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Lee Hawkins, The Wall Street Journal & MSNBC
As a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist, he has been committed to helping the careers of droves of young black journalists, including myself. I know him as a former Wall Street Journal colleague and a fellow church member, and I know he strives for excellence in everything he does.
Color Code: Black Entrepreneurs Face a Perplexing Issue: How to Pitch to Whites
Some Prefer a Low Profile, Often Using Stand-Ins For Suburban Campaigns—Choosing a Caucasian Clone
By Angelo B. Henderson
Staff Reporter of The Wall Street Journal
2,813 words, 26 January 1999, The Wall Street Journal, English
(Copyright (c) 1999, Dow Jones & Company, Inc.)
DETROIT—When suburban clients close a deal with First Impressions Inc., they will probably shake hands with William Ashley or someone else who is white, although Eric Giles, who is African-American, did the client research, helped develop the sales strategy and made initial telephone contact for this restaurant and food-service employment agency.
"Unfortunately, in the end I can't send him out as the person who does the face-to-face and gets the deal signed," says Judy Y. Wiles, owner of Detroit-based First Impressions.
This might raise eyebrows about Ms. Wiles's own racial attitudes—except she is black herself. She says she has "unwavering confidence" in Mr. Giles. Ultimately, though, both worry that their success and even survival is based on what their company name suggests: first impressions. And in a business where restaurants, hotels and party givers can choose any number of white companies to supply bartenders, waiters, chefs and other restaurant personnel, First Impressions can't afford to lose a contract because some clients may hold preconceived notions about blacks.
Says Ms. Wiles, who is convinced that, over the years, she has lost as many as 20 jobs because of this very issue: "It's that fear that encourages me to use Bill or [another] front person."
The fear of this black entrepreneur, though some argue it is overblown, is one nonetheless often shared by other African-American businesspeople who cater to a largely white clientele. Whether at a Detroit car dealer, a regional fast-food franchiser or an employment agency like First Impressions, blacks find they face an array of tricky marketing issues, the most wrenching perhaps is whether to show their faces.
"I don't have to be seen," says La-Van Hawkins, a successful black Pizza Hut franchisee who, in the spirit of Ms. Wiles, uses a white alter ego to handle much of his suburban marketing.
Mel Farr, a Detroit resident and former professional football star whose 15 automobile franchises make him among America's most successful African-American car dealers, agrees. Mr. Farr is happy to mug for the camera in a Superman cape for commercials that are broadcast in racially mixed Detroit. But for most of the past seven years, he has used a white stand-in for TV spots that are broadcast in predominantly white areas downstate.
This, even though he commands the kind of sports celebrity that has often paved the way for black athletes in the white business world. "I don't want to offend someone and give them a reason not to come and do business with me because of my color. I want everybody to buy a car from me," Mr. Farr says.
This is hardly a new dilemma, of course. In this same city 40 years before, music baron Berry Gordy of legendary Motown Records made a conscious decision to hire a white Italian-American to promote records by black artists on white radio stations. It was the same notion that explained why album covers of many Motown stars, such as the Isley Brothers and Mary Wells, depicted white couples dancing or beach scenes—anything but a black face.
Recalls Mr. Gordy's sister, Esther Gordy Edwards: "There were places, especially in the South, where a black face wouldn't sell."
That said, some think the times are changing, pointing to the phenomenal marketing success of basketball superstar Michael Jordan, who moves huge amounts of goods and services for white-owned companies, and, tangentially, the crossover appeal of black celebrities such as Will Smith and Denzel Washington with white audiences.
Indeed, even some blacks in business find these racial concerns overwrought; beyond that, some think successful black entrepreneurs, out of pride, ought not to make concessions in their marketing. "I think it's terrible. As far as I'm concerned, I'd rather lose the business than have to front as some white company," says Ray Jenkins, 65, who has operated a real-estate company in Detroit since 1962.
Ken Smikle, president of Target Market News, a Chicago-based research firm that monitors African-American consumers, disagrees. "These black business owners are not paranoid, they are being realistic," says Mr. Smikle.
In fact, for many black business owners, the reluctance to reveal their race in marketing is sometimes rooted in unpleasant personal experiences. They also point to disturbing studies, like one not long ago by the Employment Discrimination Project of Chicago, that demonstrated a reluctance of white managers to hire blacks for sales jobs in suburban home-improvement stores because they feared white customers wouldn't buy from them. "Our tests show that the employer was clearly seeking to hire sales people whose race reflected their customer base," says the council's LeeAnn Lodder, who helped conduct the studies.
