Black Enterprise is going to be 30 years old in August 2000. Not a lot of American companies, let alone African-American companies, reach that age having risen on a consistent upward curve. Even fewer survive a changing of the guard from the founding generation to successive ones. In fact, some of the strongest, most profitable companies in this country have crumbled when it came time to hand the reins to the kids. Black Enterprise (officially Earl G. Graves Ltd.), which has been going through a succession process for the last five years, has actually experienced its most dramatic growth and greatest successes during this period. That fact bears witness to the enormous strength, business savvy, and determination of the family at its center.

As a member of that family through marriage, I am not an objective party. However, as a business journalist who has reported on other companies' difficulties in similar situations, I venture to say that the success of Black Enterprise speaks for itself.

My father-in-law, Earl G. Graves, turned 65 in January. While I doubt he will ever retire (he loves what he does too much to give it up), his sons' ability to take on an increasing level of responsibility for the family business has freed him to serve as a board member for several major corporations and to travel around to fulfill those responsibilities.

To Each a Niche

Black Enterprise's 25th anniversary marked a real crossroads for my father-in-law, who had all three sons working in the business at the time. It also marked a turning point for the sons, whose distinctive roles were clearly defined by then.

Earl Jr., called Butch, was heading advertising and sales and was poised to take the helm of the core business, which he did in 1998. Johnny, a lawyer (and my husband), had launched Black Enterprise Unlimited, a division created to expand the company's products beyond the magazine. He is now president of BEU. And youngest son Michael was in training to oversee the Pepsi franchise then owned by the family. The family sold its interest back to Pepsi last year, but Michael continues to manage it.

Although their roles are interdependent, they are also quite independent. Each son has had his own path to cut. Each has had clear and individualized goals, staffs, and measures for his performance. Each has a unique contribution to make, not by happenstance but by design. Our generation was taught to take an entrepreneurial approach to a career. I think that is critical to their success.

Strong Values, Strong Ties

To understand the heart of this generation, one need look no farther than their parents. Although my father-in-law gets most of the public recognition for Black Enterprise, he is the first to acknowledge that he built the company with an indispensable partner: his wife, Barbara Graves. Together they set a strong example for the way to live and work and contribute to society. They are genuinely committed to each other and to their children and grandchildren, above and beyond everything else. They are very firm in their core values: God, family, education, work, leadership, community service. Those are the tenets on which they built their lives, and through all the ebbs and flows in the economy, trends, politics, and how the business was doing, they've never wavered.

The Graveses' expectations for their sons were clear from the start. Whether they decided to go into the family business or not, they were expected to get a great education, start a family, and be productive citizens in every sense of the word. That foundation - built on the knowledge that whatever happens, you have your family's support - serves as an unshakable platform that sustains them in times of challenge. Its power resonates throughout the company.

The Graves brothers' closeness is another tremendous strength for the business. They genuinely love and like each other. They are the best of friends. That's not to say they don't have differences or that they don't argue - they do - but there's nothing they wouldn't do for one another. When that's your reality, how can you not come out ahead? If the family matters most, whatever the business conflicts are, you're going to resolve them. Opinions frequently conflict, but everybody's got the same goals, which are for the business to succeed and the family to remain close.

Coming from Outside

There's a real emphasis at BE today on recognizing individual talent and moving people along into positions where they can make those talents soar. And the company will soar in the process. This focus is due partly to our moderate size, but it's also born of our family-driven culture. There's a special dynamic in family businesses.

Fact is, Black Enterprise is not just a business - it's a family, beyond the surname. Because BE is a company founded to help nurture, develop, and direct the ambitions of a Black professional and entrepreneurial class, as well as to publicize Black achievement, there's a real emotional tug in our mission.

As a result, those who come to work at BE frequently look upon it as more than a job. They want specifically to work for Earl Graves, or at a Black company, or at a company whose products are targeted to African-Americans. They may even be drawn to working in a family business as opposed to a faceless corporation. Not surprisingly, then, BE's turnover is relatively low, and senior managers often rise through the ranks. Consequently, they have enough history working with family members to understand the family dynamics and how to negotiate around and within them.

Challenges for the Next Generation

The situation facing the current generation is very different from the one the founder faced. My father-in-law didn't have to answer to anyone else or negotiate with anyone else; the decisions -- large and small -- were his and his alone. In that sense, this generation doesn't have the freedom he had. But it also doesn't have the tremendous burden that sole ownership carries. My husband and his brothers have one another and the unqualified support that comes with their relationship. They have the benefit of each other's education, interests, perspectives, contacts, and areas of expertise. They frequently seek the counsel of their wives: Roberta (who has an MBA in marketing), Kymberly (a lawyer), and me (the only in-law who works full-time for the company).

It's difficult to imagine that the business would ever pass out of the family, although we realize that future succession will require as much care and diligence as the present one. There are seven grandchildren already in the next generation, so there are likely to be siblings as well as cousins managing the company one day. Their closeness will work in their favor. But they will surely face challenges we can't even imagine.

Whether they choose to be involved in the family business or not, our hopes for them mirror our parents' visions for us. We want them to rise to high expectations. We want them to have a strong foundation in God and community and to pass that on to their own children and grandchildren. We want them to use their talents and skills to improve the world in some way. We want them to find a vocation they love with the passion and sense of purpose that their paternal grandfather embodies. While we hope some of their goals will intersect with the family business, our most important challenge is providing the spiritual and social environment that will enable those goals to be fulfilled.

Copyright © 2000