BROTHER CHARLES "CHUCK" H. JAMES III ENTERS OMEGA CHAPTER OF ALPHA PHI ALPHA FRATERNITY, INC.
Today we pause to honor our fellow Chapter Brother, Charles "Chuck" Howell James III, who departed this life earlier this month at the age of 62. Brother Chuck was a very unique spirit in many ways -- well-respected by the Brothers from the 1970-80s, and a celebrated entrepreneur with a philanthropic heart who leaves an impressive legacy following his tenure as the Chairman & CEO of his family-owned food distribution business, C.H. James & Company, the nation's oldest black-owned business.
Brother Chuck arrived at Morehouse College in the fall of 1979 following a year of undergrad at Syracuse University, during which time he was initiated into the Delta Zeta Chapter of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc. Chuck became an integral part of the Alpha Rho Chapter, remembered for his business acumen, smooth delivery, raucous sense of humor, and patented wide-leg strut through Quarles Court arch down to the doors of the Alpha House. He even lived in the infamous Alpha House, on the second floor to be exact, during the on-campus social heyday of the Chapter, and during the simultaneous near condemnation of the facility by the college.
He served on the Morehouse Board of Trustees during the early 2000s through 2015 and was instrumental in paving the way for the development of the Alpha Rho 90th Anniversary Memorial Obelisk on the Morehouse College campus. His first cousin, Brother Michael Shaw James, was initiated into Alpha Rho Chapter in Fall 1981 (Phenomenal 15).
Brother Chuck was the subject of a well-researched 1997 profile by the Los Angeles Times newspaper, and rather than just recite from his professional biography, we've decided to utilize their elegant storytelling to help illustrate a life well-lived, and an energy that will be missed by all who knew and loved him. What follows is not to be confused with his official obituary which will be released by the James family at a later date.
(Editor's Note: The photos inserted into the Los Angeles Times feature below are all property of Brother James' Facebook page and did not appear in the original article published in June 1997. We chose to use them in order to have his life story come alive -- especially at this moment when we share news of his passing.)
Brother BMaynard Scarborough Fall 1980
APCAA President & Editor-In-Chief
IN HIS FAMILY’S FOOTSTEPS
By George White, Staff Writer, Los Angeles Times, June 1, 1997 www.latimes.com
C.H. “Chuck” James III has an Ivy League business degree, a board seat at a prestigious management learning center and a city of Industry company that bears his name. But when faced with strategic business decisions, he often asks himself, “What would my great-grandfather do?”
The original C.H. James was a trailblazer who founded a West Virginia produce firm in 1881 by bartering memorial pictures of assassinated President Garfield for the garden-grown vegetables of coal miners. The 19-year-old then sold the vegetables to stores in Charleston. C.H. James & Co. is still selling produce. But now the company buys it from farms in Salinas, Calif., processes it at its Industry plant and ships it to thousands of McDonald’s restaurants in the United States, Asia and Latin America.
Pictured above: Brother James during the early years of his tenure as the CEO of C.H.James & Company.
“My great-grandfather moved from Ohio to West Virginia to start a business,” said James, 38. “I moved the company from West Virginia to California for a very different business opportunity. In business, change is risky, but it’s also necessary.” With an eye for opportunity, a willingness to take risks and a penchant for reinventing itself, C.H. James & Co. has survived a Depression-era bankruptcy and persevered for 116 years, making it one of the oldest black-owned companies in the nation. It’s also one of the nation’s most successful and enduring family-owned enterprises, nearly doubling its annual revenue to $30 million in its four years in Southern California and jumping from 90 to 73 on Black Enterprise magazine’s ranking of the nation’s 100 largest African American-owned companies of 1997.
The company’s success has been lauded throughout the century by civil rights groups, governors--even presidents--because the James family has seized or created opportunities despite historic forces of discrimination. Now the company is being extolled as a model for minority- and women-owned firms trying to make the leap from government contractor to private-sector supplier. Such transitions are becoming more important as government affirmative action programs are being scaled back.
Pictured above: Brother James, seated, alongside his father, Brother Charles H. James II. Portraits of C.H. James & Company's previous leaders are seen on the rear office wall.
