Saturday, November 18, 2017
Legendary Black Business Men
By Yussuf Simmonds (Managing Editor)
Published April 12, 2012

Comer Cottrell

Comer Cottrell

Proline Products

Cottrell’s Proline products

“A businessman who made a difference”

The name “Pro Line” is synonymous with black hair care products.  When it’s mentioned immediately Black people come into focus and that is because it was founded by a Black man and generally Black people almost exclusively support Black people’s products during the early life of the product or service.  Comer Cottrell understood this and went about making Pro Line products for Blacks.  However, as with any good product, Cottrell’s products didn’t stay wedded to the Black communities throughout, they eventually found their way in other communities for other people. 

Cottrell was born on December 7, 1931 in Mobile, Alabama to Comer J. Sr. and Helen Smith Cottrell; they were staunch Catholics.  As a young boy, Cottrell showed early signs of entrepreneurship when he and his brother, Jimmy turned a pair of bunnies into Easter bunnies and selling them.  He attended Heart of Mary Elementary and Secondary Schools, and at the age of seventeen, he enlisted in the United States Army.  There he served in Okinawa and attained the rank of First Sergeant.  Back in the U.S., while still in the army, he attended the university in Detroit.

After leaving the service, he worked for Sears & Roebuck in Los Angeles, California, and rose to the position of division manager in 1964.  With this experience of the retail business and an eye for opportunity, he and a friend started a black hair care business with a $600.00 investment.  The late sixties was a period of “Afro” hairdos, Black power and Black pride and Cottrell capitalized on the “movement of racial consciousness and racial pride.”  He turned to his “Easter bunny” business partner, his brother, Jimmy and together they manufactured strawberry scented oil sheen for Afro hair styles and founded the Pro-Line Corporation in Carson, California in 1970.

In 1973, he made his first million dollars in sales and Pro-Line became a household name in the Black community throughout the nation.  ‘There was no stopping him “now”; he was on a roll.’  He proclaimed a switch from the beauty shops’ ‘Jerry Curl’ to his Pro-Line’s ‘Curly Kit’ and succeeded beyond his own expectations. In the initial six months after the kit entered the market, it increased his sales tenfold.

At the end of the seventies, Cottrell re-located the corporation to Dallas, Texas.  But before he moved, he was selected by the Brotherhood Crusade, the pre-eminent Black philanthropic institution in Los Angles, as one of its honorees for its annual pioneers dinner entitled, A TESTIMONIAL TO THE PIONEERS OF BLACK BUSINESS AND COMMUNITY DEVELOPMENT.  Like the Brotherhood Crusade, Cottrell was committed to and an ardent supporter of African American progress; and they both contributed directly to the well-being of society in general and the African American community in particular.           

In Texas, he immediately fell in with the ‘movers and shakers’.  With an eye for an investment, Cottrell became part owner of the Texas Rangers baseball team, with George W. Bush – future governor of Texas and president of the U.S. – thereby turning a $500,000 investment into a 3 million dollar profit.  Then he founded the FCC Investment Corporation.

Still Cottrell never forgot his roots and was sensitive to the needs of the less fortunate.  In 1990, he purchased the 131-acre, HBCU (Historically Black Colleges & Universities), Bishop College campus for 1.5 million dollars, restored it and transferred it to the AME Paul Quinn College.  Besides education, he is also active in community affairs.  He remains a trustee of Paul Quinn College and is also a trustee of Northwood University; a member of Dallas Chamber of Commerce, the North Texas Commission and the Dallas Citizens Council. 

Cottrell is the recipient of numerous awards including the Trumpet Award and the Dallas Business Hall of Fame.  He participates and sometimes co-sponsors the annual 21st Century Leadership Summit at Sea which includes ‘heavy hitters’ as Magic Johnson, former Mayor of San Francisco, Willie Brown, co-founder of BET and owner of the Bobcats basketball team, Robert Johnson, Ebony’s Lerone Bennett, and founder of Black Enterprise, Earl Graves, Sr.  He hosts a yearly “Taste of Cottrell” event in Dallas.

As a true believer in education, Cottrell emphasizes biomedical sciences and encourages students to focus on information technology and computer sciences.


Chris Gardner

“He went from the mean streets to the board room suites.”

Chris Gardner

Chris Gardner telling his story

Chris Gardner can truly say that he went to hell and came back stronger.  Not only did he endure the living hell of homelessness, he had to care for his young son during his period of being destitute.  But for him, his condition was just a temporary setback not a way of life, and he rose to the pinnacle of success that he now enjoys, with his son, who is “junior” in the true sense of the word – Chris Gardner, Jr.  He literally went from rags to riches, and at the end of his rainbow is a movie version of that life titled, “the Pursuit of Happyness” starring box office legend, Will Smith in the lead role as Gardner himself.

