The Winner’s Edge

I come up hard, awful hard
I had to win
Then start all over
And win again
—”Trouble Man,” Marvin Gaye, 1972

Over the past few years, chief executives who run the BE 100s–the nation’s largest black-owned businesses–have faced a series of disruptive forces: a merciless economy, relentless global competition, and technologically altered industries. Their response: transformation or sudden death.

They’ve discovered that aimlessly pursuing random opportunities will cause them to crash and burn. Those companies with the winner’s edge have adjusted their business models through cool, calculated analysis and deliberate execution, discarding unprofitable legacy lines and unproductive resources while focusing on adaptive strategies and sharpening the corporate mission.

Just like Marvin Gaye’s anthem of determination, the BE 100s at 40 share a common trait with their brethren of old: They didn’t make it playing by the rules. Today’s leaders may retain the resilience of legends such as A. G. Gaston and John H. Johnson and apply the deal-making prowess of titans such as Reginald F. Lewis and Bob Johnson but, at the same time, they embrace updated models of innovation, collaboration, and flexibility.

Take Stephen Hightower, CEO of Middletown, Ohio-based Hightowers Petroleum Co. (No. 17 on the BE Industrial/Service companies list with $227.2 million in revenues), who boosted revenues for the petroleum products distributor by 44%. By demonstrating “the capability of competing in a market of giants,” he snared customers such as Chrysler, United Rentals, and Walmart, among others, positioning the company to reach $300 million in revenues by year’s end. “It’s really a phenomenon just being able to manage the growth of new customers coming on board while maintaining the customer base that you already have. That is the challenge of growing at such a rapid rate.”

Industrial/Service Companies: Not Waiting for Opportunity
Despite the recovery, the BE 100s are not letting themselves fall prey to the vagaries of the economy. There’s good reason to be guarded. The past few years have been brutal and it will still be tough sledding for most in a weak recovery. The Commerce Department reported that the economy grew at a 2.2% annual rate in the first quarter and consumer confidence remained largely unchanged, according to economist Richard Curtin, director of the Thomson Reuters/University of Michigan Surveys of Consumers. The overall unemployment rate remains above 8%, and the rate for African Americans decreased slightly to 13%. Business owners continue to be wary of access to capital, rising gas prices, the ongoing European debt crisis, and the recent 4.2% decline in durable goods orders–the steepest drop since the Great Recession and an indicator of the fragility of the manufacturing sector.

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