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.

Headquarters: Chicago, IL
Business interests: Publishing, cosmetics, hair care, broadcasting
Key executives: Linda Johnson Rice, president; Eunice Johnson, secretary/treasurer

Year Rank Sales Employees
1973 2 $23.1 million 245
1997 2 $ 325.7 million 2702

Johnson Publishing Co. Founder John H. Johnson

When John H. Johnson started the Negro Digest 5 5 years ago, it was the predecessor of what would become,,Ebony magazine, which would spawn Jet. and this would lead to other, now defunct spin-offs. But those failures would lead to his most recent successes–Ebony Man, and Ebony South Africa, which marked the company’s foray into international publishing. Along the way, Johnson bought and sold three ratio stations, started a book publishing division and produced the former syndicated television show Ebony/Jet Showcase, and now produces the annual American Black Achievement Awards for television sign, which first aired in 1978. Johnson also created two beauty care lines–Supreme Beauty Products and the world-renown Fashion Fair Cosmetics.

While he is loath to consider himself an old man at 79, Johnson had run the gauntlet for some 30 years before the first BE 100s list was ever published. When it was, he was listed second only to Motown Industries. For that, he’s the veteran iron man in black-owned business–always fighting, always finishing at the top among the BE 100s companies. But like most, he’s faced his share of hurdles.
“The first 25 years were difficult, trying to get circulation and to break through in advertising to get large companies to recognize that black consumers had money and would respond to advertising directed to them,” Johnson says. “The first 20 years or so in business, we couldn’t get a bank loan. Even the largest businesses in the world need bank loans at some time or must have some other way to access capital.”

The second 25 years have been easier. Johnson has seen the company mature, circulation double, start new businesses and change the method by which its flagship properties are handled. “You have to meet the new challenges [of the 21st century], so in 1993, we took all three magazines–Ebony, Ebony Man and Jet–desk-top. Now we can send them to the printer via e-mail, and in South Africa, it’s the same thing,” explains Johnson.

The legendary publisher says the hurdle for black businesses in the next 25 years will continue to be the same–“money, money, money,” he scoffs. “But if you have the staying power and wherewithal, that is assuming you have a good product and market to sell to, you’ll be successful.” Johnson’s mission over these next years is to see the company survive and grow. To do so, he says that he will take advantage of all new opportunities and embrace new technology to get there. “Never say never about new things,” advises the venerable publisher.

Johnson has no plans to retire. “I enjoy myself, I don’t work. When you love something, it’s not work. I don’t know anything that gives me the same amount of pleasure.” But he began putting a succession plan in place when he brought daughter Linda Johnson Rice on board. “I see her playing an increasing role in the management of the company and myself, a lesser role, but never disassociated,” says Johnson of his daughter who is now president of the company. ” Parents never give up their children, and this is my child,” he adds.

He also has no plans to sell his company or take it public. And he says his daughter couldn’t agree more. “I could sell it and get a lot of cash, but I don’t see that I could do anything else that would bring me as much fulfillment as this. I’ve spent 55 ears being my own boss; I’m too old to have another.

“If you go public, stockholders, the lard of directors, SEC (Securities Exchange Commission) are all your bosses and you’ve got to listen to them,” he says. “We only have three board members: Linda, her mother [Eunice Johnson] and I. Linda will succeed me. Even now, I don’t do anything that she doesn’t agree on, and she me. There’s a mutual love and respect, so it’s s a joint veture now.”

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