The Strong­—and Smart—Survive

There’s nothing like an economic downturn to separate the pretenders from the contenders in business. Anybody can look like a brilliant business leader when the stock market is on a seemingly endless bull run and the economy is booming, but it’s during periods of economic adversity that you discover who really knows what they’re doing–whether on Wall Street, in corporate America, or in the CEO offices of the small and mid-sized emerging businesses we count on to provide jobs and generate the revenues necessary to drive the economy forward. The historic and devastating economy of the past year has taken this Darwinian principle to its ultimate expression–weeding among even the contenders to identify the best of the best.

That is what you’ll find in this issue of Black Enterprise, featuring the 37th annual listing of the be 100s: The Nation’s Largest Black-owned Businesses. Certainly, our annual report documents the economic devastation of 2008–a year that saw the largest year-over-year drop in sales in the history of the top publicly traded companies. In black business, the impact of the carnage is most apparent in the wholesale restructuring of our annual listing of the largest black-owned automobile dealerships. For the first time in the two decades since we established the auto dealer list, we are not naming an Auto Dealer of the Year. But this issue also chronicles the other side of the coin: that the fire of economic adversity purifies and strengthens, separating the wheat from the chaff. The strong and smart not only survive–they flourish, pointing the way to new paradigms of business performance and prosperity in an evolved economic environment.

Take PRWT Services Inc., our 2009 Industrial /Service Company of the Year. PRWT demonstrates a willingness to not only adapt, but to reinvent itself in response to rapidly changing market challenges and opportunities. PRWT was launched in Philadelphia as a provider of back-office and administrative support and services. When it saw market share in that space shrinking, it didn’t fight a losing battle with diminishing returns; instead, it turned its sights on an entirely new industry: pharmaceutical manufacturing. Led by President and CEO Harold T. Epps, PRWT delivered revenues of $167 million in 2008–and is now positioning itself to become the next of only a handful of black-owned companies to ever go public.

A similar example of excellence and responsiveness to the harsh realities and new opportunities of a tumultuous economic environment is El Paso, Texas-based SandersWingo Advertising Inc., this year’s Advertising Agency of the Year. With CEO Robert Wingo at the helm, SandersWingo has generated billings of $112 million–an increase of nearly 25% year over year at a time when other firms, including many general market agencies, have watched their billings shrink. In addition to maintaining its reputation as a top-notch ethnic agency, SandersWingo has delivered five straight years of growth by making inroads into the general market for clients such as AT&T and General Motors.

And as an example of the sheer focus and determination necessary to thrive in this unforgiving economic environment, look no further than Legacy Bank in Milwaukee, the 2009 Financial Services Company of the Year. Launched by three female entrepreneurs, including CEO Deloris Sims, the bank faced an array of obstacles at its inception that would have caused the less committed to falter and give up. Today Legacy, with 2008 assets of $224.5 million, is a symbol of economic empowerment and both financier and mentor to a burgeoning portfolio of thriving black-owned businesses.

The be 100s companies have survived economic downturns in the past, as has all of American industry. Our economy will recover from the most devastating upheaval in the memories of most American businesses, and when it does, we will know just what we are made of. We’ll be made leaner, tougher, stronger by the adversities we’ve endured, proved by the trial and the test, forged in the fire. The be 100s companies will continue to be included among the best American business has to offer. The strong will survive.