A Historic Rite of Passage

Naming my son Earl "Butch" Graves Jr. CEO of BLACK ENTERPRISE represents a major milestone in my entrepreneurial journey.

Nearly 18 years ago, I experienced one of the proudest days of my personal and entrepreneurial life. It was the day my son Earl Jr., better known as Butch to family, friends, and business associates, joined our company. It was a special time for me. I don't think there's a father out there who doesn't dream of working side by side with his son. Butch's induction into the company signified that the next generation would fully participate in the growth and development of our flagship publication, BLACK ENTERPRISE magazine, as well as our business as a whole. He assumed the position of vice president of advertising and marketing with energy, confidence, and an uncompromising commitment to excellence -- character and management traits that led to his rise up the ranks.

It has been no easy feat for him. Those who advance at Earl G. Graves Ltd. -- whether family or not -- must earn their position. And, over the last two decades, he has had to deal with an ultracompetitive and rapidly changing publishing environment; covert and overt racism that continues to pervade our society and institutions; and, lastly, a boss -- me -- who can be quite an unyielding taskmaster. But not only did Butch thrive despite the challenges, he grew into a leader and change agent within our company and the industry.

So this moment represents the culmination of 35 years of hopes and dreams, planning, and hard work. I had always envisioned BE becoming one of America's enduring institutions -- one that would give African Americans a road map to entrepreneurship, career advancement, and wealth-building for generations to come. And now I beam with pride as I achieve a major milestone in my personal mission. On Jan. 5, Butch's 44th birthday, I enthusiastically turned over the reins of leadership to the second generation as I named him CEO of our company.

Of course, I have looked forward to this day, but I must admit the announcement came with a bit of trepidation. How can they possibly run this operation without me? I am, however, still around -- Butch hasn't sold the furniture in my office yet. I continue to serve as chairman and publisher of be, playing the role of a rainmaker who identifies new business opportunities as well as a counselor to Butch as he faces myriad business challenges. I know my son is comforted by the fact that he's not alone and can always draw upon support from my wife, Barbara, who to this day serves as our intellectual and moral compass, as well as his brothers, Johnny, who continues to be a force in the business, and Michael, BE's executive vice president of corporate sales. That's why this announcement is of great significance to me. As parents, Barbara and I can hardly contain our unabashed elation -- tempered by humility -- at the interest our three sons have taken in our business and the fact that our eldest son has chosen to make our life's work his own.

I also view this seamless transition as a viable model for black businesses -- especially family-owned and -operated BE 100s companies -- where founders grapple with issues of management succession and continuity. According to management consulting firm Grant Thornton, about 70% of family-run businesses never make it to the second generation and 90% don't make it to the third, even though there is a genuine desire by most owners to see continuation in the family. The reasons: poor succession planning and an inability to separate generational issues from business objectives. We know of such horror stories among black-owned companies. For years, we have covered such tragedies on the pages of this magazine. However, from the beginning, Butch and I were always on the same page.

You see, I have planned for this event since I first took my boys to the printer to witness the first issue of BE rolling off the presses. I knew back then I was creating something historic, an institution worthy of preserving. As the magazine gained traction and grew in influence, I made sure that Butch was properly trained for his new role as well as the complexities of American industry. I made sure that he received the best education, graduating from Yale University and Harvard Business School. I encouraged him to serve on boards and be active in industry organizations, ranging from the Magazine Publishers Association to the National Association of Investment Companies, which furnished him with fresh ideas and valuable contacts. I emphasized giving back and helping others achieve success, encouraging his involvement in organizations such as the Thurgood Marshall Scholarship Fund. I challenged him to embrace new technology -- even some I didn't know how to use -- to increase productivity and expand our business services. I taught him the rudiments of the magazine business in the early days and helped him make key business connections along the way. Since the day Butch walked through our doors as an employee, I've exposed him to every sale, negotiation, and major business decision I've made. In the process, he became one of my most trusted business advisers and confidantes.

Butch's achievements coincided with the evolution of the company. He has been our key driving force and has developed into a true visionary. On numerous occasions, he has introduced me to this next generation of entrepreneur and BE reader, some of whom operate in unconventional business modes or run cutting-edge ventures. Overall, his efforts helped take Earl G. Graves Ltd. from a single-title magazine publisher to a thriving multimedia conglomerate. During his tenure, the circulation of our award-winning magazine has grown from 200,000 subscribers to more than 500,000, and he pushed our editorial thrust to focus on wealth building and homeownership. He championed the development of blackenterprise.com, a Website that enables users to access information and make financial and business transactions. He created the concept of our private equity firm, Black Enterprise/Greenwich Street Corporate Growth Partners, which primarily invests in established, minority-owned businesses. He pushed us into broadcast media and syndicated radio with the launch of The Black Enterprise Report, our nationally syndicated television show, and Black Enterprise Magazine's Keys To A Better Life, a joint venture with Clear Channel Communications. I'm sure that Butch will continue to find ways to deliver our message through innovations or acquisitions that will prove to be a strategic fit among our portfolio of companies.