When BLACK ENTERPRISE profiled North Carolina Mutual as the Insurance Company of the Year in 1981, it couldn’t have made a better choice. Housed in the tallest building in Durham, North Carolina, NCM was the 150th largest insurance company of 1,890 in the nation. Its policyholder and income growth was due to the prowess of its legendary President and Chairman William J. Kennedy III and his team which stopped comparing the firm to other black insurers but companies of their size and reach.
It wasn’t difficult for our editors to name TLC Beatrice International as the 1988 Company of the Year. Due to the late dealmaker extraordinaire Reginald Lewis’ historic $985 million leveraged buyout of Beatrice International Foods, the largest offshore transaction at the time, the global conglomerate became the first black-owned enterprise to surpass the billion-dollar mark, grossing $1.8 billion in revenues in 1987. TLC would hold the No. 1 position on the BE Industrial/Service List for a decade – five years after Lewis’ untimely death in 1993- and continue to serve as source of inspiration to entrepreneurs.
We selected Soft sheen as 1989 Industrial/Service Company of the Year not only because it capitalized on the Jheri Curl to become one of the fastest-growing black haircare companies in history but it also grew into a global empire with cross-continental reach. The family-run enterprise built a world-wide distribution network for more than 150 products, including Optimum Care and Sportin’ Waves. With the acquisition of a London-based distributor that exported products to Africa and the construction of a Jamaican manufacturing plant, Soft Sheen set out on its audacious mission to meet the hair care needs of a billion blacks across the globe. Within a decade, however, Soft Sheen would be acquired L’Oreal, adding to the number of BE 100s haircare companies absorbed by their majority-owned competitors.
Remember Cross Colours, the apparel company that created everything from bomber jackets to baseball caps adorned with its bright yellow and green logo. It was one of the first companies to make urban gear fashionable from the ‘hood to the ‘burbs.
In one year, sales for Threads 4 Life Corp. d/b/a Cross Colours – which debuted as a member of the 1992 BE 100s Freshman Class with $15 million in sales – soared to $89 million, a staggering 493.3% jump. As a result, the red-hot apparel manufacturer became the 1993 Industrial/Service Company of the Year as its founders Carl Jones and T.J. Walker gained orders for its popular products from leading retail chains including Macy’s. By 1995, it fell off the BE 100s when its biggest customer, retailer Merry-Go-Round, went bankrupt, forcing the company to shut down its capital-intensive manufacturing operation and lay off roughly 200 employees. The management then sold the Cross Colours name to other clothing makers.
During the 1990s, Karl Kani Infinity – with its trademark style that included baggy jeans and oversized casual knits – found appeal among African Americans and, at the time, an unexpected white suburban audience eager to embrace black urban fashion. Founded by designer Karl Kani (AKA Carl Williams), the apparel company’s popularity as well as inventive manufacturing and marketing strategies increased its clout with the buyers at the large retail chains and claimed Tommy Hilfiger and Calvin Klein as competitors. When it received the honor of being named 1996 BE Industrial/Service Company of the Year, Karl Kani was run by a 28-year-old CEO who took advanced his enterprise to No. 25 on the BE INDUSTRIAL/SERVICE 100 list.
As the 1998 Advertising Agency of the Year, Don Coleman Advertising was identified as an agency with the ability to meld innovative creative product with novel business strategy, leading the next generation of black advertising firms. That assertion proved prescient as DCA morphed into GlobalHue, a revolutionary firm that grew to become the nation’s largest multicultural ad agency. Over the past decade, founder Don Coleman expanded the firm’s rep by using a small collection of businesses targeting the “total market,” including African Americans, Latinos, Asians, and young professionals. As such, Coleman is the only CEO to receive the BE Advertising Agency of the Year recognition two other times – 2003 and 2010.
