Bryant, John 1966–
John Bryant 1966–
Businessman, investment broker
John Bryant is a young African American businessman whose track record exemplifies achievement. Having accomplished more by the end of his twenties than most do in a lifetime, he is a shining example of what can be realized through intelligence, personality, determination, and extremely hard work. Bryant is the founder and CEO of Bryant Group Companies, Inc. in Los Angeles, an investment holding company that serves as an umbrella for three of his businesses. These include Bryant Group Consulting, a leadership development and marketing development company, Bryant Group Africa, a firm which imports carved Shona stone and other fine art from Zimbabwe and South Africa, and Bryant Group Capital, an investment and merchant banking firm. Bryant is also the founder and Chairman of Operation HOPE, Inc., a non-profit investment banking organization in Los Angeles, the first of its kind in the United States.
Created as a response to the civil unrest following the Rodney King verdicts in Los Angeles in 1992, Operation HOPE had, by the year 2000, funded over 60 million in inner city loans in conjunction with its partner banks. It has also provided personal finance education to over 50,000 people through its Banking on the Future programs in Los Angeles and New York. Niki Butler Mitchell, author of The New Color of Success, wrote in 1999 that Bryant “arguably is the one person most responsible for rebuilding the war-torn communities of South Central Los Angeles.”
Bryant has been cited by Presidents Bush and Clinton for his contributions to business and community. He has been lauded by the media: Time magazine named him “One of America’s 50 Most Promising Leaders of the Future” in 1994. In 1995, Black Enterprise magazine listed him as “One of 25 Future Leaders to Watch.” The following year, Swing magazine included Bryant on its list of 30 “Most Powerful Twentysomethings in America.” According to the Los Angeles Times, Bryant likes to look back on his accomplishments and remark, “Not bad for a little black boy from Compton.”
John Bryant Smith was born on February 6, 1966, in Compton, California. He was the youngest of three children born to Johnie Smith, a flat-finish cement contractor, and his wife, Juanita, a sewing machine operator at McDonnell-Douglas. His parents divorced when he was small. Bryant’s mother used her sewing skills to create formal, crushed-velvet suits with bow ties
Born John Bryant Smith February 6, 1966, to Johnie Smith (a cement finishing contractor) and Juanita Smith (a sewing machine operator); married Arlene Bryant, divorced. Education: attended Los Angeles City College. Religion: African Methodist Episcopal.
Career: Actor, c. 1980-83, roles on Twilight Zone and Diff’rent Strokes; entrepreneur, c. 1983-86; investment banker with Wade, Cotter and Company, 1986-91; founder of Specialty Lending Group, Wade, Cotter, 1986; founder, CEO, Bryant GroupCompanies, Inc., 1991-; founder, chairman, Operation HOPE, Inc., 1992-; The New Leaders Organization, 1995; United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), Goodwill Ambassador to United States, 1998-99; special advisor to UNCTAD, 1999; Corporate Council of CEOs, 1999; Adjunct Instructor in Business Management, UCLA Extension.
Selected memberships: Board of directors, California African American MuseumFoundation; national board of directors, Teach for America; board of directors, Operation HOPE, Inc.; board of governors, Kravis Leadership Institute, Claremont McKenna College.
Selected awards: “One of 25 Future Leaders to Watch,’ Black Enterprise magazine, 1995; One of “Top 103 Most Influential People,’ Los Ángeles Times, 1999; Knight Commander, Society of Signum Fidei, House ofLippe, 1998; panel participant with Vice President Al Gore, Family Reunion 8, Family andCommunity Policy Conference, Nashville, Tennessee, 1999.
Addresses: Office —Operation HOPE, Inc., 707 Wilshire Blvd, Suite 3030, Los Angeles, CA 90017.
for her son. “She sent me to school in Compton dressed like that,” Bryant told the Los Angeles Times in 1998. “I used to have my rear end kicked every day. I was the outcast, like the overweight kid or the kid with the thick glasses.” Nevertheless, Bryant took his mother’s efforts to make him into an individual to heart. “First and foremost, my mother was my role model,” he wrote in Julian C.R. Okwu’s 1997 book, Face Forward: Young African American Men in a Critical Age. “To a limited degree, my father, who owned his own business without much of a traditional education, was also an example. My mother once told me that the man can set my salary but I decide my income.” Bryant put these lessons to work very early. He started his first business when he was only ten-years-old by selling candy to other children. He had observed that his classmates were chronically late to school because they detoured to a local market to buy candy. Conversations with the store’s proprietor revealed the secrets of buying wholesale. With $40 in seed money provided by his mother, Bryant bought, wholesale, the kind of candy his friends liked. He then set up shop on the way to school each morning. Bryant had figured out niche marketing at the age of ten. His candy business was extremely successful. At its peak, he was making $300 a week.
