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The House of Cottrell (Part I)

The jerry curl is dead.
Once the royal crown of black hair styles, coveted by men and women alike, the curl is now a dinosaur, found mostly in rural outposts of the South.

A combination of chemicals in a clear gel base, the curl was an innovative perm that transformed the tightly woven kinks of natural Negroid hair into lilting, falling curls. Back in the '70s--the age of the Afro and hot combs--the curl kit revolutionized black hair care.

If you had a curl, you had it going on. Michael Jackson wore one. Football players sported them. Scores of musicians--including Lionel Richie, Rick James, and Freddie Jackson--flaunted them on stage.

Everybody wanted one.
The problem? The curl's perming process was thought to be so complicated that you could only get it done in beauty and barber shops, and beauticians charged heavily for the toils of providing it: $200-$300. Add in the cost of maintaining a curl, which meant applying a bevy of oils and sprays every day, and the jerry curl remained out of most people's reach.

Then two brothers named Comer and Jim Cottrell made a simple discovery that led to a stunning opportunity. The brothers, originally from Mobile, Alabama, owned the fledgling Pro-Line Corp. in Los Angeles, which manufactured hair-care products--most notably an oil sheen--for black consumers.

"I sold products to a woman--a beautician--who made a lot of money putting the curl in people's hair, and she was no genius," Jim Cottrell remembers. "I thought if she could do it, anybody could do it."

"We looked at the curl process," says Comer Cottrell, now Pro-Line's chief executive officer, "and saw it really was a simple process, and people could do it themselves. It was no secret."

The brothers hired a chemist and, after months of experimentation, introduced in 1979 a do-it-yourself product, the Curly Kit.

There had never been a product quite like it. The company, which would soon relocate to Dallas, couldn't keep up with demand. The kits, which Pro-Line priced at $8, were whisked off the shelves as soon as they arrived, and the Cottrell brothers became instant multimillionaires.

The new mass-marketed kit forced beauticians to drastically cut their prices for a curl to about $35. Other companies hastened to provide their own version of the Curly Kit. One company introduced the Jeri Curl, and the hairdo became known generically on the street as the "jerry curl." Everywhere you turned, someone was wearing one.

Its popularity eventually faded, however. Michael Jackson's hair, gleaming with the oils and chemicals needed to maintain a curl, caught fire while he was filming a video. Then Eddie Murphy's Coming to America parodied the hairdo. And eventually, black athletes embraced the bald look.

"All of that helped to destroy the curl," Comer Cottrell recalls.
Soon, in many black communities, particularly in large urban areas, the curl became synonymous with a lack of sophistication. Folks refused to wear it. Sales of curl kits dropped so drastically in the late 1980s that most companies simply stopped making them. Pro-Line continued to sell a few kits to retailers, mostly out of a sense of obligation to consumers in the South who still liked it.

"We were the first, and we are the last," Comer Cottrell says.
Now the company relies more and more on its other products--relaxers, sheens, and hair dressings--but it was the Curly Kit that put Pro-Line and the Cottrells on the map. Without the jerry curl, Comer Cottrell would not be who he is today, and he knows it.

The jerry curl is dead. Long live the jerry curl.

What a difference a score makes. Twenty years ago, Comer Cottrell had it made, and it looked so easy. He was making loads of money, building a corporation that would revolutionize the black hair-care market in the United States. Pro-Line, based in Dallas since 1980, would become synonymous with community involvement; few black-owned companies would achieve such a high public profile.

The son of a kindhearted Alabama washerwoman, Comer was the epitome of the hometown boy who makes good--and remembers his roots. His partnership with his brother Jim made Pro-Line a family affair. The Cottrell boys, self-made millionaires, were heroes in the black Catholic neighborhoods that dot the southern side of Mobile.

