The Education of Comer Cottrell

How a pioneering black businessman found success in Dallas—and helped change the city forever.

When Alabama-born Comer Cottrell moved his pro-line corp., an ethnic hair-care company, from Los Angeles to North Texas in 1980, he says he saw Dallas as “my kind of town … where money not only talks, but swaggers and brags … where profits are not a cuss word.” But, as shown in the following excerpts from his new autobiography, Comer Cottrell: A Story That Will Inspire Future Entrepreneurs, the businessman quickly discovered another side of the city as well.

NO BLACK MAN CAN BUILD LIKE THIS IN DALLAS. RIGHT?
What a wake-up call. One seemingly small—minuscule, even—incident turned out to be prophetic. When the new Pro-Line headquarters was still under construction, I flew in from California to check on the building’s progress and was standing in front of the site. Two young African-American girls approached me, saying they were looking for work and were hoping the new building would mean new job opportunities for them.

“Where do we go to apply for a job?” they asked me.

“I can help you,” I answered. They looked dubious. “Who are you?”

“I’m the owner of this new business,” I said proudly, happy to be able to make that statement in Dallas. “I’m building this building.”

The dubious looks turned to absolute disbelief. “Oh, you lying,” one said.

“No black man owns no building like this,” said the other. “Not in Dallas.”

THE TAKEAWAY
>> Dallas’ land costs provided Comer Cottrell’s relocating Pro-Line Corp. with ‘tremendous financial relief.’

>> Cottrell acted as a liaison between the black and white communities here, mitigating misunderstandings.

>> Cottrell’s business policies helped end the Dallas City
Council’s at-large
election system.

They weren’t the only skeptics I would face. A small newspaper serving Dallas’ African-American community, The Metroplex News, ran an article describing me as an “Uncle Tom” who was obviously fronting Pro-Line for a behind-the-scenes white ownership group. If the newspaper thought they might encounter my indignation, they were only partly correct. What they didn’t count on was my wife Isabell’s formidable rage. Not only were they facing an angry woman, they were up against an angry woman with money. Soon The Metroplex News was not only bought right out from under them, but shut down.

When I—never one to avoid the opportunity to set the record straight—confronted the author of the negative story, I realized the possibility that the writer, Rufus Shaw, might never have actually run into a successful black businessman in Dallas. And that’s why he didn’t recognize the genuine article, assuming instead that I was a front for whites. It was a pathetic comment on the state of affairs in Texas at that time. I thought to myself, we are definitely not in Oakland anymore.
 

PRO-LINE’S SURPRISE REVOLVING DOOR
Once the big move was on the agenda, I located the site for the new Pro-Line triplex: an executive office building, a manufacturing complex, and a warehouse. It was a six-acre site at Chalk Hill in West Dallas, just north of Interstate 30, close to the main post office depot. At $1.50 a square foot, the land was a tremendous financial relief from the $30-per-square-foot price that was typical of California land values. The site overlooked the entire city of Dallas, a town my wife and I thought notable for its lack of elevation. She had lived in the hills all her life, and was leery of moving to what seemed a prairie city. But with Duncanville and Oak Cliff visible to the south, the airport to the west, and downtown Dallas to the north, Isabell was happy in the hills again.

Construction took a year to complete. Pro-Line continued doing business by outsourcing production. I would fly to Dallas each evening on the red-eye flight out of Los Angeles and go back to California that evening. I would be in Dallas to get the mail and to fax orders back to Los Angeles.

The physical Pro-Line move from California to Texas took three months. Finished goods, manufacturing goods, and equipment all were transported by rail, along with employees’ cars and household furnishings. Of the 300 Pro-Line employees, 80 made the transition to Dallas. Seventy of those, however, eventually moved back to California.

This mass exodus, particularly of executives, exposed a problem that came as a surprise to me and my remaining executive team. With no way of knowing we would have to fill our employee list again, we hadn’t been aware that high-quality workers were at a premium in 1980s Dallas, home of a low unemployment rate. Professionals in Dallas, therefore, were able to demand more money than they could in expensive California, where there was a surplus of black professionals. Dallas had no such talent pool—the only available executives were those already hired by companies that had moved them to the city. The only way to hire quality executives was to hire someone away, and the competitive nature of the Dallas job market made that an expensive proposition.

