|photography by Billy Surface|
It’s the mid-1960s, and the winds of change are beginning to transform America. But the middle-aged, African-American doorman at the Baker Hotel in Dallas appears little affected.
Albert C. Black Sr. braces himself against the cold and watches the Lincolns and Cadillacs pull to the curb at the corner of Commerce and Akard streets. He swings open the door and greets the white businessmen by name as they emerge and head inside. Some will look him in the eye and return his pleasantries; most just nod vacantly and go about their business.
Later, long after sundown, he returns to the Fair Park housing project he calls home in time to say goodnight to his son, Albert Jr., who attends a segregated elementary school. Before the boy falls off to sleep, the elder Black regales him with stories of the important men he saw coming to a meeting of the Chamber of Commerce or the Citizens’ Council. He explains how these de facto rulers of Dallas decide in advance who should run for mayor, say, or who should be president of the school board.
All is the norm in mid-century Dallas. Then, however, Albert Black Sr. departs from the script. “Son,” he says, “I want my boy to be like those men—running the city.” And with those few words, he set in motion a lifetime of achievement that, one day, could culminate in his son Albert Black Jr.—successful entrepreneur, nonprofit volunteer, civic leader—occupying the Dallas mayor’s office.
Carol Reed, the longtime local political strategist, points to Black’s far-reaching appeal. “He has all the things you’d look for in a candidate for mayor,” Reed says, “no matter what color they are.”
No Free Lunch
The Frazier Courts housing project was built in the early 1940s in the style of an Army barracks. Standing near Juanita Craft Park, just southeast of Fair Park, it fell to the wrecking ball in 2005. But for more than 50 years, Frazier Courts was the sort of place that sucked the dreams right out of a person.
Except for Albert Black Jr.
For Black, now 49, Frazier Courts was the incubator of his business and social philosophies. It was there that he started Best Friends Lawn Service when he was in the fourth grade, charging $2 per lawn and eventually becoming “the first in the neighborhood to get a power mower.”
Like his father, Black’s grandmother instilled a sense of destiny in the young boy. She took him shopping downtown and introduced him as the “businessman” in the family, proudly letting the salesmen know that the young boy would handle all her business for her.
At that time, President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty was in full swing. While service trucks rumbled through Frazier Courts to deliver free lunches in the park, the budding entrepreneur would have none of it. “I distinctly remember how much disdain I had for the free-lunch program,” Black says. “I would have my own lunch instead.”
While others saw his childhood protest as mere rebelliousness, Black looks back on that formative experience with mature reflection. “Welfare has a place,” he says, “but it’s a poor substitute for gainful employment. One is loaded with ambition, and the other is not.
“We could have cut the grass, marked the fields, and met under the tree for our lunch … it could’ve been an earned bounty. Too many are predisposed to welfare handed out in an inappropriate manner.”
With such experiences, it’s no surprise that Black would start a company, On-Target Supplies & Logistics, as soon as he graduated in 1982 from the University of Texas at Dallas. On-Target—which handles contract warehousing, distribution, and outsourced logistics for firms such as AT&T, Texas Instruments, and Oncor—would become one of the largest minority-owned firms in Dallas, with annual sales of about $37 million and more than 150 full-time employees, in addition to contract and part-time workers.
About the same time he was launching his career, Black began volunteering at the Park South YMCA, which brought him into contact with former Dallas mayor J. Erik Jonsson, who’d gotten the branch off the ground with a 1968 financial gift. “Mayor Jonsson called me an ‘up and comer,’ ” Black remembers, “so I began to act like it. People have a way of living up to the expectations of others. Too often, young folks are called worse, and they begin to act like that.”
Black balances the free-market conservatism that was birthed at Frazier Courts with compassion for the people who lived there. The offices of On-Target Supplies & Logistics are located near Clarendon Drive and Zang Boulevard, not far from the Dallas Zoo. Black deliberately located his company in the inner city because he wanted to create jobs. Nothing gives him more joy, he says, than hiring someone without formal education and seeing that person earn a college degree and become a productive taxpayer.