This comes as no surprise to Ms. Wiles, 42 years old, and Mr. Giles, 33, who recall early in their business relationship that a white-owned company that seemed very eager to do business with them over the phone never phoned back after they met Mr. Giles, a 6-foot-5-inch black man, in person. While not ruling out other factors, they decided from then on that it would be better to be safe than sorry. So they often go to extraordinary lengths to play down or disguise their race, while minimizing person-to-person contact with new white clients. Sending out Mr. Ashley, a well-dressed 50-something white as a front man, is but one example.
When Ms. Wiles started the business 11 years ago, she sometimes pinched her nose and spoke nasally to make her voice more "white" on the phone; she has also removed the words "owner" from her business card so that should she meet a prospective white customer, they will think she is simply an employee.
Ms. Wiles and Mr. Giles have also crafted a slick portfolio of past functions staffed by First Impressions that Mr. Ashley shows on sales calls. Its opening pages picture two white women standing by the door in bow ties, tuxedo shirts and black pants. A white man in a chef's hat carves a roast. Page after page features smiling Caucasians.
Quite a statement for a black-owned business whose roster of about 300 temporary workers is actually 98% African-American. "It's lily white, isn't it?" says Mr. Giles of the sales portfolio. Adds Ms. Wiles: "From the pictures, it gives the customer the impression—though these people do, and have, worked for us—that you are dealing with a white firm."
If this seems excessive, Ms. Wiles reluctantly trots out the story of what happened two years ago when a wealthy white suburban woman phoned First Impressions to get them to staff a private party because a wealthy white friend had recommended the firm. The woman became agitated with a First Impressions receptionist and said, "You sound black."
When the receptionist said she was black, the woman demanded to speak to someone else. She got Mr. Giles and, unaware that he was also black, proceeded to discuss her party needs while telling him not to send blacks whom she feared would "steal my furs" or other things. Ms. Wiles reluctantly booked the party but, alarmed by other acts of overt racism, declined at the last minute to send her staff.
"I did the right thing because I was standing on principle," Ms. Wiles says, but the decision cost her. The referring client also stopped using her company because of the conflict, she says.
For fast-food entrepreneur Mr. Hawkins, the issue is balance. Over each of his Burger King restaurants in Detroit, Baltimore, Atlanta and Chicago, red, green and black flags dance in celebration of African-American pride and ownership. Here in Detroit, his photo and signature are also mounted outside every restaurant, as well as on billboards and buses. The idea, in this predominantly African-American city, is to serve a little self-esteem and racial pride with every BK Broiler and fry, Mr. Hawkins says.
"It's supposed to let young men and young women know that just because you are born in the ghetto doesn't mean you have to stay there," Mr. Hawkins says. "If I did it, they can do it."
About two months ago, he started operating all six of Detroit's Pizza Huts, part of his recent purchase of 89 Pizza Hut restaurants in southeast Michigan. In Detroit, Mr. Hawkins's Pizza Huts will all burst with neon inside and out and have a Motown theme with '60s music blaring from the jukebox. Two 4-foot-long plastic mock-ups of phonograph albums titled, "Greatest Hits: La-Van Hawkins Is Down With Us," will be surrounded by red neon and mounted on the ceilings.
But the Pizza Hut purchase has for the first time pushed Mr. Hawkins—known here as "Mr. Buy Black/Give Back"—beyond the core city to the largely white suburbs. So his strategy has been whitened.
His 83 suburban Pizza Huts, which are being remodeled, will look similar to those in the city except they will have pastel colors inside. The theme will be American Bandstand, not Motown, and some outlets will include a merchandising area selling music memorabilia and T-shirts featuring pop stars such as Elvis Presley and Frankie Avalon. Gone will be the flags and his photograph, though his signature will still be on the buildings.
His view is that five focus groups that he organized to get a handle on how white consumers might respond to his picture or presence in advertising warrant a conservative approach. About half of the participants recognized Mr. Hawkins from his city advertising campaigns. Furthermore, they consider his story—of an inner-city youth who survived drugs and gangs in a Chicago housing project to bootstrap himself to success—uplifting. But the focus groups also left Mr. Hawkins with the unmistakable feeling that a little of his image and his story goes a long way, he says.
As a result, Mr. Hawkins has decided to do a 90-day blitz, using his photo on both Pizza Hut boxes and billboards to let consumers in well-to-do places like Birmingham, Farmington and West Bloomfield know the franchises are being revived. After that, he'll think of a more neutral strategy. Among other things, he thinks it likely that most of his restaurant managers in the suburbs will remain white. "When in Rome. . .," Mr. Hawkins says with a shrug.
Mr. Hawkins's strategy in urban Detroit has also included generous donations to civic, religious and education groups—last year, he gave about $100,000 to various causes, including about $50,000 to a local black ministerial group for scholarships. He thinks a portion of his suburban profits ought to be plowed back into those communities as well, though the targets might be slightly different: Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts and perhaps youth sports organizations.