But there was a fact of Dallas life that pleased me to no end: I fully expected to be the most successful minority businessman in the city, and that was fine with me. I always wanted to be the leader in everything that I did. I had been, after all, the standout kid in my Mobile [Ala.] classroom, the one who willingly withstood scrutiny, who realized that “teacher’s pet” was an underestimated role, the best one on that small stage. And there was another angle to my new Dallas role: Not only would I stand out as an African-American businessman, I was also that rare bird—a black Republican. As such, I wouldn’t have to spend time courting the Chamber of Commerce or the Dallas Citizens Council. Sure enough, when Pro-Line completed the move to Dallas, an article about me and Pro-Line appeared on the business pages, titled “Pro-Line to Dedicate Area’s Largest Black-Owned Business.”

 
   
CLOCKWISE FROM TOP LEFT: Renee Cottrell Brown, Comer Cottrell, and Isabell Cottrell with then-Gov. George Bush and First Lady Laura Bush (1997); Cottrell at Pro-Line’s Dallas headquarters (1981); Pro-Line hair products brochure (1985); Cottrell with President Bill Clinton in Dallas (1998); Cottrell with future Secretary of State Colin Powell (1998). courtesy of Brown Books Publishing Group

LONG-TERM BENEFITS
When it came to the important choice that would decide which bank’s board I would join in Dallas, Texas Commerce was my choice. After a merger, Texas became a Chase bank. My position on the board was perfect to bring in business for the bank by improving its marketing efforts through the use of television and other media.

My reputation as a conservative black businessman had a good long-range effect on Dallas’s race relations, once the black community began to accept me as an ally. I was then able to act as a liaison between the black and white communities, resulting in more give-and-take, with less misunderstanding on both parts.

From the outside, at least, it might have appeared that the racial situation in 1980s Dallas was improving in leaps and bounds. But I was still a black child of the Deep South, knowing full well that hidebound Texas had a long way to go before it would be a poster child for progressive integration. I remember being in a joint meeting of the Chamber and the Citizens Council one day when Jack Evans, the mayor, came in. Someone greeted him from across the room by hollering, “How’s it going down there at City Hall, Jack?” And his answer was, “It would be okay if I didn’t have those two nigger gals down there.”

They all immediately turned and looked at me. You could have heard a pin drop. The room was totally silent. Jack apologized, and said, “Comer, I’m sorry. I’d forgotten you were here. But the very fact that you are here shows that we are trying to change the system.”

I said, “It’s really not a problem, Jack. That’s something I hear around here all of the time.” Throughout my life … I have been aware of how easily the term “nigger” rolls off the tongue with a mind-set of “better than.”

Four years after the move to Dallas, I was interviewed by Jim Schutze for his book, The Accommodation, an account of Dallas racial politics that saw the city’s power elite as appeasing the African-American electorate— accommodating just enough to prevent race riots, but not enough to prevent poverty and despair. My contribution to the book might surprise those who aren’t used to listening to a man who thinks for himself: “I love it. I just love this place, because Dallas is still run by entrepreneurs,” I said to the author. “I think just like those boys downtown. If business is evil, Dallas is evil. I think business is wonderful. If Dallas is ruthless, sometimes you have to be ruthless. My decision to come was based entirely on the business environment. This is the kind of town I like. Love. I love Dallas. If I say anything negative about Dallas, it’s because I’m hoping to help it change for the better.”

TEXAS-SIZED SURPRISES
It was not unrequited love, not at all. The Republican business establishment sent the valentine right back. My business contacts, my political savvy, my can-do attitude—Dallas recognized and embraced my style. Besides, I was Dallas’s answer to the charge that the city was too conservative and racist. Look, they now could rejoinder—he’s even become a member of the Citizens Council! The Council was made up of the CEOs of the 80 largest companies in Dallas, and I was the first African-American to be invited. Why, the boys got so comfortable with me, they regularly let the “n” word slip while I was sitting right there. Oh, sorry, very sorry, Comer. Strangely, it was a good fit, though, all in all. At least I didn’t have to watch my back when I sat among the downtown crowd of white city leaders—their attitudes were right up in my face. Not so in the black community. The whites might not have been accustomed to men of color, but they sure as hell were used to men of power, especially the ones smart enough to work their way through the traditional channels of influence: the banking industry and the Citizens Council.

My real estate buys were illustrative of what was going on in the black community with me and my family. At first we bought a home in Oak Cliff, among many of the city’s wealthy black citizens. I wanted to be a part of the community and did a lot to prove that I was community conscious. But, as I said to the author of The Accommodation, “The black community told me to go to hell. I got tired of inviting people over to my house in Oak Cliff and never getting invited back.” My wife and I felt totally snubbed and definitely had hurt feelings. We were catching hell trying to meet black people in Dallas. The only times we were invited out by the black community were the times that involved some type of payment to attend an event. When we received an invitation, we knew it had a price tag.    