Black extends that passion to each of his employees. When we met at On-Target’s offices one day recently, he introduced everyone who crossed his path. He talked to the postman, whom he knew by name, before stopping to invite his intern—a high school student at Dallas Can! Academy—to a meeting of the Baylor Health Care System board of directors. He reminded the student to wear a tie, and offered to provide it if the teenager didn’t have one. No one, it seems, is unimportant to Albert Black.
Gwyneith Black, who also grew up in Frazier Courts and has worked alongside her husband at On-Target for the entire 25 years of their marriage, views such passionate commitment—to family, friends, and employees—as her husband’s greatest strength. When hiring an employee, Albert “will get a sense of what you need to grow and develop your career,” she says. “Once he feels that passion, he becomes totally committed to make happen everything that you put out there as goals. Of course, we have had a couple of people who didn’t mean what they said. They had no idea that from Day One of their employment with On-Target, Albert would be pushing them to work toward those goals.”
Black, who looks like he could still be an offensive lineman for the football team at his Dallas alma mater, Samuell High School, says continual learning is one of On-Target’s goals. “This company is built on the growth and development of people. We make formal education available for our employees. Actually, we don’t give people much choice,” he adds with a laugh. “We’ll sponsor people for their GED with the provision that they’ll validate that GED with community college. At the baseline level, that is a great barometer of a person’s desire to acquire the skills, knowledge, and confidence it takes to succeed.”
To demonstrate his commitment to education, Black returned to school and earned his MBA from Southern Methodist University. “The company needed to see me do that,”
Gwyneith tells a story—about how the couple acquired their two dogs—that she believes illustrates her husband’s employment philosophy. Both dogs showed up on their Kessler Park doorstep as strays that Albert first fed, then cleaned up and eventually adopted. “He likes to take in strays and fix them up,” she explains. “He wants to fix everything. That’s his whole life.”
The Three E’s
Besides running a growing business, Black has been one of the most visible volunteers in Dallas. While he admits he could have avoided a lot of problems by paying more attention to his business—and less to the city and the state—he credits his volunteer activities with exposing him to people who would shape his career.
“I was young enough when I got started in my career in volunteerism that I had access to some of the greatest political and business leaders that Dallas had to offer,” he says. “Exposure to those men and women formed my career. It’s not just about education. Three things are actually necessary. I call them ‘the three E’s’: education, exposure, and experience. It’s exposure and experience that make education better.”
Black’s volunteer activities led to his election in 2000 as chairman of the Greater Dallas Chamber of Commerce. It was a feat that Ron Kirk, the first African-American mayor of Dallas, characterizes as “a much bigger deal for Dallas … than my being elected mayor.”
Black’s work with the chamber brought about a friendship with current Mayor Tom Leppert, and when Leppert decided to run for mayor, he asked Black to serve as treasurer of his campaign. Black has also worked as treasurer for the campaigns of state Sen. Royce West and Judge John Creuzot.
“I have enormous respect both for Albert’s abilities and his position within this community,” Leppert says. “He was a natural choice, and a good one, to act as my treasurer.”
Ironically, Black contends, the kinds of opportunities that exposed him to the city’s highest echelons have now become less available to minorities. From 1989 to 2001, he says, Dallas made solid gains in diversity among executive leaders, “but I get the impression that it’s not much of a priority now.”
In part Black blames the disbanding of the Dallas Together Forum, a racially diverse group of business and civic leaders who sought to make sure Dallas would benefit from more inclusive policies. But with the telecom collapse in 2001 and its attendant strain on the local economy, the tide was turned on “corporate commitment to the kind of inclusion that can be successful over a long period of time,” he says.
“We [at Dallas Together] lost the common interest and passion necessary to achieve our goals, but I don’t think we noticed,” he says. “We declared ourselves ‘done’ and disbanded.”
Since then, the data on minority representation on corporate, nonprofit, and civic boards here has painted a bleak picture. In a May 2008 Dallas Morning News survey, 19 of almost 70 corporate respondents said they had no women or minorities among either their corporate boards or their top executive ranks. That compared to 13 such replies in 2006.
