Llewellyn, J. Bruce 1927–
J. Bruce Llewellyn 1927–
J. Bruce Llewellyn’s career history might be viewed as a virtual microcosm of twentieth-century minority achievement. Born into a working-class family, the attorney-turned-corporate maverick served in the military, owned his own business while attending college, spent nearly a decade in the public-service sector, then ventured out on his own to become one of the most successful African American entrepreneurs of his generation. By the 1990s Llewellyn was the chief executive officer of one of the largest soft-drink bottling operations in the United States, and seemed nonplused that he was one of the richest African Americans not involved in the sports or entertainment fields. “My father always told me that brains and education can defeat the prejudice within society,” Llewellyn said to Business Week.
Llewellyn was born in Harlem on July 16,1927, the son of Jamaican immigrants. He grew up during the Great Depression, when abysmal economic circumstances brought suffering to both black and white communities across the United States. His father, however, was more fortunate than most—he was employed as a linotype operator for a major New York newspaper, and then
became owner of a restaurant in suburban White Plains, where the family eventually moved. They were one of a few African American families there, which Llewellyn later described as a fortuitous circumstance. “It’s important that you have no sense of inferiority about what you’re learning or about your abilities,” Llewellyn explained to Ken Smikle in an interview in Black Enterprise. “In the real world, you’re up against everybody, so you ought to know if you can play or not.” As a teenager Llewellyn worked at his family’s restaurant and was a door-to-door Fuller Brush salesperson as well. When World War II broke out, Llewellyn enlisted in the U.S. Army, and within five years, he had become a first lieutenant.
With the severance bonus he received upon leaving military service, Llewellyn returned to Harlem and bought a liquor store. He attended college by day, planning to become a hospital administrator, while also running the store. Within a few years, he had received a B.S. from the City College of New York, then took courses at both Columbia University’s Graduate School of Business and the New York University School of Public Administration. Finally Llewellyn decided upon
Born James Bruce Llewellyn, July 16, 1927, in Harlem, NY; son of Charles (a linotype operator and later restaurant owner) and Vanessa Llewellyn; married; wife’s name, Jackie; children: Kristen, Lisa, Alexandra. Education: City College of New York, B.5., c. 1950s; also earned graduate degrees from Columbia Graduate School of Business, and New York University School of Public Administration; New York Law School, LLB., 1960.
Proprietor of a retail liquor store in Harlem, 1952-56; New York County District Attorney’s Office, student assistant, 1958-60; Evans, Berger, & Llewellyn, New York City, 1962-65; Housing and Redevelopment Board of New York City, 1964-65; Small Business Development Corporation, 1965-68; New York City Housing and Development Administration, 1968-69; Fedco Food Stores, New York City, president, 1969-84; Dickstein, Shapiro & Marin, Washington, DC, partner, 1982—; Philadelphia Coca-Cola Bottling Company, chair and CEO, 1985—; also owner of a Coca-Cola bottling plant in Wilmington, DE, since 1988; WKBW-TV (an ABC affiliate), Buffalo, NY, principal stockholder and chair, 1986. Served as president of the Overseas Private Investment Corporation, Washington, DC, 1978-80; Fund for Large Enterprise, Washington, DC, presidentially appointed board member, 1994—, Military service: U.S. Army, 1941-46; became first lieutenant.
Selected awards: Llewellyn has received ten honorary doctorate degrees.
Addresses: Office— The Philadelphia Coca-Cola Bottling Company, 30 Rockefeller Plaza, 20th Floor, New York, NY 10112.
law, and in 1960 earned a degree from New York Law School. Around this time he also began working for the New York County District Attorney’s Office—as he explained later, the American corporate sector was not exactly extending a welcome mat to educated African Americans during this era. Civil service was one sure path to economic success for law-school graduates, and one relatively open to minorities. “In those days, a judgeship was the best job you could get, because you weren’t going to work in a Wall Street law firm,” he told Business Week.
From his post at the D.A.’s office Llewellyn moved on to the New York City Housing and Redevelopment Board, then became a regional director of the Small Business Administration, executive director of the Upper Manhattan Small Business Development Corporation, and lastly, a deputy commissioner for New York City’s Housing Commission. The public-service ethos had worn him out, however. “Most of the time I found the places loaded with bureaucratic red tape and with a bunch of dumb people who retired from the moment they got the job,” he explained to Smikle in Black Enterprise. “And they sure didn’t want to hear a new idea about doing something. That really threw them into a tizzy.” In 1969 a former legal client told him about a ten-store chain of supermarkets in the Bronx that was going up for sale. No one seemed interested in the properties as a whole since the urban areas in which they were located were in decline.