When he was 12-years-old, Bryant dropped his last name-Smith-and began to use his middle name as his last. The following year, he moved in with his father and worked for a time with him in his cement contracting business. The experience convinced Bryant that he did not want to work in the construction industry. He enrolled in the Hollywood Professional School, and was soon rubbing elbows with famous teenage actors. Eventually, he landed bit parts on The Twilight Zone and Diff’rent Strokes.
In retrospect, Bryant admitted that he was not a very good actor. “There was too much hype and I always found myself playing one role: myself,” he told the Los Angeles Times. The acting jobs paid well, and Bryant quickly spent what he had earned. By the time he reached the age of 17, the roles had evaporated and his acting career was over almost as soon as it had begun.
Bryant eventually earned a GED, and talked his way into a job at an upscale Malibu restaurant. While working at the restaurant, he met financier Harvey Baskin. Baskin was impressed with the young man, and taught him the art of deal-making and investment banking. Armed with this new knowledge, Bryant looked for ways to make money. A series of disastrous business ventures followed, and he ended up losing everything.
Bryant has frequently remarked that the condition of being broke is an economic state, whereas being poor is a debilitating, defeating frame of mind. At this point in his life, Bryant was broke, but he was not poor. “I couldn’t fall from the floor, which is where I was,” he stated in Face Forward, “so the only place I had to go was up.” He was still receiving a small residual check every month and, reasoning that an office had more money-making potential than an apartment, Bryant chose to rent office space and live in his Jeep. For six months he lived in his vehicle, getting up each day and going to work until he was able to rent a room in a house.
In 1986 Bryant was hired by Wade, Cotter, and Company, a specialty investment firm. “This was definitely an affirmative action gig,” he told Mitchell. Although a self-described “charity case” at Wade, Cotter, Bryant made the most of this opportunity. In the business of equity lending, he soon realized that there was a certain amount of racism inherent in the system. Poor people, mostly African Americans, were being taken advantage of. They were being targeted for equity loans that they could not afford to repay. Knowing that it was possible to get the same return on loans made to people who were actually capable of repaying the notes, Bryant persuaded Wade, Cotter to let him try. He made them an offer they could not refuse: he would work without salary in return for the company name, its contact list, and 50 percent of any profit. There were no profits the first year for WCC Funding Corporation. However, Bryant brought in $9 million in sales the following year. He produced $15 million in sales during the third year, and $24 million the next. In 1991, Bryant bought out the division and established his own company, Bryant Group Capital.
A mostly white jury acquitted white Los Angeles police officers of charges arising from the beating of Rodney King in 1992. This acquittal provided the flashpoint for riots in South Central Los Angeles. As area businesses were looted and burned, outraged residents and community leaders gathered at local churches to cope with the present and plan for the future. Bryant was one of those residents. He found direction from the Reverend Cecil L. Murray, his pastor at the West Adams First AME Church. Murray urged Bryant to utilize his banking background to help the city.
In the days immediately following the riots, Bryant took $5000 of his own money and founded Operation HOPE, a non-profit organization dedicated to brokering home and small business loans. He also organized and led the first Bankers’ Bus Tour through South Central Los Angeles. It would become an annual undertaking. The Tour chartered a bus, and drove bankers through areas they had never seen before: well-kept homes and quiet neighborhoods as well as the barren commercial areas in desperate need of revital-ization. For the bankers on the bus, the tour was an eye-opener, marking the beginning of a gradual shift in thinking about the impoverished areas of Los Angeles.
The Community Reinvestment Act of 1977 is a federal law which requires FDIC-insured lenders to lend and invest more in impoverished areas or suffer penalties. By emphasizing this law and helping investors to understand that their impressions of the assets in those areas were not well-founded, Bryant’s Bus Tour and Operation HOPE began to draw attention and capital to the inner city. By stepping into the breach, Bryant and OHI were able to show lenders that there was a vast, untapped economic market in Los Angeles.
