Joe Dudley Sr. Dudley Products
(FORTUNE Small Business) – At one time African-American hair care was of interest only to African Americans. Today conglomerates like L'Oréal and Alberto-Culver have purchased most of the companies competing in the black hair-care market. Dudley Products, founded in 1967, is one of the few black-owned firms left. Joe Dudley and his wife, Eunice, spent their 20s mixing shampoo and beauty-product formula by night, which Joe sold door-to-door by day. Today, with annual revenues of $30 million, Dudley Products manufactures more than 400 beauty agents, from shampoo to lipstick.
From his 80,000-square-foot corporate office in Kernersville, N.C., Joe, 66, speaks candidly about why he won't sell his company and the importance of black business ownership. --SAKINA SPRUELL
We did a survey recently, and only 48% of our customers thought we were black-owned. Many thought we were a white company acting black. Most people didn't understand that black people could build what we did. We don't just manufacture hair-care products; we have Dudley Cosmetology University, which teaches in five languages. Cosmetologists and hair stylists come from all over the world to our university to learn haircutting, styling, and makeup application. We opened two schools in Zimbabwe, and we do business in Japan, Korea, and Brazil.
I received the Horatio Alger Award; others who received that award are Robert Schuller of Crystal Cathedral and Dave Thomas of Wendy's. I'm the only black person in the Hall of Fame for Direct Sales. So I consider myself primarily an entrepreneur. That said, I am an entrepreneur who happens to be black.
We have a lot of people who would like to give us a lot of money for our company. Just three weeks ago we were approached by a major company wishing to buy Dudley. Companies offer us so much that if we were money hungry, we would sell. But Dudley is a greater mission than money.
To me Dudley is a mission for its people. When I was born, 14 of us lived in a shack. I promised God that if he helped me make it, I would spend my life helping other people --not just my family but people in general. We must make a contribution in the world. My people, African Americans, need more help than many others.
I don't have anything against people who sell their company. But I didn't build my company to sell it. I built my company as an example of what you can do with difficulties in life. In first grade I was labeled mentally retarded, and the teachers told my mom and everybody else that I would never get anywhere. Now I want to show young African Americans that they can run a business too. So at Dudley we spend a lot of time being a role model, sometimes to the detriment of our own business.
For example, 12 or 13 years ago I was a speaker at a predominantly black school, and I noticed it didn't have any boys on the honor roll; that bothered me. When I got back to my office, I called members of my staff in and said I would love to help these boys get a 3.0 average and then send them to college. I asked each employee for contributions of $6 a week to help do it. They said they would like to help, but they couldn't afford it. So I called my human resources department and increased their salaries by $8 a week so that when they took the $6 out, they wouldn't lose anything. The remaining $2 would cover a possible tax increase. To date, we have sent around 100 to 125 boys to college.
During summers, while I was on break from A&T University in North Carolina, I would sell Fuller beauty products door to door in Brooklyn. I've always admired S.B. Fuller, and now I'm adopting his philosophy by making some of our employees at Dudley independent salespeople. By doing that, they can learn how to start a business and be job makers instead of job takers. Growing overall revenues will be one plus for us, but we are also looking at creating African-American entrepreneurs. Our focus has never been on sales, but on how the people building the organization can spread out and find success for themselves.
Doing what I'm doing is fun for me. I could sell for money, but why? I have five suits and several nice homes. I don't wear fancy diamonds. I usually drive one car--one Cadillac. But I'm having fun watching young people say, "If Joe Dudley can do it, I can do it better." That's what excites me.