James always envisioned those programs as a short bridge to bigger opportunities. He used money from his government sales to purchase North American Produce, the Industry-based operation that supplies McDonald’s. “I realized that we wouldn’t grow by remaining a local distributor,” James said. “I always considered the government business a means for building enough revenue to expand to the national level.”
James decided to relinquish the minority-supplier status that gave him access to some government contracts in order to concentrate on his new West Coast business. The firm still has some government contracts but obtains that business through normal bidding procedures.
James has vaulted from federal to corporate contracting at a time when opportunities for women and minorities are expanding in private industry--but are contracting in government. The Supreme Court recently turned down Philadelphia’s plea to preserve a law that reserved a portion of city procurement for businesses owned by blacks or women. Also, a federal appeals court recently upheld California’s Proposition 209, which prohibits the consideration of race, ethnicity or gender in state contract awards. “In spite of attacks on [government] affirmative action, there is still significant growth in supplier diversity because companies are now anxious to develop a presence in the minority business community,” said Reginald Williams, chief executive of Atlanta-based Procurement Resources, a consultant to major companies with such contracting policies.
Pictured above: Brother James, standing, alongside his father, Brother Charles H. James II.
Some companies set aside a percentage of their procurement business for minorities and women. Others require their primary vendors to seek diversity among their subcontractors. Some simply make a greater effort to ensure that female and minority suppliers are among those making contract bids. As a result, diversity in corporate contracting is on the rise, Williams said. Minorities and women obtained about $30 billion in business from the 500 largest U.S. companies in 1996, compared with $22 billion in 1990, he said. More encouraging, Williams said, is the rise in the percentage of Fortune 500 companies with some sort of supplier-diversity outreach--about 75%, compared with 50% in 1992. Despite the increase, minority firms get only about 3.9% of corporate procurement dollars, according to some estimates.
Many would argue that James has thrived because of his determination to move beyond affirmative action. “Businesses establish affirmative action for economic reasons,” James said, “and economic forces create movements that are more sustainable than government programs.” Companies are making this effort partly because the U.S. minority population--at least 27% of the national total and 46% in California--is growing rapidly. “Minorities are increasingly important as customers and as shareholders,” said Harriet Michel, executive director of the National Minority Supplier Development Council, a promoter of such corporate programs. “Corporations understand that minority consumers consider a company’s hiring and procurement practices when they make a purchase.”
Pictured above: Brother James in conversation with Brother Ambassador Andrew Jackson Young, Jr., at right.
However, Michel said, such corporate procurement outreach could become more difficult because many companies are under competitive pressure to shift more of their business to larger suppliers, which can offer lower prices. “Minority suppliers will have to grow to offer those cheaper prices,” she said. “Chuck James is the prototypical minority entrepreneur of the future because his company has that large size and scale. He can give McDonald’s price, product and a connection to the [minority] community.” McDonald’s sought a business relationship with Chuck James after learning of the company’s long history and its transformation from a regional supplier of restaurants and supermarkets to a firm with nationwide capabilities. That expansion began in 1985 when James, who had just completed his master’s degree at the University of Pennsylvania’s elite Wharton School of business, persuaded his father to apply for federal contracts under the government program for minorities.
James obtained additional federal contracts after he bought the business from his father, C.H. James II, in 1988. But he also set his sights on supplying a national chain. That opportunity came when McDonald’s approached him in 1992 and encouraged him to buy North American Produce. James said he had reached a fork in the road: Should he keep the company on the same path or expand it by acquiring a fast-food venture so demanding that he would have to relinquish much of his government business? “What would my great-grandfather do?” he wondered.
Pictured above: Brother James joins (l-r) Alpha Rho Brother Robert C. Davidson (Fall 1964), President Barack H. Obama and other Trustee members at the May 2013 commencement ceremony for Morehouse College.
James could find answers to such questions in a family archive that includes letters as well as newspaper and magazine profiles of his great-grandfather. The founder’s position on growth was clear: In a 1920 magazine feature, C.H. James--then a leading distributor of chicken and eggs in West Virginia--discussed such choices:
“Our competitors are kicking now because our business extends to the farthest reaches of the district and so long as we keep reaching out, they must necessarily do likewise.”