But how did it all happen; how did Gardner become a homeless person and what does his story reveal to others who are in the same “temporary” (or permanent) predicament.  And more importantly, what did he do to transform himself upwards from the depths of hell and despair to a position of wealth, accomplishment and the pinnacle of success?  This is the stuff that legends are made of and written about.  Whereas, he used to eat at the soup kitchen of Glide Memorial Church in San Francisco, Gardner was the subject of a movie that was released in December 2006 nationwide.  The movie is based on the autobiographical account of his life, and the idea reportedly originated when a renowned film producer saw a profile of Gardner on a television news magazine show.

Gardner is the founder, owner and CEO of Gardner, Rich & Co., a stock brokerage firm based in Chicago with offices in New York and San Francisco.  But he came a long way from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where he was born, Christopher Gardner, to a father whom he did not know, and a mother who did her best to provide for him but was overwhelmed in the process.  However, his mother did give him some valuable life-skill tools that carried him forward despite a life of hardships and emotional scars.  As soon as Gardner finished high school, he enlisted in the U.S. Navy; this, he believed would bring some stability to his life but that was only temporary.  When he left the Navy, he got married and ended up in San Francisco with a career-bound wife, a new son and plans to be a doctor.

He was passionate about wanting to do something for himself and entered a training program at Dean, Witter, Reynolds brokerage firm.  This was after a chance encounter with a man driving a red Ferrari who told him that he was a stockbroker making $80,000 a month.  Meanwhile Gardner’s marriage had collapsed and he was left with his young son, Chris Jr., at the same time he was staying at a rooming house where children were not allowed.  Gardner ended up in jail for overdue parking tickets that he could not afford to pay.  Despite his desperate circumstances, he was determined to keep his son with him wherever life’s journey would take them.

Still in the training program, he would spend his evenings trying to arrange day care services for Chris Jr., and looking for food and for a place to sleep.  Each day that became his second job.  He was literally living hand-to-mouth, next to nothing and from no paycheck to no paycheck.  His will to continue and to succeed was high, but his reality and his condition were dismally low.  He had reportedly left a job in sales to get into the brokerage-training program and when the man who got him into that training slot was fired, his hopes were crushed.  He felt like he was at the bottom and still going down.  Of all of Gardner’s travails, none was more daunting than the fact that he had to share this debilitating experience with his young son.  Chris Jr. was an equal partner during his tour of misery.  But he kept forging ahead even though the light at the end of the (his) tunnel seemed like another train coming at him (them).

Some nights they would bed down in a locked bathroom at one of the city’s subway stations.  This continued until Reverend Cecil Williams at Glide Memorial allowed them to stay at the church’s new shelter – a shelter for women.  (That Gardner was the sole caretaker of a young child qualified him as a mother also).  This brought him an iota of stability and he was able to study.  From that point on, he went after his stock brokerage license with a passion.  In 1981, on his first try, he passed the examination and proceeded forthwith to work the phones trying to attract new clients.  He said that Williams fed, housed and mended his body, soul and spirit.  The skills from his tough childhood, coupled with the hard times he had experienced, equipped him with the ability to focus on his future and keep his eyes on the prize.  In addition, he was fueled by his memories of being a fatherless child and did not want the same to happen to his son. 

Eventually, he was able to rent an apartment for his son and himself, and that was the signal of his upward mobility and a fulfillment of his desire to become wealthy.  As he began to manage accounts of wealthy clients, he realized that on Wall Street (the stock market), it was not a Black thing (race) or a White thing, but rather it was a green thing (money).  Then Gardner went to work for Bear Stearns & Co., a brokerage firm where he became the top producer.  In 1987, he left there and started his own firm, Gardner, Rich & Company specializing in the execution of debt, equity and derivative products transactions.

Gardner has not looked back since nor has he forgotten the past – those who helped him and those who need (his) help.  Presently, he is the multi-millionaire, chief financial officer of his own company with homes in Chicago, New York (Trump Towers) and San Francisco.  He has reached back and continues to assist Williams at Glide Memorial and the Cara Program in Chicago.  He helps both organizations (and other similar ones) with funding, fundraising and comprehensive job training, and he also speaks at the counseling sessions.  His life has been chronicled in several prominent media outlets throughout the country, from New York to Chicago to Los Angeles: radio, print and television – and now he’s on the big screen.  Gardner has met several world leaders including former presidents Nelson Mandela and Bill Clinton.  (He reportedly keeps a vase of dirt taken from Mandela’s back yard in South Africa.)

It took twenty years for Gardner to travel from the streets to the suites, and along the way, he accumulated enough wealth even to purchase the car that inspired his career, a (Michael Jordon’s) Ferrari.  At the time the movie came out, he was eyeing the academy awards as the ultimate goal for it.  According to Gardner, he had already envisioned himself walking the red carpet with Will Smith and Jaden Smith who played himself and Chris Jr. in the movie.  Gardner also has a daughter whom he said would have accompanied him to the Oscars.

Categories: Legends

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