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A Tribute To J. Bruce Llewellyn: Business Leadership At Its Best

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I read a lot of books. Each day, I read bits and pieces of the business sections of all of the nation’s major newspapers. So, I don’t know how I missed that one of the most successful entrepreneurs in the history earth passed away back in April. Here is J. Bruce Llewellyn in a series of ten short interviews every Indie Business leader should watch.

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I met Mr. Llewellyn when I was in law school. We sat across from one another for hours and talked about the legal profession and his ownership of FedCo, a successful New York-based food distribution company.

Over the years, I have Googled Mr. Llwewellyn’s name frequently, telling myself that, one day, I would travel to wherever he was and thank him for inspiring me. As the years passed, I kept up with what he was doing now and then. Each year, I’d discover less and less new information about him and his business holdings. I reminded myself that I’d better plan my visit soon. Mr. Llewellyn was not a young man when I met him, and I knew he was elderly. This afternoon, I Googled again, only to discover that I’m too late.

At the time of his death on April 7, 2010, his personal wealth was estimated to exceed $160 million.

For some reason, Mr. Llwewellyn’s passing is affecting me in unexpected ways. As I read the news, I cried. How could the passing of a man I’d met only once, and nearly 20 years ago, affect me so much?

Maybe it’s because he died of renal failure, as my father did in 2007. In fact, he always reminded me a bit of my dad — a larger-than-life, light-skinned African American man with a warm smile, a generous spirit, and a positive attitude.

I encourage you to watch each of the short videos displayed here. You will be inspired and learn many things that you can put to work in your business.

Some of Mr. Llewellyn’s advice to up and coming entrepreneurs, was summarized in a 1990 article in Fortune Magazine. Here are some of the things he shared. The quotes come directly from the Fortune Magazine article summary. The rest is my paraphrase and commentary:

  1. Sell things everyone needs. He counseled entrepreneurs, African Americans in particular, to move beyond the minority market by creating products and services that 100% of the population wants and needs. In other words, don’t unnecessarily limit yourself.

    I think this advice is especially on point now. Serving a segment of the population is a great way to cut your teeth. But a long-term business model should include creating products and services that all different kinds of people can enjoy.

  2. Don’t rely on the government. “The government, which should do more to help minorities set up businesses, will be plagued by huge deficits and will cut the budget wherever it can. I don’t expect any resources to be available to minority entrepreneurs.”

    He was right, of course. The government should not make it unnecessarily difficult for Americans to own and manage a business, but I don’t think it should give anyone a free ride either. Hard work, positivity, tenacity, and a willingness to do what it takes to succeed — these are the things one needs to be successful in business, and in life.

  3. Start ‘em young. “Minorities must learn that business is an important part of their society. They will have to get youngsters involved, by starting business clubs in junior high schools and by showing them that role models exist beyond basketball.”

    Boy, did he hit a soft spot in the African American community there.

    A few years ago, I was asked to speak at a high school career fair about my career as an attorney. I prepared a presentation about the importance of graduating from college, reading a lot, and training oneself in the art of public speaking.

    In the few minutes before my talk, I noticed that the students were restless and bored. I decided to walk around the room before starting, asking them to share what they wanted to be when they grew up. Nearly every single one said either an athlete or an entertainer. I immediately changed the course of my talk. Here’s what I told them.

    My last annual salary as an attorney at a worldwide firm was over $100,000. The students gasped.

    I told them not to be so impressed.

    I billed out at an hourly rate of $435. I was expected to bill 7.5 hours a day, netting a total of $3,262.50 each week, or $169,650 a year for my employer. Rounding my annual salary down to $100,00, the firm grossed nearly $70,000 a year from my work.

    There were approximately 400 attorneys at the firm. Since my hourly rate was somewhere in the middle of the spectrum, I multiplied what I billed each year times 400 attorneys. I then subtracted 10% to account for vacations, and for the fact that, while partners bill at much higher hourly rates, they typically don’t bill a lot because they’re out making rain all the time.

    At that rate, with the discount and multiplying by 400, if every attorney billed their 7.5 hours each day, the firm grossed $610,710,000 a year. (I said it slowly: “Six hundred ten million, seven hundred and ten thousand dollars a year.”) Even if the math is wrong (and I have to admit that my memory of my hourly rate is not precise), the point is clear.

    Whoop-dee-doo for an athlete with a $10M annual contact, who serves at the pleasure of the owner and can be cut off anytime, with or without notice.

    When I was finished, you could have heard a pin drop in the class room.

  4. So what if you’re a minority? “It’s always going to be harder if you’re a minority. By definition you’re not in the majority. You can’t worry about it, though. You have to ask: ”What can I do for myself?’ Then go out and do it. That’s what my father told me, and that’s what I tell my kids. A positive attitude is critical. This is a prejudiced society. It’s not going to go away. But you can still succeed.”

It’s impossible to add anything to that.

Rest in peace, Mr. Llewellyn. Thank you for inspiring me. I am a grateful one among many.

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