Mary L. Harris is flipping the script on the black hair care industry.
It’s a pretty well known fact that the vast majority of black hair care products sold in the U.S. is not manufactured by black-owned businesses. Why does this matter? For starters, it means our spending dollars are being quickly funneled out of the black community rather than circulating within the community first and financially empowering those within it.
However, about 9,000 miles from American shores, Harris is doing her own thing and accomplishing in South Africa what was once accomplished (and lost) in the U.S.—ownership and control of the black hair care products. The CEO of J.M. Products SA (Pty) Ltd., with 21 full-time employees, 100 sales and merchandising agents, is heading up a firm that manufactures and distributes ethnic hair care products in South Africa, Nigeria, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Angola, Ghana, and other African nations.
This is an industry that’s crowded in the United States with large companies jockeying for market share. But in Africa with its estimated 1 billion residents, not only is the demand there, the competitive field is wide open. As a result, J.M. Products sales for 2009 reached R60.3 million (roughly $8.1 million U.S.) and the Georgia native projects 2010 revenues at the Industria, South Africa-based company to reach R72 million (about $9.7 million).
Harris’ road to South Africa was somewhat circuitous. While working for the Augusta Georgia county government, she landed a part-time job with M&M Products Co. (a former BE 100s company) as an in-store promoter for its Sta-Sof-Fro product. This brand, along with others, was sold by M&M to publicly traded Johnson Products Co. in 1990. She loved the business and as time passed thought about starting a company of her own. The problem was the competitive landscape in the U.S. already had its dominant players. She had to look elsewhere.
She first thought about Jamaica, but learned that the population there was only around 2 million—not the type of critical mass she’d need for a thriving business. As luck would have it, she was called to South Africa on a working assignment in 1994 to help turn around the company she would eventually buy. The assignment was temporary, but a decade later Harris would not only turn the business around, but come to own 100% of it. “The first 10 years of doing business was slow and it was a hard sell, but I was committed to staying and building this business, bottle by bottle,” she recalls.
For Harris, it wasn’t just about making money, but about black financial empowerment. “Coming from the US side I’ve seen it happen all too many times where the money doesn’t get re-circulated into the black communities. My staff is 100% black South African so I’m guaranteed that the money is going to get re-circulated into the black community.”
It may be a matter of time before some of the big publicly traded hair care corporations take a look the African continent. But it’s a good thought that there’s a black woman already established there who is passionate and committed to keeping an industry driven by black demand in black hands.
Alan Hughes is an editorial director of Black Enterprise.