My adult life was off to a great start. I was a football star and educated from a Big Ten university (Wisconsin) with leadership training and experience as an Army officer. Sales management in a Fortune 100 company was a natural for me. I just loved it and all the perks that came with it. My family friends feared I was becoming a womanizer. They were right!
Corporate assignments carried me to various markets. Procter & Gamble and Johnson & Johnson trained me well and placed me in Toledo, Detroit (twice), Chicago, Buffalo and Albany, New York. I never would return to California and that was fine with me. What I liked most about my duties were recruiting and training young Black professionals. Secondly, I enjoyed great public relations with my clients who were basically supermarket managers and later department store executives. My motto was “I can sell fly swatters on a street corner in Chicago during the month of February.” More importantly I could train people to do the same thing. I hired young Blacks who were brought up in urban America and a little rough around the edges. Soon they would morph into corporate executives.
With Johnson & Johnson I was assigned to the disposable diaper division. Our competition were Procter & Gamble’s Pampers and Huggies made by Kimberly Clark. I would be transferred into a specific market and take the numbers for J&J skyward. For example, I knew the Detroit market like the back of my hand. It was where I started my sales management career. After blazing a trail in Chicago and then Buffalo, they had me circle back to Detroit which was floundering in terms of market share. I beefed up my sales force with four dynamic “brothers” and one white who wore an Afro just like the rest of us. Nationally, J&J’s market share was 8%. Within two years I had Detroit’s market share at 40%. It was phenomenal!
It was about this time I started to realize that no matter how successful or promising a Black’s career in this business was going there was an invisible “ceiling”. The demographics for Black managers in corporate America are about the same now as they were in 1980.
There was only so far a Black professional was going to go in corporate America. It became clear to me that the only road for success and happiness was entrepreneurism. My father once told me: “If you look at your uncles and aunts and older cousins you will notice that the only ones financially successful and really happy are the ones who own their own businesses. There is nothing better than being your own boss. Like Billie Holiday says, ‘God bless the child who has his own’.”
That would stay on my mind. One day I would make that move. God will give me the courage but until then I would continue what I was doing – selling and managing my “butt” off. Then one day, me and some of my sales reps. were walking through Detroit’s metropolitan airport on our way to a sales conference in Dallas. I walked by one of my friends who asked me to come over to his lunch table and meet his new sales rep. that he was training. Her name was Kay DeBow and within two minutes I could feel a “change” coming on my mind.
Remember, I enrolled in Indiana University (a Big Ten school) a year before I was supposed to—a year younger than most. I could have used a mentor to guide me on my college major and career choice. But mentors weren’t really a thing back then. It was 4 years of studying and fun. We went to A&W Root Beer on Tuesdays for 25 cent coney dogs. We watched the Hoosiers win basketball championships. I learned quickly that 8am classes were unnecessary and there were many alternatives to the math class requirements. I was the Resident Assistant that turned a blind eye to prohibited alcohol. We played spades and bid whist and put a penny on the record player needle to keep the album from skipping. We listened to Blue Lights in the Basement, Phoebe Snow, Dee Dee Bridgewater and one time backstage after a concert Bootsie Collins took out his false teeth and chased me and my girlfriends down a hall screaming. Big clean fun.
I graduated with an English degree, that was a solid degree, a degree that would get you a job. And then I was off to my first buyer’s job with Macy’s in New York. But dang, where was I supposed to live on that salary? And then I was off to my second job as achildren’s buyer at Hudson’s Department Storein where else-Detroit!
Oh, I remember meeting Harry in Detroit’s airport. Ha!
Mr. Alford is the Co-Founder, President/CEO of the National Black Chamber of Commerce®. Ms. DeBow is the Co-Founder, Executive Vice President of the Chamber.