With the help of an investment banking firm and a large insurance company, Llewellyn managed to raise the $3 million necessary to purchase the Fedco chain—after first being forced to put up everything he owned as collateral to satisfy his lenders. “They told me that ‘if it doesn’t work, we can guarantee that it will hurt you a hell of a lot more than it will hurt us,’” Llewellyn said in the Black Enterprise interview. Rising to the challenge, Llewellyn not only kept the chain afloat but expanded its properties and profits during the next few years. Success came by changing little in the day-to-day operations of the already-profitable Fedco chain—he kept the same staff, including its former owner. “I wasn’t exactly trying to reinvent the wheel,” Llewellyn recalled for Smikle. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it… I learned about managing people in the Army. Give people the responsibility and give them the authority. You hold them accountable.” Llewellyn’s success with Fedco helped set a precedent, proving to white-owned lending institutions that lending to minority entrepreneurs and communities could be beneficial to all parties.
Llewellyn’s law degree, previous career in public service, and success in running Fedco made him a prime candidate for a government appointment when Georgia Democrat Jimmy Carter was elected president in 1976. He was invited to take the post of Secretary of the Army, but refused, instead suggesting his friend Clifford Alexander for the job. Llewellyn explained to Carter that his own talents and interests lay in business, not in the military, and eventually Carter offered him a post as head of the Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC), a government agency that provides insurance underwriting to American firms engaged in projects in developing countries. Llewellyn placed his interest in Fedco in a trust and took the OPIC job, guiding it to record profits during the three years of his tenure. He lost it when the Reagan Administration entered the White House, but by 1982 had become a partner in the Washington, D.C., law firm of Dickstein, Shapiro & Marin.
By the early 1980s Fedco had expanded to 27 stores and the chain he had bought for $3 million was now earning $85 million in gross revenues, becoming the fourth-largest black-owned business in the country. As a grocery-store owner, Llewellyn knew what was most popular in urban communities-soda. It had long been a dream of his to own a bottling franchise for one of the major soft-drink purveyors, but they were notoriously difficult to procure and minority representation was practically nonexistent. Over the years, Llewellyn watched soft-drink sales grow, and had long discussed the possibilities with executives of both Coca-Cola and Pepsi. At one point he came close to owning the Connecticut Pepsi-Cola bottling plant, but the deal fell through at the last minute. He resumed talking with executives at Coca-Cola.
Llewellyn eventually reached his dream in part because of a 1981 boycott of Coca-Cola products organized by the Reverend Jesse Jackson and Operation PUSH. As Derek T. Dingle explained in Black Enterprise, “In 1980, blacks spent more than $300 million on Coca-Cola drinks. However, there was only one black among 4,000 wholesalers of the company’s fountain syrup. And blacks were also absent from management and the multimillion-dollar monolith’s board of directors.” African Americans used their purchasing power to express dissatisfaction with the lack of minority ownership and investment in the company, and the boycott forced Coca-Cola into announcing a strategy for change. In 1983 Llewellyn, former basketball star Julius Erving, and television star Bill Cosby bought a 36 percent share of the Coca-Cola Bottling Company of New York. They were among the eight potential African American investors selected by Coca-Cola from a pool of a hundred. Llewellyn was named a board member and made chair of its subsidiary, the Philadelphia Coca-Cola Bottling Company.
In 1985, Coca-Cola put the Philadelphia subsidiary up for sale and offered to trade shares owned by Llewellyn and Erving in New York Coke for ownership of the Philly Bottling Co., one of the country’s largest. The plant employs 700 people and sends products across Pennsylvania and into New Jersey. Llewellyn’s chairmanship of the board does not involve simply sitting back and watching the lucrative profits roll in from Coca-Cola sales, however. During his tenure, he oversaw an increase in product presence on more store shelves (especially urban areas) and also brought in new accounts, such as mineral water, to the facility; Barq’s Root Beer is also another success story attributed to Llewellyn’s tenacity. In four years his Philadelphia plant went from being the fifteenth largest in the nation to the number eight spot. “Black businesses have to [realize] that we are no longer a black business in the sense that we serve the black community, but we are a black-owned business selling to everyone,” Llewellyn explained to Glen Macnow in Nation’s Business. “If you don’t do that, you’re walking away from 90 percent of the population.”
