), Essence Communications Inc. and Conyers Riverside Ford, were all launched in 1970 at a time when the clarion call was for black America to get a piece of the economic pie.

Said Pat Patterson, the magazine’s first editor, on the 20th anniversary of the founding of the BE 100s: “It was a brilliant stroke. Not only did it give the magazine national credence, but it gave added recognition to those black businesses that were outstanding in the country. Now, it’s the standard by which you can judge the progress of black business in this country.”

Many businesses have made the BE 100s over the 25-year history of the list. Several companies currently on the BE 100s were also featured on the first list, but only these five companies and their six chief executives have been on every one published since 1973. For that, we salute these Marathon Men, who have paved roads where others feared to tread, with the 1997 A.G. Gaston Lifetime Achievement Award, presented at the second annual Black Enterprise/NationsBank Entrepreneurs Conference at Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando, Florida.

Now, at the dawn of a new century, their outlook for the future bodes well. All have expanded their companies from its core to new markets or to related lines of business. They are now faced with the challenge of passing their businesses on. For some, a gradual passing of the torch and day-to-day responsibilities to their heirs is well under way. Others are relying on key company executives to help run the business while their off-spring get up to speed. Some are going global; still others may go public. All say they don’t plan on ever selling their business– too much blood, too much sweat, and too many years have gone into them.

John H. Johnson has run this race before, only to come around and run it again. The rest intend to do similarly. But then, the race is not only to the swiftest or mightiest, but to him that endureth over time.

Success comes to the ordinary individual, even to ordinary ability. But triumph over the disasters and fears of mortal life is only granted to great men… You may be a great man, but if Fortune gives you no chance to demonstrate your merit, how am I to know your greatness?. . . No one knows what he can accomplish except by trying.
–Seneca, On Providence, IV

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