Chuck James bought the stake in North American Produce in 1993, moved to Southern California and created the C.H. James holding company that controls the new produce company as well as the old family firm, which together have 130 employees. Such a deal was in the family’s tradition of change--a tradition that also emphasizes efficiency, innovation and community involvement. The evolution began in the late 1920s. At that time, the company was generating annual sales equivalent to about $3 million in today’s dollars. The founder retired in 1928, turning over the reins to his son Edward, Chuck James’ grandfather.
Pictured above: Brother James joins Morehouse President Walter Massey (center) at the 2001 Candle In The Dark Gala where he received the Bennie Leadership Award. Other honorees that evening included Dick Gregory, Harry Belafonte and Ray Charles.
The company suffered a double blow the next year. C.H. James died and the stock market crashed, ushering in the Great Depression. The company’s grocery store clients were unable to pay their bills, and C.H. James & Co. was forced into bankruptcy. Edward James rebuilt the business over the next decade, adding cheese and frozen foods to the poultry and egg stocks. Under his charge, the company also began to supply supermarkets in Ohio and Kentucky. The company was on solid ground when Chuck James’ father, C.H. James II, took control in 1963. He reinvented the firm by expanding its inventory from five items to more than 2,000. He also began to sell to the region’s hospitals and hotels, generating annual sales of $4 million by the early 1980s.
While C.H. James & Co. continues to distribute food to supermarkets and other businesses in the West Virginia area, James now directs an operation that delivers to about 2,000 McDonald’s restaurants west of the Rocky Mountains. He is also a backup source of produce for restaurants in Asia and Latin America. At first, it was a daunting responsibility for someone new to the fast-food business. James was expected to deliver tons of sliced or chopped lettuce and onion, and he wondered whether he had the equipment to do the job efficiently.
He considered his great-grandfather’s position on efficiency and found it in the 1920 magazine article, in which the writer recounted a visit to the office of C.H. James: “There I found a complete, modern outfit--adding machines, multigraph machine, first-class typewriters, Dictaphones, order writing machines . . . .” C.H. James then is quoted: “This makes it possible for us to do over $200,000 worth of business per year with a smaller amount of help than would otherwise be the case without this modern equipment.”
Pictured above: Brother James is recognized for his leadership in the development of Alpha Rho Chapter's 90th Anniversary Memorial Obelisk by Campaign Chairman Brother BMaynard Scarborough (Fall 1980).
Following his great-grandfather’s example, Chuck James decided in 1993 to spend more than $1 million on state-of-the-art packaging equipment. In a plant with 100 workers, the equipment shreds and packs 30 million pounds of lettuce and onion per year--work that used to be done by hand. “We’ve had a 40% increase in productivity since installing the equipment,” James said. “Some businesses stick with old, proven technology. But we wanted to establish some leadership right away.” McDonald’s is happy with the results, and with James. “He has a wealth of knowledge and expertise and consistently delivers quality,” said Paul Sidney, manager of the McDonald’s minority procurement program.
As with most successful businesses, innovation and efficiency are key to the company’s success. When James talks about innovations, he often refers to those of his great-grandfather, the first West Virginian to sell chicken by the pound instead of individually and the first to inspect eggs by using candlelight to examine their contents. Freshness is also important to the business, so Chuck hires consultants to help his employees develop time-saving production techniques. He’s formed innovation teams made up of employees, and trouble-shooting teams and a leadership team of managers also include workers.
Pictured above: Brother James' selfie game was strong -- demonstrated here at the Alpha Rho Obelisk dedication ceremony in 2015. Brother William W. Arterberry, at left, provides a solid "thumbs up" sign of approval.
James serves on an advisory board at a Claremont Graduate School institute headed by business guru Peter F. Drucker. He also makes speaking appearances. He recently addressed a class of executives at USC, explaining his techniques for meeting shifting consumer demand. The other family hallmark -- community involvement -- presents a challenge, considering the standards set by the company’s founder, James said. The original C.H. James provided time and money for vocational training, health-care facilities and schools. He also was a nationally recognized promoter of black entrepreneurship. “I think,” said President Theodore Roosevelt in a 1918 letter to the elder James, “I have spoken of you at least a hundred times, pointing to you as the man who actually is by his actions and not merely by words solving the race problem in this country.”
For his part, Chuck James recently joined the board of a business development agency at the Los Angeles Urban League. He also helped finance a portion of the program saluting entrepreneurship at the recent Los Angeles Black Expo. Such involvement is encouraged by McDonald’s, which seeks to raise its profile in minority communities. James has also helped sponsor programs designed to motivate youth, said Reggie Webb, president of the National Black McDonald’s Operators Assn., a franchise group.