I purchased a nightclub, named it the Renaissance Club, and made it a private club. My thinking was that our wives in the black community would have a place for social luncheons and the guys would have a place to meet after work. Black people would not join the club. I heard that black people were saying: “I’m not going to join that thing and make that nigger rich.” The “making the nigger rich” part would have been funny if it had not been such a comment on the absence of black people helping black people that I had found in Dallas. I also wanted the club so that when new people came to town, there would be a place to meet others of like minds, values, and ambitions. I later sold the place, was never paid, and the club was renamed as RJ’s On the Lake.

Because of the fast track I came in on, I was an unknown entity. The black community simply did not reach out to us, although we reached out to them.  We soon moved to North Dallas. I have later been told by some persons in the black community that my wife and I were not invited into their homes for the social gatherings they were having because they thought we would not come. Why that was ever thought by anyone, I do not know. By extending invitations to our home, we were making a statement that we wanted to be friends.

“The white community helped me,” I told Schutze. But no amount of fear, suspicion, or dislike on the part of the black community could stop me from doing what came naturally: improving communication between the Dallas power structure and Dallas African-Americans.  “One of the unique things about Comer,” says my friend, Rev. Peter Johnson, “is his ability to walk on both sides of the track and remain Comer.” Since both whites and blacks could expect the same attitude, the same approach, and the same forthright honesty to come from me with no hidden agendas—both groups trusted me to a rare degree. Under such conditions, hate and fear are often stunned into submission. Funny thing was, the harder nut to crack may have been my own community. But crack they did. Rev. Johnson says that the black community not only slipped into my camp before long, but they paid me the highest compliment: Millionaire or not, they never tried to call me “Mr. Cottrell.”

FIGHTING FOR 14-1
As a role model and motivator, I effectively challenged black businesspeople to enter fields they had previously avoided, such as warehousing, wholesaling, distribution, and trucking—areas that are both non-traditional and profitable.    

During these days, my wife often thought “Comer Cottrell, first African-American mayor of Dallas” was sounding better and better, but I had work to do behind the scenes, a location I really enjoyed. One of the most satisfying changes I made was to help end the at-large system of voting in Dallas’ city council. It was Rev. Johnson who filed the first lawsuit in the 1970s, challenging the at-large election system—a challenge that led to a single-member system of election.

That was a better system, but it still didn’t produce many minority council members. Rev. Johnson and others geared up again, and went on to fight for a 14-1 system: 14 single-member districts and one mayor elected at large. Rev. Johnson remembers those days and my role. “We were fighting for 14-1, single-member districts in Dallas. Comer was directly involved. He and I talked on almost a daily basis; his support was beyond question. When I say he brought people in to help me in that fight, I mean people like Martin Luther King III. All those people came in and out of Dallas to help me. Comer’s money was also always there for support. The biggest march we had in downtown Dallas—a demonstration against the at-large system we were trying to defeat—brought in thousands and thousands of people. The night before, Comer called me at home and said, ‘I’m going to join you in that protest march tomorrow.’ I said, ‘Comer, I don’t think that’s wise.’” Rev. Johnson says he went on to tell me about some of Martin Luther King Jr.’s Alabama supporters, who stayed behind the scenes to help with lawyers and money, and how they were needed to get people out of jail. “We don’t need you in a march, we need you to do the things you’ve always done,” he said.

Ultimately, I agreed. “The next morning [Comer] called me,” Rev. Johnson recalls, “and said, ‘Well, you’ve convinced me not to join the march, but I’ll tell you what I’m going to do. I’m going to tell my employees that those who attend the march will be paid as usual. That way they can leave early and join your march.’ Comer provided a lot of warm bodies for that demonstration.”

CEO SNAPSHOT
COMER COTTRELL


BORN: December 7, 1931, in Mobile, Ala.

PERSONAL: With first wife,
Mildred Daniels, has one daughter, Renee. Has two sons, Comer III and
Aaron, with third wife, Isabell Paulding. Lives in Dallas with wife
Felisha, with whom he has two sons, Bryce and Lance.

EDUCATION: Graduated from the University of Detroit, 1952.

PREVIOUS EXPERIENCE: Along with
younger brother Jimmy, Cottrell began a business selling bunnies as a
kid. Went on to serve in the U.S. Air Force, where, at age 19, he
became the youngest person to reach the rank of first sergeant. Worked
as a sales manager at Sears Roebuck from 1964 to 1969.