During the 1980s Llewellyn ventured into other areas of the corporate world. He sold the Fedco chain for $20 million, and used some of the profits to purchase an ABC-TV affiliate in Buffalo, New York. Through his new media company, Queen City Broadcasting, Llewellyn has also invested in cable television. In 1989 he bought a 20-percent share in South Jersey Cable (renamed Garden State Cable), and for the next five years he served as chair of one the largest cable systems in the country. In 1988 he purchased his second Coca-Cola bottling operation, this one located in Wilmington, Delaware. He sits on the boards of numerous companies and organizations, including Colorado brewer Adolph Coors Co., Essence Communications, the United Negro College Fund, and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York.
In other business ventures Llewellyn has sometimes become involved with major African American names— O. J. Simpson, Quincy Jones, and some of Michael Jackson’s older brothers have all been investment partners of Llewellyn’s at one point or another; but the executive once noted, however, that such star power has its disadvantages. “They don’t know business, so every time we do a transaction, there’s another lawyer or accountant of theirs calling in. It just chews up time,” he grumbled to Macnow in Nation’s Business. He made an exception for Erving, however; and the former basketball star agreed that they work well together. “I move in a more diplomatic fashion that he does,” Erving told Smikle in Black Enterprise, “but Bruce doesn’t need to be as diplomatic and that’s a formula that works for him. Maybe as partner a little bit of each other’s qualities can rub off and strengthen both of us.”
With the return of a Democratic administration to the White House, Llewellyn’s expertise was again called upon in 1994; he was a member of President Bill Clinton’s Advisory Committee for Trade Policy and Negotiation, the Board of the Fund for Large Enterprises in Russia, and the U.S. Small Business Administration Advisory Council on Small Business. Though he is a member of the upper echelons of the American corporate world, he remains largely anonymous—and prefers it that way. (He is, however, sometimes mistaken for the actor James Earl Jones.) Both his sister, a New York State Supreme Court judge, and his cousin, esteemed U.S. Army General Colin Powell, are more recognizable public figures than Llewellyn.
During the days when Llewellyn had a more hands-on role in the running of the Fedco chain, he would often interview the job applicants himself. He would fire away basic math questions that the high-school students were at a loss to answer correctly, and it made him angry. “And if I couldn’t hire them, it wasn’t that they were just unemployed—they were unemployable for the rest of their lives,” he told Macnow in Nation’s Business. As his own personal wealth increased, Llewellyn began to endow numerous scholarship funds to help increase minority presence in the corporate community. One is a quarter-million-dollar endowment at the City University of New York which provides $8,000 a year to doctoral students in business, computer science, and related fields. “Business is the emancipator of a group of people,” he explained to Macnow in the Nation’s Business profile. “The trick is to get your hands on the levers, on the money, to get the guy off your back. That’s the real world, and that’s the plight of the black community—they don’t have the leverage.”
Estell, Kenneth, editor, The African-American Almanac, 6th edition, Gale, 1994.
Black Enterprise, October 1983, p. 19; March 1986, p. 13; September 1986, p. 36.
Business Week, November 16, 1987, p. 129.
Jet, April 4, 1994, p. 37.
Nation’s Business, September 1990, p. 41.
Additional information for this profile was provided by the Philadelphia Coca-Cola Bottling Co. publicity materials.
Llewellyn, J. Bruce 1927–
J. Bruce Llewellyn
Chairman and chief executive officer, Philadelphia Coca-Cola Bottling Company
Family: Son of Charles (linotype operator and restaurant owner) and Vanessa; married Shahara Ahmad; children: three.
Career: Harlem liquor store, 1952–1956, proprietor; New York County district-attorney's office, 1958–1960, student assistant; Evans, Berger, & Llewellyn, 1962–1965; Housing and Redevelopment Board of New York City, 1964–1965; Small Business Development Corporation, 1965–1967, regional director; New York City Housing and Development Administration, 1967–1969, deputy commissioner of housing; Fedco Food Stores, 1969–1984, president; Dickstein, Shapiro, & Marin, 1982–?, partner; Philadelphia Coca-Cola Bottling Company, 1985–, chairman and chief executive officer; WKBW-TV, 1986–, chairman.
Awards: Among Black Enterprise magazine's top black business owners, 2001; inducted into the National African-American Business Hall of Fame, 2003; President's Medal of Honor, New York University, 2004; recipient of more than ten honorary doctorate degrees.
Address: Philadelphia Coca-Cola Bottling Company, 725 East Erie Avenue, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania 19134; http://www.phillycoke.com.