“Persistence pays” is James’ message to black youth. As evidence, he cites his great-grandfather, who was initially shunned by groups in Charleston. But, impressed with his success, the Charleston Chamber of Commerce and a produce distributors organization later asked C.H. James to join them. “I’m not denying that racial barriers exist,” Chuck James said, “but I don’t think we should be obsessed with barriers, because there are people in every generation who find a way to succeed.”
Pictured above: Brother Charles "Chuck" Howell James III.
While each generation of the James family has embraced sound business practices, the approaches to growth have changed. The previous family chiefs expanded the business by acquiring more customers. Chuck James is expanding his customer base by acquiring other businesses. Such transformation and growth are critical to the survival of privately owned companies, said Leon Danco, director of the Cleveland-based Center for Family Business. “The James enterprise is a model for any family business,” Danco said. “Most do not survive beyond the second generation because there is no thoughtful plan for growth.”
Now that he has made the transition into the quick-service restaurant business, Chuck James is looking for other opportunities. He already has a 40% stake in an Australian company that supplies restaurants in the Pacific Rim. James said he eventually wants to relinquish a more prosperous company to one of his three sons. Eleven-year-old C.H. James IV is the eldest of the three. “Each generation of my family has created a bigger and better company,” James said. “All my forefathers are my heroes--but especially my great-grandfather. When you consider what he did in his time, I really have no excuses.”
Pictured above: While not often taken by surprise, Brother James (at right) gets some inside scoop from Brother Frederick S. Humphries (Fall 1980) at the 2018 Candle Gala.
Charles H. "Chuck" James III is the Chairman and CEO of C.H. James & Co. Recognized as one of the oldest and largest African-American owned companies in the United States, the firm was established as a wholesale produce house by his great-grandfather in 1883 in Charleston, WV. Under his grandfather and father's tenure the business evolved into a multimillion dollar wholesale food distributor.
In 1985, Chuck joined the business and focused on the government contracting sector for growth. From 1985-1992, C.H. James & Co. grew at a 31% annualized growth rate from a $4 million local wholesaler into an international food distributor with revenues in excess of $18 million. In 1992, C.H. James & Co. was named Company of the Year by Black Enterprise magazine. The company's operations have included international food distribution and food processing for high profile and demanding customers including the U.S. Departments of Defense and Agriculture, the Veterans Administration, McDonald's, Yum! Brands, Wendy's and Darden Restaurants.
Today, the C.H. James Companies generate annual revenues in excess of $50 million and include its historical interests in produce distribution as well as investments in quick service restaurants. C.H. James Restaurant Holdings, the latest affiliate of C.H. James & Co. was formed in 2004 and owns 43 quick service restaurants in Chicago in partnership with Goldman Sachs. The company is the largest African American Franchisee of Burger King Corporation.
Mr. James and his family have been recognized many times. His companies have been profiled in numerous publications including the Wall Street Journal, the Los Angeles Times, Black Enterprise, the Charleston Gazette, the Charleston Daily Mail, Entrepreneur magazine and other media. Other honors include the Morehouse College Candle in the Dark Award, the Dow Jones Award for Entrepreneurial Excellence and the Office of the Governor's Distinguished West Virginian Award. Mr. James and the company have also been formally honored by the Small Business Administration, the Veterans Administration, the Department of Defense and the Minority Business Development Agency of the U.S. Department of Commerce. In 1991, he was appointed to the National Nutrition Monitoring Advisory Council by President George H. W. Bush. Mr. James has lectured at a number of leading business schools including the Wharton School, Stanford University, the University of Southern California, West Virginia University and Morehouse College.
Pictured above: Brother James, seated, first row, right side of monument, at the dedication of Alpha Rho Chapter's 90th Anniversary Memorial Obelisk in October 2015.
Mr. James graduated from Charleston High School and attended West Virginia University and Syracuse University before graduating from Morehouse College in 1981 with a BA degree. After a short banking stint in Chicago, he earned his MBA from the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania in 1985. He served on the boards of Morehouse College, the Wharton School at University of Pennsylvania, The Children's Hospital and the Steppenwolf Theater.