A generous, proud man, Comer seemed the consummate business opportunist, compiling a list of firsts as long as an arm. He became the first black to acquire an ownership interest in the Texas Rangers, and he was embraced by Dallas' all-white business community--even gaining entrance into the city's high society. He became the first African-American to sit on the board of a bank in Dallas, the first to sit on the board of the powerful and exclusive Dallas Citizens Council. He hobnobs with the rich, famous, and powerful all over the world, and counts Texas Gov. George W. Bush and the Rev. Jesse Jackson--as well as celebrities Barry White and Melvin Van Peebles--among his intimate friends.

 

He helped build Pro-Line into the largest black-owned manufacturer in the Southwest, and the third largest manufacturer of ethnic beauty aids in the country. A pioneer in many ways, he politely nudged open doors for other blacks and gave Dallas one of its first victories in declaring itself a business town open to minorities.

When Comer Cottrell moved to Dallas 16 years ago, he told then-Los Angeles mayor Tom Bradley that he saw great opportunity in his new city. "I said it's virgin for a business like mine," Comer recalls. "And it's down there a virgin, with its legs wide open, waiting for me."

Once he arrived, he formed the Cottrell Foundation, which regularly supports several charities, including black colleges like Paul Quinn and inner-city Catholic schools, making him one of the city's best-loved philanthropists. He is considered singularly responsible for reviving Paul Quinn, a struggling black college, by donating land and buildings he'd bought to enable the school to relocate from Waco. His unassuming, gentle presence made him an excellent ambassador, a man who navigated effectively through the city's volatile race relations. Ultimately, he gained the respect of both blacks and whites.

"I've never been called 'nigger' in Dallas," he says, even though he was often the first black to participate in long-established Dallas social and civic institutions. Once, during a meeting of the Dallas Citizens Council, Comer recalls, a white member referred to two black city councilwomen as "those nigger gals." Comer politely objected. The member apologized profusely, noting that Comer's presence on the council indicated Dallas' changing mores on race.

Comer, never one for confrontation, believes in quiet but persistent social change. "He has remarkable savoir-faire," says Father Tom Weise, a Catholic priest in Mobile whose charities Comer supports.

In Dallas, the Cottrells' business empire grew from $2 million in annual sales to $41 million by 1995. The local press fawned over Comer--chronicling many times his fabled road to success.

But behind the scenes, that journey was fraught with conflicts which, left largely unattended for years, had festered. Now, at the age of 64, when most successful businessmen are settling peacefully into the twilight years of their lives, Comer Cottrell's $41 million house is encircled by troubles and perils. The smiling, heavy-lidded businessman is a nervous monarch presiding over a besieged castle.

Though cheery press reports would have led one to think otherwise, Comer's relationship with his brother James deteriorated long ago over business differences and has been severely strained for years. Comer's family, often considered the Huxtables of Dallas, had become a nest of anger and resentment. His wife and business associate, Isabell, sued for divorce in June 1995; his oldest son is trying to settle into college after years of restlessness and problems with the law. Meanwhile, two of Comer's poorer relations have carried on a five-year campaign against him and his wife in court, raising some sordid allegations and causing bitter feuds among the relatives. And the industry in which he made his fortune is careening out of control--jeopardizing Pro-Line's grip on what's left of the black hair-care market.

Comer's carefully constructed empire threatens to topple, as empires often do.

The brothers who built the Cottrell kingdom were reared in a neat, wood-frame house on Conti Street in Mobile. The Cottrells were the only black family in the neighborhood during World War II, but shared something with their white neighbors: They were all Catholic. The matriarch of the Cottrell clan, Helen, had a reputation for being a charitable, loving person who doted on her two handsome boys--Comer, the older son, and James.

"She was just a beautiful person," says her sister-in-law, Clara Smith of Mobile. "She would give the heart out of her body, and she taught her boys that way."

The brothers recall their father, Comer Sr., being largely absent. An insurance salesman, Comer Sr. preferred the company of his Elks lodge to companionship at home.

The boys' mother, however, was a constant. She worked numerous menial jobs--beating mats, washing clothes, and working as a housekeeper for the Mobile Country Club--to put her boys through Catholic school. "She dedicated her life to the two of us," Jim recalls.

The Cottrells experienced racism, but the children's lives in a close-knit Catholic community were mostly free of social strife.

