Marathon Men Revisited

The veterans. The godfathers. The cornerstones of the BE 100s

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It’s not easy to reach the ranks of the BE 100s. In winning that race, black entrepreneurs must clear a number of hurdles — financial challenges, winner-take-all competition, and economies old and new. Just try crossing the finishing line for 30 years in a row.

That’s what the six corporate chieftains we profiled in this article did. We call them our “Marathon Men” — a title bestowed upon them during our 25th anniversary of the BE 100s in 1997. These CEOs — John H. Johnson of Johnson Publishing, Herman J. Russell of H.J. Russell & Co., Edward T. Lewis and Clarence O. Smith of Essence Communications, Nathan g. Conyers of Conyers Riverside Ford, and Earl G. Graves of Earl G. Graves Ltd., the parent company of this magazine — have appeared on every list we have published since 1973.

These men represent the Olympians of black business, having employed tens of thousands, achieved major milestones in commerce, and broken barriers for legions of African Americans. And at an age when most would have long since hung up their cleats, they remain in the race. As you read their stories, you’ll find they are more determined than ever to take their enterprises to the next level even as they prepare to pass the torch on to the next generation.

No company on the BE 100s has demonstrated more consistent performance than Johnson Publishing Co. (JPC), which is celebrating its 60th year as the world’s No. 1 black-owned media conglomerate. In fact, the enterprise has always been listed among the top ten black-owned companies in the nation — grossing $23.1 million on 1973’s Top 100 list and $412.4 million on this year’s ranking.

John H. Johnson, the 84-year-old founder, has forged an empire that includes such indelible products as Ebony and Jet magazines, which reach a readership of more than 12 million monthly and 9 million weekly, respectively, and the Fashion Fair Cosmetics beauty care lines.

Johnson continues to stick to his solitary, methodic formula for success. “In the future, we plan to stay on the same course,” he maintains. “We have been very successful with what we have. Why change? The graveyard is full of magazines that did not make it.”

For much of last year, Johnson was sidelined with several medical problems that forced him to stay away from the business. Today, the octogenarian says he’s “fit as a fiddle” and feels like he is 44.

In April, he appointed his daughter, Linda Johnson Rice, to the position of president and CEO (see sidebar, “Finding the Right Prescription for Growth,” this issue). Johnson, however, assumes the title of chairman and publisher.

Naming Rice to the position, says Johnson, is no indication that he will be retiring any time soon. “I will be working just as hard as I always have,” says Johnson, who puts in eight to nine hours a day. “Retirement is not in this company’s vocabulary. If you are well and able to work, you can stay at the company and that’s

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