But he's keeping a low profile. "I've got a white La-Van Hawkins," he says.
By this he means Tom Pleiman, 38, one of his equity partners who previously managed the Detroit Pizza Huts before Mr. Hawkins took them over. Mr. Hawkins plans to rely on Mr. Pleiman to be his suburban alter ego. "He will be at the openings, he'll be the one taking pictures and the whole nine yards."
For this new role, Mr. Pleiman has had to get a La-Van Hawkins makeover—going from a "khaki-kinda-guy" to wearing suits with French-cuff shirts and expensive ties of the kind Mr. Hawkins favors. He's a blond from the farming community of Coldwater, Ohio, where, growing up, he never saw blacks.
Mr. Pleiman recognizes his role as somewhat odd but says, as a veteran of suburban business life, with its ritual clubbiness involving groups such as the Jaycees and the Chamber of Commerce, that it is understandable that Mr. Hawkins would want to cede such duties to him.
"I can break through any prejudice that may be there. To be honest, we all know that's out there," he says. Mr. Pleiman describes Mr. Hawkins as gregarious and charismatic and "after three or four minutes with the guy, you're going to like him." Unfortunately, he says, "some people won't give him those few minutes."
Having one marketing strategy for largely white customers and a different one for a predominantly black market isn't new for car dealer Mel Farr. In the metro Detroit region, as well as in racially mixed urban areas like Baltimore; Dayton, Ohio; and Houston, Mr. Farr takes to television in his trademark tan, single-breasted suit, fire-red tie and matching red cape. There, viewers see the former Detroit Lions running back ludicrously flying over his auto dealership, touting "Farr Better Deals."
But in predominantly white Fairfield, Ohio, just outside Cincinnati, it has been a different messenger. Until a month ago, ads for Mel Farr Fairfield on Dixie Street had never shown Mr. Farr. The caped crusader, court jester, cowboy or football player making the on-camera appearances had always been a balding, bearded white man named Tom Force.
"He never says he's Mel Farr, but people assume he's Mel Farr," says Mr. Farr, 54, whose mostly Ford and Lincoln Mercury dealerships are spread over four states. Even Mr. Force, 49, admits that he has been mistaken for Mr. Farr by Cincinnati folks who have seen him on television.
Opting to use a white man in his stead on television in this market was a conscious business decision by Mr. Farr and his advertising guru, Charlene Mitchell. For one thing, Mr. Farr wanted to distinguish himself from the previous owner—also an African-American—whose business was struggling. But it was also based on fears that white customers in Ohio might be turned off by his brown face. Mr. Force, says Mr. Farr, simply appeared to be a more likely candidate to operate a flourishing business in Fairfield, which is 94.5% white. Who is to say that Mr. Farr wouldn't have been able to still triple sales at Fairfield Ford if he had been more visible? His view—given stiff white competition from other dealerships around town—is that it isn't worth taking the risk.
"Someone may have that prejudice in them, but I will not alienate them from buying a vehicle," Mr. Farr adds.
In Fairfield, unlike his urban dealerships, most of Mr. Farr's staff, like his customer base, is white. And, no, he says, it doesn't bother him that many people think Mr. Force, a Detroit radio personality with a bellowing baritone voice, owns the dealership. Yet, when Mr. Farr first saw Mr. Force in the studio wearing the Farr trademark cape and speaking Farr lines in the first person, he admits that, "I questioned if I was doing the right thing."
After all, Mr. Farr, as a onetime star athlete with major ambitions for his car empire, is hardly a man without ego. He is now trying to raise $45 million in a private placement of asset-backed securities to expand his used-car superstore operations, backed by his high-risk financing arm Triple M Corp., into more urban centers.
But concern for the bottom line put his ego backstage. He says he recognizes how even the No. 2 U. S. auto maker itself, Ford, uses different spokespeople in different markets. "It's a combination of feeling comfortable doing business with someone who looks like you, talks like you and thinks like you—and you've always got to keep that in mind," Mr. Farr says.
Mr. Farr, however, is now getting a chance to rethink the strategy. About three months ago, as cable television began to broadcast Mr. Farr's urban commercials into the Fairfield market, Mr. Force's reign as Mr. Farr's stand-in ended. That prompted Mr. Farr, last month, to finally show his face on television. He did it in a commercial, with Mr. Force playing the part of a TV reporter interviewing him.
"I'm here with Mel Farr, the superstar dealer with an astounding announcement!" Mr. Force says.
Mr. Farr makes the breathless announcement: "I'm selling every new '99 Ford in stock for just $100 over invoice."
"That's what you want for this debut, something that overcomes all color—the almighty dollar," Ms. Mitchell, his ad adviser, says as she watches the 30-second TV spot with Mr. Farr. He pauses, then offers: "I think they'll look for the best deal," he says.