Fuller, S. B. 1895–1988
S. B. Fuller 1895–1988
Equipped with a sixth-grade education, a desire to succeed, and a talent for sales, S. B. Fuller invested $25 to build a company that reached multimillions of dollars in assets. He made door-to-door sales successful in both white and black communities and became known throughout the country as the head of Fuller Products Company. His training techniques guided others in establishing multimillion-dollar businesses of their own.
Widely known as S. B. Fuller, Samuel B. Fuller, was born in Monroe, Louisiana, in 1905, to parents who were sharecroppers. By the time he was nine years old he had learned the value of door-to-door sales, perhaps from experiences in his community. Fuller dropped out of school when he was in the sixth grade. When he was 15, the Fullers moved to Memphis, Tennessee. While nothing more is known about his father, Fuller’s mother died two years later and apparently the seven children provided for themselves withoutgovernment assistance.
Perhaps in search of a better living than he had in Memphis, Fuller hitchhiked to Chicago in 1928 and found work as a coal hiker. Later Fuller worked as an insurance representative for Commonwealth Burial Association; after four years he was promoted to a managerial position. Assisted by his friend Lestine Thornton, whom he later married, Fuller spent 25 dollars to buy soap that he peddled from door-to-door. Since the investment proved successful, he soon he put $1,000 in the venture; Fuller Products Company, now an infant business, was incorporated in 1929.
Fuller established a line of 30 products and hired salespeople to market them door-to-door, primarily on Chicago’s South Side where a small concentration of black people lived. By 1939 his business had grown from a small office space above a store to a small factory, also located on the South Side. By expanding his sales force to meet the needs of the market, Fuller had become one of the city’s most prominent black businessmen.
Determined to expand his business, in 1947 Fuller acquired Boyer International Laboratories, a white cosmetics manufacturer. In an effort to avoid criticism and possibly boycotts from whites who were loyal to Boyer products—Jean Nadal Cosmetics and H.A. Hair Arranger—the transaction remained secret. Fuller’s customers then were primarily in the South: Atlanta, Birmingham, Montgomery, Dallas, and North Carolina.
Throughout the 1950s Fuller was known as a master salesman. His Chicago plant included such products as face creams, lotions, perfumes, and a complete line of household necessities. According to the November 1957 Ebony, the attractive, modest, and unbelievably energetic Fuller had a charming and magnetic quality about
At a Glance…
Born in 1905, in Monroe, Louisiana; died of kidney failure, October 24, 1988, in Blue Island, Illinois; dropped out of school in the sixth grade; married Lestine Thornton; children: five daughters. Religion: Baptist.
Insurance representative for Commonwealth Burial Association, late 1920s and early 1930s; founded Fuller Products Company, 1929; president, Chicago Negro Chamber of Congress until 1947; acquired Boyer International Laboratories, 1947; later purchased interest in J. C McBrady and Company and Patricia Stevens Cosmetics, New York Age, and Pittsburgh Courier .In the 1950s founded Fuller Guaranty Corporation, Fuller-Philco Home Appliance Center, and Fuller’s Department Store. St. Andrew Temple of Faith, Truth and Love Baptist Church, assistant pastor, 1962. Placed on probation by the Securities and Exchanges Commission in 1964; Fuller Products company declared bankruptcy in 1969; revived, c. 1970s. Dabbled in real estate, farming, and cattle.
Member: National Association of Manufacturers, NAACP.
him.“He cajoles, questions, lectures, coddles and spanks his dealers with words that have come to be gospel to Fullerites.” The formula for his success, cited in the November 1975 Ebony, is given in Fuller’s own statements: “The door-to-door salesman is the backbone of today’s economy…. At Fuller Products Company, there’s only one race—the human race…. A man doesn’t have to have a lot of degrees behind his name to earn $10,000 a year.”
A motivational genius, Fuller held spiritual meetings for his door-to-door salespeople and published weekly bulletins, distributing them to independent dealers so that his sales people throughout the country always knew his doctrine on selling and living. Furthermore, Fuller held annual meetings for his employees that allowed him an opportunity to honor them. For example, when Fuller and his staff met in Chicago’s Palmer House in 1957, his top three salespeople were awarded automobiles and 24 other salespeople divided a jackpot of more than $3,000. Most of his administrative staff were college graduates. His employees, who called themselves “Fullerites,” included George Johnson, later owner of the well-known Johnson Products, and Joe Louis Dudley, owner of a multimillion-dollar-business in Greensboro, North Carolina.
By 1959 Fuller had built a $250,000 12-room dream house in Robbins, Illinois, where he and his wife lived alone. The suburban showplace was replete with maids’ quarters, 14 telephones, imported Italian terrazzo tile floors, Indian wool carpeting, and Japanese raw silk draperies designed especially for the Fullers.
Business soared after the acquisition of Boyer and by the early 1960s sales peaked at $ 10 million, and 60 percent of his customers were white. Fuller now had a line of 300 products and employed 5,000 salespeople, 600 of whom were on direct payroll. His employees were black as well as white. According to the November 1957 issue of Ebony, he inspired his black employees by saying: “Anything the white man can do, so can you. Don’t ever feel the way is closed to you because you are a Negro. All you need is faith in God and faith in yourself.” He also established 85 branches in 38 states. The astute businessman decided to diversify his investment further and bought an interest in J. C. McBrady and Company and Patricia Stevens Cosmetics. He became a major shareholder of the Pittsburgh Courier Publishing Company-the owner of the country’s oldest black newspaper, the New York Age, and the Pittsburgh Courier, the largest circulated black newspaper.
