WVON Radio seeks answers to save black businesses

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By Chinta Strausberg


“We black businesses, not only funeral homes, but others, we have to fight to maintain our integrity and not allow our name to be sold where our black clientele think they are coming to a black-owned business and that is not the case” – Spencer Leak, President of Leak Funeral Homes.

“Why are second and third generation African American businesses going out of business?” – Cliff Kelley, WVON Talk Show Host

Collectively representing more than 189-years of business in Chicago, four entrepreneurs appeared on WVON’s Cliff Kelley show to discuss the state of African American owned businesses, how can they survive in the 21st Century, and why it is important to properly train and pass the mantle to the next generation.

In the WVON studio were: Josephine Wade, manager of Josephine’s Cookin Restaurant, 436 E. 79th Street who has been in business for 68-years, Victor Love, Wade’s son, the owner who has had a dry cleaning business for 23-years, Kham Beard, the former owner of Kham & Nate Shoes once located downtown and at 87th and Cottage Grove who today manages 150 apartments, and Spencer Leak, Sr., president of Leak Funeral Homes, in business for 78-years.

Kevin Hicks, president of the Atlanta-based franchise consultancy Blackman Associates, called into the station with numerous solutions that if followed would help sustain black-owned businesses. According to an article in the Southeast Queens news,  Hicks is credited with bringing billion dollar interests such as Subway, Jackson Hewitt and Footlocker to Queens.

If small businesses represent the backbone of America, then African American family-owned businesses are the lifeblood to the black community, which has become more integrated and non-supportive of these establishments for several decades. As a result, black businesses are closing their doors.

According to the Office of Advocacy, which gets its latest statistics from the Census Bureau, there were 29.6 million businesses in the United States in 2008. Small firms having less than 500 workers represented 99.9 percent of the 29.6 million businesses and there were about 18,000 large businesses in 2006.

When WVON put out a call to discuss the closing of black businesses, like the historic Edna’s and Izola’s restaurants located in the heart of the African American community, Wade, Love, Leak and Beard jumped at the chance to explain why it is important to not only support Black-owned businesses but to prepare their children to pick up the mantle and carry on their businesses into the next generation.

Kelley, who said he is concerned about “why we are losing so many long-time successful businesses in the black community,” announced he would be running a series of programs on this topic every Friday.

Asked what is the problem and the secret to keep the doors of black-owned institutions open, Wade answered, “You look at corporations like Leona’s…it’s marketable and it’s a brand” just like her restaurant is. “But, it’s something about our culture that does not remain uplifted to continue to come in,” she said referring to the dwindling support by African Americans.

Wade said Blacks don’t get the funds to market in order to compete like other non-black restaurants do. “And, most of us eat, shop, go to the doctor…do offer what we see off of TV. If you’re not able to stay within the mainstream of the marketing process, then you can easily get lost… Once the newness (of a new restaurant) is lost, it’s business as usual,” she said. “We got to figure out how we can save businesses to keep people interested in coming.”

Kelley said everyone knows about Wade and Love’s restaurant, formerly called Captain Hard Times.  Beard and Leak explained how what the second and third generations must do to remain successful and stressed it wouldn’t be easy.

Beard said he realizes as a black businessman “it seems like we had to do more than the average business person had to do. We had to shine more, give a better service and offer a better product but you had to offer that product at less than other people were offering. We had to give more for less,” he said. “It continues on.

“It is very difficult for us to give more and give it less when competitors are buying it in greater volumes than we are buying; so it’s a difficult situation. I’m buying…by the cases and they are buying at the box car (level)…,” explained Beard.

“There has to be a sacrificing for a cause and I do not know if our community is ready to sacrifice for a cause,” he said. “For years, we’ve been trained to survive and in that survival, you have to get the most you can for your buck so as a consequence we’re constantly looking for what we can get more of for less,” said Beard.

He said when he had his shoe business, he held staff meetings each Saturday “to let them know what they were up against and the fight you’re up against is to be better,” Beard stated.

Kelley praised Beard for passing the mantle on to his daughters, Khamiya and Karyn Beard, who have a shoe store, Khamryn-B Shoes & Accessories, at 8301 S. Ashland.  Beard said they are celebrating six-years of being in business.

Leak, who is passing his business on to his son, Spencer Leak, Jr., said those businesspersons in the studio, represented the first generation of a business. “I represent the second generation of my business, and what we’re finding and the data I’ve seen is that it is the second and third generations that are going out of business. I think you can attribute that to mindset,” Leak concluded.

“Young people need to know that when they inherit their mother or father’s business they have to be of a mindset of working longer hours and more days than their employees.”

Leak said employees “will not respect you unless you’re working more hours than they. You are there when they come and you’re there when they leave. To work a business means you’ve got to work day and night and these young people say ‘that is not fair…I’ve got a life to live’ but I never had that choice….

“When my daddy started me out in our business, I was 10-years old,” recalled Leak. “What was a 10-year-old doing? I was getting out of grammar school. I went there (to the funeral home). I answered the phone. I did everything that you’re supposed to do. I didn’t get any pay. The only pay I got was food to eat and a bed to sleep in.”

Kelley recalled a speech Leak made years ago when he admitted it was rough keeping the business going after his dad died. “I give credit to God,” Leak said. “God was the only one who could have gotten me out of the quagmire that my daddy left me in.

