Samuel B. Fuller’s is a classic tale of American entrepreneurship and resilience. He would climb to the pinnacle of the cosmetics manufacturing industry, fall to bankruptcy and rise again. Through it all he preached a philosophy of self-help that would inspire his workers but eventually cause him to run afoul of the NAACP. Fuller was born in 1905 in Ouatchie, Louisiana. He was the first of seven children born to sharecropper parents and started selling door to door at age nine. He dropped out of school in the sixth grade.
When he was 15, his family moved to Memphis.His mother died two years later leaving behind seven children. His father is believed to have moved to Chicago in search of greener pastures. Fuller married at 18 and managed to keep his siblings of the dole. In 1928, he would hitchhike to Chicago where he first worked first in a coal yard, and then as a burial insurance salesman. He would send for his wife and children and they invested $25 in soap which he sold door to door. By 1929, he founded the Fuller Products Company. He continued to have success with the insurance company and was promoted to manager in 1933 even as he established a line of 30 products and hired additional sales people. By 1939 he set up a small factory and had becomes of the Chicago’s leading black business owners. All this in the midst of the Great Depression.
In 1947, Fuller purchased, Boyer International Laboratories—a cosmetics company whose brands targeted white Southerners—but kept the purchase secret from customers though sales agents were brought to Chicago and apprised of Fuller’s long-term goals for the company. White southerners would eventually account for as much as 60% of his annual sales which was spread across 38 states. By 1951 the company had a staff in excess of 3,000 people and by 1956, Fortune would report that Fuller’s gross sales were $18 million. In 1963, Fuller would control 9 corporations, including the Fuller Guaranty Company (financial services), the Fuller-Philco Appliance Center, substantial investments in real estate, the Pittsburgh Courier Publishing Company and the Regal Theatre (a Chicago cinema).
In 1964 Fuller experience a series of blows. The SEC put him on probation for selling unregistered promissory notes and ordered him to repay $1.6 million in loans. A social service agent lead a campaign against him for lending to welfare recipients, telling them not to pay their debts, leaving Fuller with more than $1 million in non-performing loans and forcing him to close his department store. The White Citizens Council organized a devastating boycott of his products which pushed sales of Jean Nadal down to zero. Fuller was also boycotted by the NAACP (of which he was a former chapter president) for having argued that black people suffered because of a “lack of understanding of the capitalist system” and arguing that they should spend less time trying to change white people’s attitudes and more time focusing on the lack of motivation and entrepreneurship among black people. By 1969, Fuller was bankrupt.
He did not quit.He re-organized his businesses and as soon as 1972 he was able to report profits of $300,000. By 1975, he was honored by other black entrepreneurs with Jet reporting George Johnson as saying “if there had been no you, there would have been no us.” In the 1950S Fuller had allowed Johnson to use his facilities as Johnson’s own cosmetics firm recovered from a fire. Fuller died in 1998 but his company continues to distribute products through the Northeast and the South.
In celebration of Black History Month, our regular Tuesday and Friday posts will highlight black entrepreneurs who have displayed exemplary success and resilience.