Fuller also invested in real estate, farming, and cattle. He owned a real estate trust in New York City, the buildings housing branches of his business in various cities, and Chicago’s Regal Theater—the city’s counterpart to Harlem’s Apollo Theater for black entertainment. He owned the Fuller Guaranty Corporation and Fuller-Philco Home Appliance Center.
Fuller’s business investments began to decline in the 1960s. When the White Citizen’s Council learned that Boyer had been sold to a black, they proceeded to destroy the company by boycotting sales throughout the South. This was at the same time that blacks launched economic boycotts of southern white businesses. Drugstore chains owned by whites removed the Boyer line from their shelves. Since 60 percent of the company’s sales came from whites, the boycott devastated Fuller Products Company.
Jean Nadal products had no market at all and Fuller sold the line. Although he believed that black producers should sell to white customers just as whites sell to blacks, he attempted to move his market to northern whites and to blacks in both the North and South. When a New York liquor dealer reneged on its offer to buy the Jean Nadal line, Fuller’s enterprise was devastated further. His attempt to reinvest his money in Fuller’s Department Store, formerly the South Center Department Store on South Side Chicago, left him financially overextended.
In 1964 the Securities and Exchanges Commission charged Fuller with selling unregistered high interest promissory notes on his business and he was placed on probation for five years. In addition, a social service agent in Chicago campaigned against him for giving credit to clients on welfare. The agent persuaded the clients not to honor their debts with Fuller, leaving him with more than one million dollars in unpaid accounts. In late 1968 Fuller divested himself of his publishing concern and his retail stores. Despite his sale of the mortgages he held on real estate, Fuller Products Company declared bankruptcy in 1969.
Many of Fuller’s problems emerged from the negative attitude toward the African American community. Nevertheless, according to African-American Business Leaders, he rarely condemned whites. Instead, he lashed criticism out at blacks, saying that “Negroes lack initiative, courage, integrity, loyalty and wisdom.” He accused the Chicago NAACP of ignoring blacks and working only to change the attitude of whites. Clearly, the views Fuller expressed around this time departed from his earlier assertion that blacks could succeed in business. He began to draw the black community’s wrath and blacks boycotted his products. Fuller knew that his business suffered further by the black boycott; nevertheless, he never recanted his negative statements toward blacks in business and attributed the whole matter to a misunderstanding.
Fuller revived his business in the 1970s, when he reorganized under the federal bankruptcy laws, and, by 1972, the firm reported $300,000 in profits. Still based in Chicago, he had centers in Atlanta, Los Angeles, New York, Newark, Richmond, Greensboro, Washington, D.C., and Cleveland. By 1975 Fuller’s company manufactured 60 products, including cosmetics and other beauty items.
In honor of Fuller’s seventieth birthday, on June 4, 1975, George Johnson and Johnson Publishing Company executive John H. Johnson cosponsored a testimonial dinner. Illinois Governor Daniel Walker declared the day “S. B. Fuller Day” in his honor as well. Some 2,000 people paid $50 a plate to attend the Chicago event. John H. Johnson presented Fuller with a check for $70,000, representing funds raised at the event. According to the June 16, 1976, issue of Jet, George Johnson told Fuller, “If there had been no you, there would be no us.” He also presented Fuller with 2,000 shares of Johnson Products stock valued at $50,000. All funds were to help Fuller rebuild his company.
Joe L. Dudley, who had worked with Fuller in the past and was already operating a booming cosmetics business in Greensboro where three years before he saw more than 400 percent profit, teamed up with Fuller to develop a $100,000 business in the next ten years and to perpetuate door-to-door selling. By 1978 Dudley had become president of the Fuller Products Company.
During his lifetime Fuller divided his time between his company and other professional and civic activities. He found black businessmen in Chicago clannish and protective of each other. Sometime in the 1930s black businesses founded the Chicago Negro Chamber of Commerce and later included older, more established companies such as Park Sausage, Metropolitan Sausage, Supreme Life Insurance Company, and Baldwin Advertising. Their motto was “For your economic emancipation, patronize your own.”
Fuller was president of the organization until 1947 and, through parades and stickers, guided its continuous campaign for self-sufficiency. Fuller himself consistently supported black businesses. In the 1950s for example, when Johnson Products was burned out of its small cosmetics operation, Fuller enabled George Johnson and his company to use Fuller’s facilities in the interim. That Johnson was a competitor was irrelevant.
In 1960 Fuller was chairman of the Pittsburgh Courier’s board of directors. By 1962 he also had become licensed as a Baptist minister and later became an assistant pastor of St. Andrew Temple of Faith, Truth and Love Baptist Church. At some point Fuller was also head of the South Side chapter of the NAACP and the first black member of the National Association of Manufacturers. During President Eisenhower’s administration he raised contributions for the Republican National Committee. He also contributed generously to various charities and scholarship funds.
Fuller died on October 24,1988, at St. Francis Hospital in Blue Island, apparently of kidney failure. Funeral services were held at St. Andrew Temple of Faith. His survivors included his wife, five daughters, 13 grandchildren, and 18 great-grandchildren. Fuller is best remembered as a trailblazing entrepreneur and as a mentor to many of the leading black businesspeople in the country.
Ingham, John N., and Lynne B. Feldman, African-American Business Leaders: A Biographical Dictionary, Greenwood Press, 1994.
The Kaiser Index to Black Resources, 1948-1986, Vol. 2, Carlson Publishing, 1992.
Black Enterprise, August 1975, pp. 46-50.
Chicago Defender, October 25, 1988.
Ebony, November 1957, pp. 119-124; February 1959, pp. 36-42; September 1975, pp. 118-122.
Jet, May 29, 1975, p. 9; June 26, 1976, pp. 28-32.
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