Retired NBA All-Star Dave Bing proved to be a slam dunk in the steel industry during the 1990s. As the 1998 BE Industrial/Service Company of the Year, The Bing Group— which comprised five companies: Bing Steel, Superb Manufacturing, Bing Manufacturing, Detroit Automotive Interiors, and Trim Tech—grew to become one of the largest black suppliers to the Big Three auto manufacturers and one of the biggest employers on the BE 100s. Bing would eventually become the mayor of financially -battered Detroit.
In 2002, BLACK ENTERPRISE recognized Ariel Capital Management – now Ariel Investments – as BE Financial Services Company of the Year for reaching its “phenomenal growth and emerging leadership in the investment community” – that year it had reached the $10 billion mark in assets under management. Chairman John W. Rogers Jr. founded the company through the creation of the first family of equity mutual funds managed by African Americans. With President Mellody Hobson, who can currently be seen as a analyst and contributor for CBS This Morning, he has promoted financial literacy and wealth-building through the Ariel Education Initiative and advocates for board diversity through the Black Corporate Directors Conference.
Baseball legend “Hammerin’ Hank” Aaron who made history by breaking Babe Ruth’s record of 714 home runs – his career high was 755 homers – proved to be a power hitter in business as well. Named the 2004 Auto Dealer of the Year – Hank Aaron Auto Group – scored big with import dealerships, including Hank Aaron BMW which ranked in the top 50% in sales for BMW of North America L.L.C. at the time. His secret for success: Watching every penny and providing unassailable customer service.
Known for his appearances offering commentary on business cable network CNBC, real estate mogul R. Donahue Peebles has been known as a major industry game changer for years. The Peebles Corp. was recognized as the 2004 Industrial/Service Company of the Year due to its distinction as being one of the biggest black-owned real estate firms and making the historic acquisition of the Royal Palm Resort in Miami Beach, Florida—the first black-owned and -developed resort in the nation. Our editors appropriately dubbed him “The Prince of South Beach.”
Cathy Hughes transformed Radio One Inc. into a multimedia empire through the acquisition of more than 70 radio stations and a host of media properties. Named BE Industrial/Service Company of the Year in 2000, Radio One became the largest black radio company after Chairman Hughes and her son, President & CEO Alfred C. Liggins III completed an IPO that placed it on the NASDAQ with a market value of $1.4 billion. By 2004, Radio One’s formed an alliance with Comcast to create another BE 100s company: TV One L.L.C., the nation’s largest black-owned cable television network.
Since the inception of the BE 100s in our June 1973 issue to June 1983, Motown Industries, which spawned such legendary recording artists as Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, Michael Jackson and Diana Ross, was the undisputed leader of the nation’s largest black-owned companies. (It was a BE 100s company until it was sold in 1988.) In June 1974, BLACK ENTERPISE took an inside look into the house that its founder Berry Gordy built. At the time, he asserted that Motown stayed on top due to, among other elements, a laser beam focus on sound business practices, development of a finishing school for its acts and creation of America’s soundtrack.
Our 1999 Industrial/Service Company of the Year World Wide Technology, Inc., the Maryland Heights, Missouri IT powerhouse founded by David L. Stewart, has been one of the fastest-growing enterprises on the BE 100s. Developing partnerships with such giants as Cisco, Dell, HP, and EMC, WWT has grown from $201 million in revenues in 1998 to $5 billion in 2012 – making it the nation’s largest black-owned business and one of four in the billion dollar revenue club. Stewart says that the key to his success has been the application of biblical principles in operating his company.
Not only did BLACK ENTERPRISE select Harpo Inc. as the 2008 Industrial/Service Company of the Year but it was the first time that billionaire entrepreneur Oprah Winfrey spoke to the press in detail about her business empire. At the time, the dynamo was still developing Oprah Winfrey Network or OWN, asserting that divine inspiration, not strategic planning, drove her company’s success. She also admitted that it took a solid business team and sound financial controls to grow her entity from a five-person production company to a 430-employee multimedia conglomerate. Moreover, she owns every piece of her franchise: the content, name, brand and studio.