How Bruce Llewellyn overcame racial segregation and limited financial resources to become one of America's wealthiest black men.
Born to Jamaican immigrants in East Harlem, New York in 1927, James Bruce Llewellyn, even as a child, was determined to become successful.
Long before the civil rights era of the 1960’s, when blacks couldn’t stay in most hotels, couldn’t eat in most restaurants, couldn’t attend most schools, qualify for higher paying jobs or live in other than black neighborhoods, most of which were poor, Bruce made big plans.
He worked in his dad’s restaurant and also went door to door selling Fuller Brush products and he read business magazines, dreaming about how successful he could be if he worked hard enough.
Determined to achieve, Bruce graduated from high school at just 16 during World War ll. He was an Army cadet and subsequently in the Army, became his battalion’s youngest officer.
Meanwhile, Bruce saved his money, and later added it to his Army severance pay and bought a Harlem liquor store. Despite the long hours and the pressures of running the store, he also used the G. I. Bill to attend City College of New York, getting his degree in 1955.
In the following years, he attended Columbia Business School and New York University School of Public Administration and in 1960 graduated from New York Law School and became an attorney at the age of 33.
But the breakthrough to his business success came in 1969, when at 42; he bought Fedco Foods Corp., a rundown group of grocery stores in Harlem and the Bronx.
At that time, banks rarely loaned money to black people, unless they had extensive collateral to pledge. So Bruce borrowed against everything he owned. But it wasn’t enough. Unless he could come up with a way to raise more money, his great opportunity would be gone.
What Bruce thought of, a leveraged buyout, has become common practice in recent decades but it was then very creative. In a leveraged buyout, the company pledges some or all of its assets to a bank, which loans on them as well. By doing this, he bought Fedco.
But to most investors it was a fool’s bet because it was in the black community, which they saw as poor and crime ridden. But Bruce knew the community and he renovated the stores, instituted better financial controls, changed the product mix and promotions to make them more appealing to black consumers and Fedco became a winner.
When he sold Fedco in 1982 to Krasdale Foods for $20 million, there were nearly three times the number of stores and five times the volume of sales, as when he bought the chain.
In 1971, his friend Jackie Robinson, the great baseball player who had broken the color barrier to play in the Major Leagues, invited Bruce to join the Board of Freedom National Bank in Harlem, a black bank in which Jackie, then a community leader, was Chairman.
At a time when most banks didn’t loan to blacks or did so only under onerous terms, the few black controlled banks were vital to black communities across America. They funded home mortgages, cars and businesses and provided quality jobs working for them.
But in 1972, 53 year old Jackie died suddenly of a heart attack. Rather than let the dream die as well, Bruce succeeded him and in 1974, took a leave of absence from Fedco to run the bank, which thrived under his leadership.
The bank however later failed in 1990 under other management, but by then, blacks were prime customers of America’s major banks.
Blacks had also been systematically excluded from owning television and radio stations but all of the stations were licensed by the U.S. government and Jesse Jackson and others brought heavy pressure on the government to integrate the ownership.
In response, the government created tax credits to encourage white run media businesses to sell stations to minorities and in 1985, Capital City Communications sold a Buffalo, NY, ABC affiliated television station to Bruce and his black partners.
For Bruce, this was the beginning of his media ownership. In 1989, he brought together a group to buy NYT Cable TV, from The New York Times, paying them $400 million. He paid 20% of the purchase price and media giants Comcast and Lenfest bought the rest, with Bruce as Chairman.
Another of Bruce’s successes also came in 1985. Atlanta based Coca-Cola had excluded blacks from top management and from owning their bottling companies, which distribute their products all over the world.
For years, Jesse Jackson pressured Coca-Cola to open its ranks to blacks and other minorities and finally for successful businessman Bruce Llewellyn, they did. They allowed him and his black partners; including comedian Bill Cosby and basketball star Julius “Dr. J.” Erving to buy control of the Philadelphia Coca-Cola Bottling Company.
Under his leadership, the bottling company expanded its routes and its products, while investing in new equipment, and as always, he instituted tight financial controls. The firm prospered.
Over the years, Bruce not only succeeded in business but held top government positions and in Washington, DC headed the Overseas Private Investment Corporation, to broaden his business interests and those of America, worldwide. He was also an advisor to Presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton.
For Bruce Llewellyn and for African-Americans and other minorities in general, it had become a far different world than the heavily bigoted one that had long existed until recent decades.
But in April, 2010 at the age of 82, Bruce passed away in his Manhattan home of renal failure. He is survived by his 2nd wife and their daughter, and by his two daughters from his 1st marriage, a marriage which ended in divorce.
Incidentally, one of those daughters, Alexandra Marie Llewellyn, a former television newswoman, is married to top selling writer Tom Clancy.
Bruce is also survived by a granddaughter and by a sister, Dorothy Cropper, a retired Judge on the New York State Court of Claims. But he is also survived by the many minorities for whom he opened doors and by entrepreneurs of every color for he showed us how to do leveraged buyouts and to have the courage of our convictions in the face of seemingly impossible odds.
Success Tip of the Week:
If you want to buy or start a business but don’t have the money, do as Bruce did and be creative. If what you desire has merit, and you can convince others, you too can find a way to get it launched, even if at first, on a small or part-time basis.
Editor’s Note II:
An important source for this article is The New York Times obit, “J. Bruce Llewellyn, Innovative Black Businessman, Dies at 82.” [Its original online title.] http://www.nytimes.com/2010/04/10/business/10llewellyn.html
In the next KazanToday:
The death of a business, the birth of a successful entrepreneur.