“My daddy was like a whole lot of folk, black or white. He never liked the tax that he wanted to pay and so my dad had me in a few tax problems, but I was able to balance that by the fact that my dad had an incredible name and people loved him. I was able to take that name by the grace of God and turn our business around but it required long, hard hours.

“Our young people who take over businesses have to realize not only taking over businesses but who are initiating businesses that they must be willing to work and work hard in order to maintain and sustain a business,” said Leak.

Kelley asked Leak how many African Americans go to white funeral homes to bury their love ones. “Too many,” said Leak. “Our funeral industry is the last resource that white corporate America has tried to take over and have not fully done it but they are making strides and they are taking over black funeral homes throughout our nation. They are doing it in Chicago and other major cities.”

“We must fight it not only to sustain our current businesses but to fight for the future of black funeral service and when I say black funeral service as opposed to white funeral service or Jewish or Hispanic funeral service that’s the nature of the business.

“People tend to want to go to people of their own color and their own ethnic group. That is not racism. That is just culture and there is nothing wrong with that,” explained Leak.

“We black businesses, not only funeral homes, but others, we have to fight to maintain our integrity and not allow our name to be sold where our black clientele think they are coming to a black-owned business and that is not the case,” said Leak.

Love said the black community “is not conscious now. We have fallen asleep. We have a song, ‘Wake Up Everybody.’ It’s time to wake up this community because we’re losing it, and we’re losing it daily. Our businesses are closing at a rapid speed.”

Love said he has run his dry cleaning business since 1988. “At this point, I am more compelled to receive the torch from my mom (Josephine Wade) to take what used to be called Captain Hard Times (now Josephine’s Cookin) to the next level. You can expect a new look in the place. You can expect new items on the menus…new advertisement. We’re going to roll up our sleeves….”

He said his mother has shared her money with the community from the church to the homeless. Kelley praised all of them for making similar contributions to the community.

Kelley asked Hicks how to make black businesses work in the 21st Century. Hicks said black funeral home owners “have done an exceptional job in fending off what has become a continued consolidation in their business by playing to their strength.”

Hicks said blacks must understand what their strengths are. “The first strength that we have as communities of color is personal relationships….” He said that is what has sustained black businesses. “We have to embrace those things as opposed to going out chasing non-existent business or business we think we can get.

“We have to maximize that which is in our community. Other communities value our community, which is why they are creating businesses there. We have to embrace that,” Hicks said.

He told of some people who began a magazine but instead of securing their base first they went out for a general market business “and found themselves belly up. We have to maximize those competitive advantages that we have…personal relationships,” said Hicks.

Blacks must also embrace new technology he said that must be a part of their businesses. “It creates easier practicing for purchasing, creates faster service for your customers. It creates other ways to keep in communication and contact with your customers. We have to look at embracing technology.

“We have to reinvest in our businesses,” said Hicks who also owns a restaurant. Saying the restaurant business is a very competitive industry, Hicks said, “I own franchises. My business assists people in buying franchises. What they understand is you have to reinvest in your business. Every three to five years, you will see the different franchises refresh their properties.”

He said people want to go to restaurants…and to be able to take their lady to a “nice place, where the service is good and the ambiance…is one that is compatible or competitive with those you would find any where in the city,” said Hicks.

Kelley said he too is concerned about the second and third generation black businesses failing. Leak said, “Our culture expects us to do a better job than our counterparts. The second and third generation owners must understand that they must adjust to the fact that they must do it better. They are expected to do it better and they cannot reject that because that creates a negative perspective for them in addressing their clientele,” said Leak.

Beard said when his daughters began their business he’d stop by and give them constructive criticism. His daughters complained about his constant criticism.  He gave them as his reason the motto he learned as a child in Arkansas “to make the best better.”

To succeed, Beard said blacks must “find a void that’s in the field they are trying to approach and make that field better. You have to find the void that is lacking in the field.” Both Beard and Leak said hard work is key to succeeding.

Wade agreed saying she begins her day sometimes at 12 a.m. or 1 a.m. and puts in an 18-hour day from 10 p.m. to 11 p.m. “I am conscious of restoring your business to give a new look, but I think everything that has a new look does not always work.”

Wade said many times when you refurbish your business blacks patronize your restaurant but once it is no longer new, they disappear. And, she said the pricing competition is great. “Downtown you’re getting $30 for a steak and you’re getting $13 or $13.95. You can’t compete with that. I understanding about changing the look…, but you have to deal with maintaining what you do have. Churches never change their structures sometimes, but they stay full. It’s a mater of what works for one person may not work for another,” said Wade.

Hicks, who buys restaurants and franchises in large numbers, responded: “While I did suggest that you should refresh the restaurants and reinvest” in them, Hicks said, “You cannot compete if you’re buying the product at a higher cost than the people you are competing with which brings about the next step in entrepreneurship that we as another generation has to do…to follow what my Asians or my Pakistani partners have done.

“Hotels are franchises. The Pakistani group…controls 70 percent of what is called limited service hotels…. The way in which they did this was that they would bring family into the businesses…. They would collectively even if it were a different family form associations and go to the bank and demand specific credit terms and demand from the purchasing entities specific purchasing prices…,” Hicks said.

Kelley vowed to run a series of these forums each Friday to show how blacks can stay in business. He said more African American businesspersons would participate in his show next Friday in an effort to help sustain black businesses.

Chinta Strausberg is a Journalist of more than 33-years, a former political reporter and a current PCC Network talk show host.

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