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: New York, NY
Business interests: Magazine publishing business products and services
Key executives: Earl G. Graves Jr., executive vice president/COO, Luther M. Ragin Jr., vice president/CFO; John C. Graves, senior vice president, B.E. Unlimited

Year Rank Sales Employees
1973 75 $1.7 million 30
1997 73 $30.1 million 74

Black Enterprise Founder Earl G. Graves

Imagine–or remember–the surprise many Americans, black and white, got after the disturbances of the ’60s when they opened their mailboxes during those hot, hazy summer days of August 1970 and found a copy of BLACK ENTERPRISE magazine. Inside, publisher Graves had assembled a prestigious of advisors made up of black business and politics of the day the question, Why BLACK: PRISE?” It put the civil rights into perspective–now that we’ve right to vote, would we be free to pursue a slice of the American economic pie?

Fast forward three years. Graves it was time to quantify and qualify and size of black businesses in Am produced the first BLACK ENTERPRISE listing the top 100 black-owned business in the United States.
In a letter to his father on the Publisher’s Page of the June 1973 issue, Graves “We have arrived at a point in history we can identify thousands of black-owned and black- controlled business–many still embryonic and still struggling for survival–that have been and are being established across this country. These are humble beginnings. But they are significant.”

Fast forward again to 1997 and Grave now older and a lot wiser, reflects on the early years. “I was trying to run a business myself, while telling others what they needed to know about trying to start or run their businesses,” he says. “It was like being the teacher and reading five chapters ahead of the class, like a student-teacher.”

Assisting him in the process was his wife Barbara, who gave up her job as a teacher to help her husband pursue his goal. The magazine set out to tell readers “how to” do it. In the process, its circulation has grown from a controlled subscriber base of 100,000 to a current list of 300,000 and 3.1 million readers.

Along the way, Graves bought and sold two radio stations and a marketing research firm, and established another division of the company, Black Enterprise Unlimited. This new brand is responsible for the Entrepreneurial Conference and the B.E./Pepsi Golf and Tennis Challenge. He also entered into partnership with PepsiCo to purchase Pepsi-Cola of Washington, D.C., L.P., a soft drink bottling franchise, and is a general partner of Egoli Beverages, L. P., a Pepsi-Cola franchise in South Africa.

In the process, the magazine has set standards of professional and entrepreneurial achievement with its lists of the 25 Best Places for Blacks to Work, 40 Most Powerful Black Executives, and Top 25 Blacks on Wall Street, while coining vernacular like BUPPIE (Black Urban Professional) and Kidpreneur Trademark.

But many of the challenges posed to black businesses and professionals in 1973–access to capital, corporate glass ceilings, disparities in service and the perceived value of the African American market and its dollars–remain in place today. “Since I wrote that letter to my father 25 years ago, we’ve made enormous progress, but not enough has changed,” Graves points out.

For the man with the signature mutton chop sideburns, knocking on closed doors and inviting himself in, much like Fred “The Hammer” Williamson did in his films, Graves has called on corporate America to give equal access to African Americans in banks, boardrooms and businesses.

“The challenge in the next 25 years is to eradicate the stereotype of us as the underclass,” he says. “America is the greatest country in the free world. Our best history is in front of us if we are willing to accept the reality that African Americans must share in its bounty.” To wit, Graves has served on many corporate boards, most recently, AMR (the corporate parent of American Airlines), Aetna, Chrysler Corp., Federated Department Stores Inc., and Rohm & Haas Corp.

Unlike some of his entrepreneur peers who have not outlined a clear succession plan for their businesses, Graves has. “The future bodes well for us because business is really people–the people you have handling it–and our young people are good,” he says, referring to a list that includes his three sons, Earl “Butch” Jr., executive vice president/COO of BLACK ENTERPRISE magazine; John, senior vice president business ventures and head of B.E. Unlimited; and Michael, vice president/general manager of Pepsi-Cola of Washington, D.C.

Graves anticipates developing more new lines of business. He foresees Kidpreneur Trademark, a development program for budding entrepreneurs ages five to 18 held during the annual Entrepreneurial Conference growing into something significant that might lead to other lines of business. “We are also looking at a line of financial services that will assist in the growth and development of black-owned businesses,” he says. “And, I hope to see the expansion of the Pepsi franchise, which is doing very well, through more franchising area contiguous with where we are or somewhere else.”

While he hasn’t relinquished his seat yet–“retire,” he laughs, “I’ll never be fully retired”–day-to-day operations have been turned over to his sons and other senior officers. Instead, Graves plans on continuing in a broader fashion by shifting his attention from running his businesses to focusing more on his corporate ant volunteer activities. Currently, he serves as a trustee on the board of Howard University, the board of directors of the Associates of Harvard University’s Graduate School of Business, and as vice president of relationships/marketing on the executive board of the National Office of the Boy Scouts of America. He also helped to raise $1 million for his alma mater, Morgan State University, which has renamed its business school the Earl G. Graves School of Business and Management. And, says the grandfather of six, “Barbara, my wife of 37 years and former vice president/general manager, and I will be spending more time with our grandchildren and skiing six months a year.”

But asking an activist to stop being active for the causes he believes in–education, enterprise and opportunity–is no easy feat. “Some of our businesses are reaching a level where we’ll be overcoming just basic business obstacles–developing a market and building market share. Getting these economic business issues resolved in another 25 years will be a struggle, but we must make it happen.”

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