BUSINESS PIONEER: Started
Pro-Line Corp., which sold a line of African-American hair-care
products, in Los Angeles in 1970. First made $1 million in sales in
1973. Relocated the company’s headquarters to Dallas in 1980. By 1988,
he was running the largest black-owned firm in the Southwest. Sold the
company to Alberto-Culver in 2000.

OTHER INVOLVEMENTS: Became
sponsor of Miss Collegiate African-American Pageant in 1989. Along with
a group of 13 other investors that included George W. Bush, bought the
Texas Rangers in 1989. Purchased Bishop College, a predominately black
university in Dallas, in 1990; paid for renovations and moved Paul
Quinn College’s operations from Waco to the revitalized Bishop College
campus.

THE BUSHIES AND THE BOYS OF SUMMER
Somewhere in the mid-1980s, at a party in Dallas, the Republican son of the sitting United States president met one of the few great-grandsons of slaves to call himself a Republican. My very presence at that gathering told George Walker Bush all he needed to know: This is a solid business owner with ready capital and the right politics. A bit later, in the fall of 1988, Bush and Edward “Rusty” Rose III decided to put together a partnership group for the purpose of buying the Texas Rangers.

Perhaps it was because Bush knew he would be running for governor six years later, but he was intent on gathering a diverse group around him. I answered Bush’s call and made the investment. Bush was the public face for the group and Rose the controlling partner. After the sale in April 1989, Bush would be the team’s managing director. When I told Isabell I’d bought into the Texas Rangers, she asked, “What do you care about baseball?” I could have responded “a whole hell of a lot,” since I had grown up in Mobile—home of Satchel Paige, Hank Aaron, Willie McCovey, and Tommie Agee, legends all. My Mobile was mined for baseball talent the way the Dominican Republic is scouted today. But that wasn’t the point right then. “I’m not investing in baseball,” I replied. “I’m investing in the president.”

Having enjoyed my access to [Ronald] Reagan through my California political ties, I was uncomfortable with my lack of inroads and access when it came to the first Bush administration, and it was clear that buying into the team would give me a friend and partner with the kind of access to the Oval Office that only a son would have. I did meet the president and Barbara Bush during an early spring training, and my friendship with George W. became even more important after W. became governor of Texas and then president of the United States in 2000.

Just as I thought, buying into the Rangers partnership was also a shrewd business move. The entire ownership group made a tidy profit when the team was sold at the end of the 1990s, but that wasn’t the main point either. This move opened doors—big, heavy, sealed doors marked “Private.”

RECORDING HISTORY
How Comer Cottrell’s autobiography came to life.

Milli Brown is the owner and CEO of Dallas-based Brown Books Publishing Group, which published Comer Cottrell’s autobiography in October. We asked Brown, who helped Cottrell write his story, to describe her experience.

Comer had always wanted to someday write a book, but for various reasons throughout the years, he had turned down the many agents and publishers who had approached him. But this time, in the winter of 2003, the timing was right. He was retired from the company that he took to the top of the business world and was finally motivated to sit down and tell his story.

Since we officed in the same building, we had occasion to chat from time to time, and we struck up a friendship long before our professional association. I think we shared a mutual respect for one another because of our obvious entrepreneurial spirits and work ethics. Often we were the only two people in the building late into the night and on weekends. We used to joke about tongues wagging because our two cars were the only two in the parking lot on many occasions.

At any given time, I am actively involved in the various stages of publishing 40 to 50 books. So, needless to say, I seldom have the time to devote more than an initial assessment and review to the beginning phase of any book project before it’s handed off to the appropriate staff member. The writer usually handles all the interviewing but, with Comer, I pulled rank. As a former family historian, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to hear this story first-hand.

(LEFT) Cottrell’s autobiography, (RIGHT) Cottrell and Milli Brown. book: Elizabeth Lavin; Milli & Comer: Dan Sellers

Every week I sat spellbound throughout our interviewing sessions. My open-ended questions elicited stories about growing up black in the Deep South during the Great Depression. I heard about the racist parrot that mocked him and the neighborhood parents who called the cops on Comer for daring to play football with their white sons. I learned how he started Pro-Line.

He recounted in great detail the challenges he faced on a daily basis trying to run and grow a start-up business while balancing a wife and family. Along the way, I learned the business secrets that ultimately led to his unprecedented success. And when he spoke about the final drama that prompted him to sell the company for $80 million, some 30 years after it was started, there was some sadness. There was a sense of loss that I could understand on both a personal and professional level. Pro-Line was his baby.

Our first interview was on Christmas Eve four years ago. And, yes, we were the only two people in the building.

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