When James Bruce Llewellyn received word that Fedco Food Corp. was on the selling block, he quickly sought financing to purchase the profitable south Bronx grocery store chain. In what would become known as one of the first leverage buyouts, the deal cemented Llewellyn’s place in business history.
A towering figure in the broadcasting, bottling, banking and supermarket industries, it seemed the New York native never met a challenge too big for his appetite for acquisitions and turnarounds. Llewellyn passed away in his New York City home, Wednesday night, April 7, due to kidney failure. He was 82.
Under his leadership, the Philadelphia Coca-Cola Bottling Co. grew into the sixth-largest Coca-Cola bottling operation and the third-largest African American-owned business in the United States. He also made his mark in the banking and broadcasting industries. Along the way, Llewellyn became one of the few to serve as CEO of multiple BE 100s companies simultaneously.
“He will be truly missed,” wrote Coca-Cola in an internal memo to its employees. “Our thoughts go out to his family during this difficult time.”
The son of Jamaican immigrants, Llewellyn was born into the bustling center of black culture, Harlem, on July 16, 1927. Eventually his family moved to an integrated neighborhood in White Plains, N.Y. Early in life Llewellyn learned the value of money, hard work and a lucrative deal. As a youth, Llewellyn worked at his father’s bar and restaurant selling magazines and Fuller Brush products.
“My father used to tell me this is a great country with great opportunity but that you’re going to have to work twice as hard to get half as much,” he told Black Enterprise in a Sept. 1986 interview.
During World War II, at the age of 16, he joined the Army, becoming company commander by age 19. Taking with him lifelong lessons about people and management, he arrived back home in 1948 with business and college on his mind. Llewellyn used Army severance pay to open and operate a liquor store in Harlem while he attended medical school, then changed plans and earned a J.D. from New York Law School. After a four year stint in the public sector working in the New York City District Attorney’s Office and eventually becoming deputy commissioner of the city’s Housing Commission, Llewellyn grew disenchanted with the inefficiencies of government and headed for the private sector in 1969.
“Most of the time I found places loaded with bureaucratic red tape and with a bunch of dumb people who retired from the moment they got the job. And they sure didn’t want to hear a new idea about doing something. I really threw them into a tizzy,” Llewellyn once told Black Enterprise.