James, Charles H. III

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Charles H. James III


Business executive

When Charles H. James III became CEO of his family's West Virginia-based food distribution company, he inherited the nation's oldest black-owned business. James's great grandfather, Charles H. James, had begun the business back in 1883 when segregation and racism were still the order of the day. Peddling fresh eggs and produce from a bedraggled backpack, he eventually moved up to a mule-drawn wagon and finally to a warehouse. Over the decades, James' descendents grew the company and by the mid-1960s it was a million-dollar business. "Each generation of my family has created a bigger and better company," James told the Los Angeles Times. "All my forefathers are my heroes—but especially my great-grandfather. When you consider what he did in his time, I really have no excuses." Indeed, James has employed no excuses. During the more than two decades he has led the firm, he has set an aggressive pace for growth. "I've never viewed this company as a local business selling food in Charleston," he told Black Enterprise. "I always saw it as a base from which to build an international food distribution empire." In pursuing this goal, he has driven the C. H. James Company to its current position as a national leader in food distribution and a major player in the fast-food industry. In 2006, C. H. James was counting some $60 million in sales, a success that aptly reflected his family's 124-year legacy of entrepreneurial success.

Charles Howell James III was born in the late 1950s and raised near the Charleston, West Virginia base of his family's business, then called C. H. James and Company. He grew up helping his father with tasks from driving trucks to making phone calls to "candling" eggs, a process of looking inside the shell of an egg with a candle to ensure the freshness of the yolk. Though his three sisters Sheila, Stephanie, and Sarah went on to pursue careers outside of the family business, James recalled to Black Enterprise, "As a child growing up in West Virginia, I always knew I would someday work with my father." At Morehouse College in Atlanta, George, James studied history and business. Upon graduating in 1981, he worked for two years as a banker in Chicago.

In the 1950s, James' father, Charles H. James II had earned a Masters of Business Administration (MBA) from the prestigious Wharton School of Business and James III followed in those footsteps. His two years at the University of Pennsylvania-based school were a training ground for his future takeover of the family firm. His Wharton master's thesis chronicled his family's three generations of entrepreneurial success. After graduating in 1985 he was offered very lucrative banking jobs with Chase and Citicorp in New York City, but he had already made the decision to go home. "I felt like the base was here to build on," he told the Charleston Daily Mail. "I was proud of what my family had done, and it's the American dream to own a business." He added, "I considered it an honor to work in the family business."

Even before he graduated from Wharton, James had begun to contribute to company's coffers. By the 1980s, C. H. James had begun to stagnate. Competition from national supermarket chains and discount food wholesalers had limited their food delivery service to local hospitals and restaurants in a ten-county region and sales had leveled off to just above $4 million. During his business studies, James learned of a government program that allowed minority-owned business to skip the competitive bidding process for government contracts. During Christmas break from classes, he helped his father fill out the necessary paperwork and a year later, the firm started landing government contracts. This would be the key to the future of the company. "I realized that we wouldn't grow by remaining a local distributor," James told the Los Angeles Times. "I always considered the government business a means for building enough revenue to expand to the national level."

James joined C. H. James full-time in 1985 working alongside his father, the then-CEO. James continued to pursue government contracts and worked on revising the company in general. When the elder James retired in 1988, James became CEO at age 29. He promptly modernized the firm's business practices. He introduced the company's first mission statement, rewrote job descriptions, streamlined operations, created training programs, and introduced productivity incentive programs. Overall employee response was positive. "Chuck allows people to become more involved in the company and the decisions that are made. That makes you feel more responsible for your job and the outcome," the firm's comptroller told Black Enterprise. James also landed lucrative contracts with the Department of Veterans Affairs, the Department of Agriculture, and the Department of Defense. The results were impressive. Over the next five years, the company had an average annual sales increase of 38 percent, reaching $18 million per year by 1992. Prestigious small business awards started to line the walls of the company and Black Enterprise named C. H. James "Company of the Year" for 1992.

Some business leaders might have been happy with continuing this trend but James wanted more. "Chuck is always aggressive," a local Charleston banker told Black Enterprise. "He prefers to spend more time working on larger scale projects that are going to make more money in the long run." After divesting 49 percent of the local business, he used the funds to purchase a controlling stake in North American Produce, a California-based distributor responsible for delivering produce to 2,000 McDonald's restaurants nationwide. James invested $1 million in equipment and increased productivity 40 percent. With C. H. James now positioned as a holding company, sales for 1999 exceeded $31 million. James sold his interests in North American in 1999 and joined the internet boom just long enough to turn a profit of $16 million in one year with his start-up, ProduceOnline.com.

At a Glance …

Born in 1959(?), in West Virginia; married, Jeralyn; children: three; Education: Morehouse College, 1981; University of Pennsylvania, Wharton School of Business, MBA, 1985.

Career: Continental Illinois National Bank and Trust Co., Chicago, IL, banking associate, 198(?)-83; C.H. James & Co., Charleston, WV, management, 1985-88; president and CEO, 1988-; North American Produce, CA, CEO, 1992-99; Produce Online, Charleston, WV, CEO, 1999-2000; PrimeSource FoodService Equipment Inc., Dallas, TX, CEO, 2001-03; C. H. James Restaurant Holdings, CEO, Deerfield, IL, 2003-.

Memberships: Commerce Bank, Charleston, WV, board member; Morehouse College, Trustee; West Virginia Economic Development Authority, treasurer; University of Charleston, trustee; Charleston Area Medical Center, board member.

Awards: U.S. Department of Agriculture, Minority Contractor of the Year Award, 1988, 1989 and 1990; Small Business Association Mid-Atlantic Region, Minority Small Businessman of the Year, 1990; Morehouse College, Bennie Leadership Award, 2001; Dow Jones, Award for Entrepreneurial Excellence; Office of the Governor, Distinguished West Virginian Award.

Addresses: Office—C. H. James Restaurant Holdings LLC, Deerfield Executive Center, 1020 N. Milwaukee Avenue, Ste. 360, Deerfield, IL 60015. Web—www.chjamesco.com.

In 2001, C. H. James Holding purchased a controlling interest in PrimeSource, a Dallas-based company that delivered restaurant equipment to over 27,000 fastfood restaurants including Pizza Hut, KFC, and Taco Bell. As CEO, James took the company to $140 million in revenues in 2003, but again he chose to sell his interests in the company. In 2004 he joined forces with Goldman Sachs's Urban Investment Group to form C. H. James Restaurant Holdings, and they soon purchased 37 Burger King restaurants in Chicago. Within three years, they bought six more, making James one of Burger King's largest franchisees and its largest African-American franchisee. In 2006, sales reached nearly $60 million. His continual purchase and sale of businesses has prompted some to call James a ‘serial entrepreneur,’ a term he has rejected. Instead, he has consistently reflected his success back on family tradition. "This is what really defines our family," he told Black Enterprise. "It is truly an honor to be able to do what I do, and hopefully have something to pass on to the next generation." As he entered his third decade of leading the company, he planned to maintain his family's track record of success long enough for his three sons to become the fifth generation to inherit the family business.



Black Enterprise, June 1992, p. 142; May 2000, p. 116; June 2001, p. 46; June 2003, p. 165; February 2005, p. 36.

Charleston Daily Mail, July 7, 1992, October 4, 1988.

Los Angeles Times, June 1, 1997, p. D1.


C. H. James Companies, www.chjamesco.com (July 3, 2007).

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