■ J. (James) Bruce Llewellyn distinguished himself not only as chairman and chief executive officer (CEO) of the Philadelphia Coca-Cola Bottling Company, but also as one of the nation's leading African-American entrepreneurs. Llewellyn was ambitious from a very young age, earning four college degrees and owning several successful business ventures, including a
highly profitable supermarket chain in New York. Just two years after purchasing the Philadelphia Coca-Cola Bottling Company, Llewellyn had increased business by 300 percent and grown it into the third-largest African American–owned business in the United States. "There is no short road to success," he told the Black Collegian in 1997. "It emanates from long, hard years of concentrated effort, from going the extra mile and doing what others will rarely do."
THE EARLY YEARS
Llewellyn was born in Harlem to immigrant parents who came from Jamaica for a better life. His father opened a restaurant in White Plains, New York, where Llewellyn worked when he was young. "Owning a restaurant is the most difficult business there is," he told Newsday in 1994.
When World War II began, he enlisted in the U.S. Army and was made a first lieutenant within five years. After leaving the service at age 21, Llewellyn returned to Harlem to open his own liquor store. He simultaneously attended the City University of New York and earned a bachelor's degree. Not content with just one degree, Llewellyn completed graduate programs at Columbia University, New York University, and New York Law School. In the early 1960s his extensive education earned him a job with the New York County district-attorney's office. At the time there were not many corporate positions open to African Americans, but there were opportunities in civil service. He then took a position with the New York City Housing and Redevelopment Board. In 1965 he became a regional director of the United States Small Business Administration, and in 1967 he was appointed deputy commissioner of housing for New York City.
BEGINNINGS OF A RETAIL CAREER
Llewellyn grew tired of public service. In 1969 he mortgaged his home and sold virtually all of his assets to purchase Fedco Foods Corporation, a chain of ten supermarkets in the Bronx. He kept most of the original staff but began to expand the business. When he finally sold Fedco in 1984, it was the largest minority-owned retail store in the country, with 29 stores, 900 employees, and annual sales of $100 million.
In the late 1970s President Jimmy Carter appointed Llewellyn president of the Overseas Private Investment Corporation, a government insurance agency that underwrites American business projects in developing countries. He kept that position until Carter lost the election to Ronald Reagan. In 1982 Llewellyn was made a partner in the Washington, D.C., law firm of Dickstein, Shapiro, & Marin.
Llewellyn's career was on solid ground, but he had another, as yet unrealized, dream. He had long wanted to own a soft-drink bottling company and had previously discussed the idea with both Coca-Cola and Pepsi. In 1983 Llewellyn and a small group of investors, including former basketball star Julius Erving and the comedian Bill Cosby, bought a share of the Coca-Cola Bottling Company in New York. Llewellyn was named a board member and made chairman of its subsidiary, the Philadelphia Coca-Cola Bottling Company.
In 1985 Llewellyn and Erving purchased the Philadelphia Coca-Cola Bottling Company. In 1988 Llewellyn bought the Coca-Cola bottling operation in Wilmington, Delaware, and became that company's chairman and majority stockholder. Llewellyn expanded the Philadelphia company's product line and increased its presence on supermarket shelves. He eventually grew it into the sixth-largest Coca-Cola bottling operation and the third-largest African American–owned business in the United States, with $400 million in annual sales.
OTHER BUSINESS VENTURES
In the 1980s and early 1990s Llewellyn added two media chairmanships to his long list of titles. He became chairman of Queen City Broadcasting, which operates the ABC-television network affiliate in Buffalo, New York, and chairman of Garden State Cablevision, one of the largest cable-television systems in New Jersey. In the late 1990s Llewellyn launched a bid to buy the Minnesota Vikings football team. The purchase would have made Llewellyn the first African American to own a controlling interest in an NFL team, but he was forced to drop out of the bidding due to health problems.
Though an avid businessman, Llewellyn never forgot his roots and was a staunch supporter of community and educational programs. In 1998 his company introduced a $2.5 million program to support local youth organizations. Llewellyn has also funded a $250,000 doctoral scholarship at the City University of New York.
In 1994 President Bill Clinton named Llewellyn to his Advisory Committee for Trade Policy and Negotiation, the Board of the Fund for Large Enterprises in Russia, and the U.S. Small Business Administration Advisory Council on Small Business. Llewellyn served on the boards of directors of Essence Communications, Coors Brewing Company, and Teleport Communications Group. He served on the boards of a number of cultural and educational organizations, including the Museum of Television and Radio, CUNY Graduate School and University Center, and the United Negro College Fund.
sources for further information
Kimbro, Dr. Dennis, "Defining Success," Black Collegian, February 1, 1997.
Taylor, B. Kimberly, "A Piece of the Pie: What Do These Millionaires Have in Common? They All Found Work with Equal Opportunity Employers Themselves," Newsday, February 1, 1994.