J. Bruce Llewellyn, who died on April 8 at age 82, was a bustling lion of a man, with a shock of white hair and matching goatee. Throughout his 50-year career as a serial entrepreneur he was always prepared to pounce on a deal.
The son of Jamaican immigrants rose from running a Harlem liquor store in the early 1950s to being the owner, chairman and CEO of the Philadelphia Coca-Cola Bottling Company, during which he ramped revenues north of $500 million annually.
Llewellyn was also one of the few CEOs to own two companies that were on the Black Enterprise 100 list of Industrial/Service companies. The first was Fedco Foods, a New York City grocery chain, and later the Coca-Cola business. He moved from groceries to bottling cokes, gaining control of that company in 1983, because the margins were higher and hassles were fewer.
Accomplishments were normal in Llewellyn's family. His sister, Dorothy A. Cropper, was a judge of the New York State Court of Claims until retiring in 2002, and his first cousin is former Secretary of State Colin Powell. In 1994, Llewellyn spoke to Charlie Rose about Powell's potential as a presidential candidate.
Along the way, Llewellyn kept expanding his portfolio. In 1985, he bought WKBW-TV, an ABC affiliate in Buffalo, N.Y., and four years later he and other investors purchased South Jersey Cable for more than $400 million.
An internationalist in his interests, from 1978-80, Llewellyn served in the Carter administration. He was president of the Overseas Private Investment Corporation, in Washington, D.C. A little more than a decade later, in 1992, he was part of the group of prominent African-American businessmen and politicians who welcomed ANC President Nelson Mandela on his first trip to New York City.
A Hard Charger in All Arenas
Twice Llewellyn showed interest in purchasing a pro football team. But Sports Business Journal reports that he rejected buying the NFL's Seattle Seahawks because he thought it was overpriced. A decade later, Llewellyn and his son-in-law, best-selling author Tom Clancy, combined forces to buy the Minnesota Vikings. When Llewellyn had to undergo emergency heart surgery, the deal evaporated.
More Than Just Money
He was also a mentor. Earvin "Magic" Johnson, the former NBA great, is often praised for his Magic Johnson Enterprises which has investments in businesses that cater to underserved minority communities. In his book, 32 Ways To Be a Champion in Business, Johnson says that Llewellyn sparked his social consciousness.
Johnson writes that he told the entrepreneur, "I want to make a lot of money like you," upon meeting him. In response, Llewellyn said, "No, Magic. If money is all you want, there will never be enough of it, and you will never be happy. You have got to be about more than that. You have the opportunity to be a leader who can do great things and change people's lives for the better. You can be a businessman who is also a catalyst for change."
This was a personal philosophy that united Llewellyn's business acumen and his optimistic vision for African Americans. In 1990, he told Nation's Business magazine that, "Business is the emancipator of a group of people. 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."
That is a worthy epitaph for an exceptional businessman.
Frank McCoy is a regular contributor to The Root. He covers business and technology.