S.B. FULLER: THE DEAN OF BLACK ENTREPRENEURS
Updated: Oct 21, 2020
By Pamela Sherrod CHICAGO TRIBUNE June 9, 1987
The two teenage boys sitting on a fire hydrant in front of Fuller Products Co. on Chicago`s South Side whistle and admire the women passing by. ''Go `head now!'' one boy hollers out.
The boys probably have no idea of the significance of Fuller Products or of the story of S.B. Fuller, the man who founded the company and still runs it. But ''go `head now'' pretty well sums up the attitude of the man, now 82, who started the firm 52 years ago and made it, at one time, the nation`s biggest black-owned company.
''I`ve always had faith in myself and wanted to move ahead, to lift myself,'' said Fuller, slow-spoken and slightly stooped. ''I had this in me when I started my business. I was 30 then.''
Fuller came to Chicago from his native Monroe, La., with hopes of moving ahead. Born to a sharecropper`s family, he had a sixth grade education and little money.
He started his business with $25. From this base, he built what was the largest black-owned company in the country in the 1950s and early 1960s, averaging sales of $10 million. In the process, he gave a start to men and women who have become among the most powerful black executives in the nation. ''That $25 was really all the money I had to my name,'' Fuller said.
''And I had that much because I went and had my car refinanced and they gave me $25 in what they said was some earned interest.
''I was happy to get it, and I wanted to use the money to do something that could do me and my family some good.''
Fuller used the money to buy a load of soap. With this, he set up a door- to-door selling business, with one employee--himself. He peddled the soap and, as the business grew, he hired more salespeople.
''Our territory included blacks and whites all over the city,'' said Fuller, who plays down racism. ''I always sold to both; I never thought otherwise.''
But while Fuller`s business grew, white banks refused to lend him money.
''Most of my financing came from blacks right here, from the community.''
By 1939 Fuller had dozens of salesmen, well-defined sales areas and a small factory on the South Side.
''I can`t say I was surprised by our growth, but I was ready for it. I had faith in selling door to door,'' Fuller said.
Fuller made one acquisition after another. In the mid-1940s, he bought the white-owned Boyer International Laboratories Inc., which made and sold Jean Nadal Cosmetics. The company`s clientele was predominantly white and in the South.
''They were strongest in the South,'' Fuller said. ''The sale was handled quietly, and not many people knew the person who bought the company was a black man. The owners had some trouble and wanted to sell it. I wanted to grow, and I was able to buy Boyer.''
Fuller`s other purchases included real estate and several smaller black-owned firms. He also owned Fuller-Philco Home Appliance Center, Fuller Department Store and Fuller Guaranty Corp.