“I wonder,” Black says, “where is the next generation of minority leadership? Where are they going to get the kinds of experience that I was blessed with—the experience of close relations with Dallas’ business leaders, the experience of serving on nonprofit boards?
“It’s this leadership gap that I’m most concerned with. Our boards are not populated with the kind of rich diversity of even 10 years ago, and I think that represents about as risky of a decline as we can have,” he says. “I’m confident that Mayor Leppert and other men and women in responsible positions will be more sensitive to this issue and make it the kind of priority that it deserves.”
While Black may voice confidence in him, the mayor declined to comment on his campaign treasurer’s call for action.
Relating To People
Despite his disappointments, Black continues to try to fix what he believes is wrong with the city. “We have this idea of ‘pull yourself up by your own bootstraps.’ But some people aren’t born with boots,” he says. “It’s still about employing people, improving the inner-city infrastructure, and spreading the tax base.”
One example he gives is Ready to Work, a personnel-delevopment venture he launched in 2006. He formed it as a for-profit company, eschewing the usual nonprofit grant money that most seek for such efforts. The president of the organization, Lorene Smith, explains the group’s rationale: “As a community, work-force development is a huge issue. We always hear the same thing from companies looking for talent: people are not ready to work. They don’t have the basic skills we need.”
Smith is one of Black’s success stories. An On-Target employee since 1989, she was hired while still a student at the University of Texas at Arlington. She graduated, earned an MBA from UT-Dallas, and became On-Target’s vice president for organizational development.
Besides Ready to Work, Black’s focus these days is his role as chairman-elect of the board of the Baylor Health Care System. While each chairman-elect spends two years as the current chairman’s understudy before taking charge, Black already has begun to focus on his upcoming tenure.
“Recently, I’ve begun to disengage in those things that I can’t see being done in my lifetime,” he says. “I plan to spend a great portion of the rest of my volunteer career in health care. I believe that is one thing that challenges America today that we can get right.”
Federal judge Ed Kinkeade, who wrapped up a term as chairman of the Baylor board last July, expresses confidence in Black’s ability to accomplish his goals. “He has great balance,” Kinkeade says. “He’s a CEO, but he never forgets where he came from.”
Given his experience as CEO, entrepreneur, civic volunteer, and political fundraiser, it’s only natural to ask whether Black has designs on running for the mayor’s office.
“I think I will,” he says, “but I have two things to do first. Professionally, I need to build my company to be the kind of organization that creates jobs, improves infrastructure in communities, and develops leadership. Once that piece is in place, the next step is to go even further in my volunteerism, to see if I’ve got what it takes to move an agenda at the institutional level. Health care will be that arena. I’ve spent 16 years on health boards—first at Methodist Hospital, then at Baylor. If I can’t master my own economy, I can’t contribute to others. If I can’t have an impact in an arena where I have experience, then I can’t have an impact on a wider scale.”
Having seen Black in action, Kirk, the former Dallas mayor, has no qualms about his ability to occupy the city’s highest office. “He’s a strong and active leader,” says Kirk, who’s now a partner at the Vinson & Elkins law firm. “I think Albert and Gwyneith joined me on just about every business-development trip that I took as mayor. One of the amusing things about those international trips was that a lot of times I’d come outside and find people hugging Albert, thinking he was the mayor. Of course, he did nothing to disabuse them of the notion … so we started calling him the ‘mayor pro bono,’ ” Kirk remembers with a laugh.
“Seriously, though, I think he has the intellect and interpersonal skills to be an excellent politician. I think he’d make a very good mayor.”
Jim Beckett, the founder and former CEO of Dallas-based Beckett Publications, has known Black for more than 10 years. He agrees with Kirk about Black’s potential. “The guy’s paid so many dues that if he ran for office, I’d think, ‘What took you so long?’ ”
It may take another four years—at least until he finishes his terms as chairman-elect and chairman of the Baylor Health Care System—to find out whether Black will follow through on his political aspirations. But should he decide to run, his credentials with the black community and the city’s business elite may prove to be a formidable combination. If all goes according to plan, and for Black it usually does, the long-ago dream of his father—the black man who held open the door for the city’s leaders—just might become reality.