Operation HOPE, Inc., working under the slogan that it is possible to “do well by doing good,” has grown steadily since its creation in 1992. In concert with lending institutions such as First Federal Bank of California, Hanmi Bank, Washington Mutual, and Bank of America, OHI had by April of 2000 brokered “more than $60 million in lending commitments for inner-city home ownership and small business ownership,” according to an OHI publication. Additionally, through its Banking on the Future program, OHI has educated over 50,000 adults and students about credit and basic personal finances.
OHI has opened several inner city banking centers as well. Calling the banking center effort “a private bank for LA’s working poor,” Bryant told the Los Angeles Business Journal in 1998 that he envisions banking centers “in every urban community” in the United States. Explaining that investments and donations by commercial banks provide the funding for the centers, Jason Booth of the Los Angeles Business Journal also described their range of services. “Members.xan open checking and savings accounts with participating banks, make financial investments, apply for mortgage loans and credit cards, and use computers to write resumes or do their banking over the Internet,” he wrote.
Bryant and OHI organized the First Annual Inner City Economic Summit in Los Angeles in the spring of 2000. Sponsors included Wells Fargo Bank, Fortune, Time, Union Bank of California, the Milken Institute, and UPS. Vice President Al Gore was the featured speaker. The summit attracted CEOs, federal agency heads, and other leaders. Its mandate, according to the Los Angeles Times, was “to develop strategies to foster economic renewal in neglected communities.” Seminars examined topics such as small business ownership, home ownership, and bridging the digital divide.
Bryant’s efforts to pump life into the many facets of inner city economics have won him praise from Presidents Bush and Clinton, as well as recognition from several media sources. He has been included on several high-profile lists of future leaders to watch. Bryant has received many awards, among them the Reginald F. Lewis Entrepreneurship Award from the Howard University School of Business, and the Bridge Builder Award from the Korean American Coalition. He was asked to be a panel participant at the White House Pacific Rim Economic Conference in 1995 as well as the IV African-African American Summit in 1997. Bryant was also chosen by the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) as their first Goodwill Ambassador to the United States. In 1999, he was asked to serve as special advisor to UNCTAD in 1999. In 1998, Bryant was the first African American to be knighted by the German noble House of Lippe. His title is Knight Commander, Signum Fidei.
Although his achievements might imply otherwise, Bryant became a leader almost by accident. He told the Los Angeles Times Magazine in 1995, “I started out…trying to help the community. This was going to be my contribution-being in the right place at the right time, with the right thing to say. I got sucked into leadership.” Nevertheless, he has risen to the challenge. In his Chairman’s Letter in the 1998 OHI Annual Report, he wrote, “…at the end of the day, I do what I do because I am selfish. I work hard on behalf of others.-.because I believe that you don’t get credit in life, or from God, for doing what you are supposed to do anyway…. I believe that you only get credit in life, and from God, for helping other people. And let’s just say that I want a gold or platinum card with no limit on it.”
Mitchell, Niki Butler. The New Color of Success. Rocklin, CA: Prima Publishing, 1999.
Okwu, Julian C.R. Face Forward: Young African American Men in a Critical Age. San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 1997.
American Banker, June 6, 1995, p.23.
Black Enterprise, September, 1997, p.22.
Empowering Communities, Operation HOPE, Inc. Newsletter, Vol. 8, Issue 1, Spring, 2000.
Los Angeles Business Journal, June 22, 1998, p. 18.
Los Angeles Times, April 12, 1992, p. El; August 23, 1993, p. B5; June 9, 1994, p. Bl; April 27, 1995, p. B2; October 25, 1995, p. Dl; May 28, 1997, p. D2; December 22, 1998, p. Al; December 22, 1999, p. Cl; April 12, 2000, p. C6; April 18, 2000, p. C2.
Los Angeles Times Magazine, May 1995, p. 56.
U.S. Banker, October 1999.
U.S. News and World Report, June 15, 1998, p. 15.
Additional information for this profile was obtained from Operation Hope, Inc., Annual Report, 1998; Xpress Press News Service, 1999, at www.x-presspress.com; and a corporate biography of John Bryant, provided by Operation HOPE, Inc., 2000.
—Ellen Dennis French
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Bryant, John 1966–