One of Comer's most vivid childhood memories involves the customs of segregationist Alabama. He and Jim were sitting in their front yard across the street from the park, waiting for the park warden to go home. The warden would not allow black children to play in the park; if he found them there, he'd run them off with cruel words.

 

While their white neighbors attended white Catholic schools, The Cottrell boys were forced to take a bus to black schools. Even so, Helen, a frugal, pragmatic woman, shielded her sons from the painful realities of segregation. She believed you couldn't get anything if you didn't give. In fact, when she died in 1993 at the age of 83, she had amassed a $300,000 fortune--much to her sons' surprise.

When the Cottrell boys grew up, they left Mobile and both ended up in the Air Force. Comer also attended the University of Detroit for a few years.

After leaving the service, Comer and Jim went out into the world to seek their fortunes. They settled in Los Angeles--Jim working as a jet-engine mechanic for SANCOR aircraft company, Comer working as a plumbing-department manager for Sears, Roebuck and Co.

Comer started a small hair-care business in 1970 at the urging of an associate, Henderson Huggins. Comer knew there was a market for black hair-care products; while doing his stint in the Air Force, he'd noticed that stores on the base rarely stocked hair-care products for blacks. When people complained, they were urged to use Vitalis--a conditioner manufactured for Anglo hair. So when Comer started Pro-Line, he sold his first crates of oil sheen at military bases in Southern California.

A year later, Jim joined the company, selling on weekends and evenings, sometimes borrowing a SANCOR truck to make deliveries. He eventually swapped the family car for a delivery van and devoted himself full-time to Pro-Line.

The three partners rented a cheap warehouse where they hand-poured oil sheen into bottles from a trough. The brothers wrangled over packaging and fragrances and worked feverishly to sell their products--which also included a comb-out and holding spray--to barbers, outlet stores, and beauty shops. They found that labeling had a lot to do with the success of a product: They settled on black labels with gold trim. The response was fabulous.

As they expanded sales all along the West Coast, the brothers settled into characteristic roles. Jim did most of the work in the field, selling as far away as Texas. Comer managed the office and operations. He insisted that prices be lower than any of their competitors so that Pro-Line would gain a foothold in the market.

Meanwhile, Huggins and Comer were in constant conflict about the direction of the company. The brothers eventually bought him out. (Huggins could not be reached for comment.)

With the help of chemists, Comer and Jim formulated several exclusive formulas for the Pro-Line name, including "Hair Food," a brand name for hair oil. Jim took out a patent on the unique crown-shaped jar he'd designed to hold Hair Food--a jar the company still uses today.

Despite some differences of opinion, the brothers developed a strong working relationship and considered themselves extremely close. Jim felt like he had to push Comer to take chances. He recalls Comer resisting his efforts to add strawberry fragrance to one of the products. When he finally convinced him to do it, Jim says, the product took off.

During this time, Comer met Isabell Paulding, a young saleswoman for Pro-Line's biggest rival, Chicago-based Johnson Products. The two fell in love. Comer soon decided to divorce his second wife and marry Isabell. Jim disapproved--although he refuses to say why.

"He knew all along that I never wanted him to get married to her," Jim says. "I let him know from the start that I didn't think it would work. And as a result, it separated us."

Pro-Line's break-out product--the Curly Kit--came in 1979, propelling the company to great heights. Sales leaped to more than $10 million in 10 months. By 1980, the company was seeing a fantastic profit margin.

Isabell Cottrell, Jim says, was initially critical of the Curly Kit because her brother had used it and his hair didn't come out right. "He didn't leave it in long enough," Jim says.

Isabell called a meeting to discuss the product's seeming failure. "'This stuff is going to bankrupt the company!'" Jim recalls her saying angrily.

Infuriated, Jim ignored her and went right on producing the Curly Kit. (Isabell Cottrell, contacted at her business and through her lawyer, declined to be interviewed.)

Meanwhile, the brothers' relationship was deteriorating fast. Jim felt like Comer was spending too much time and money playing the celebrity and not enough time watching the company's bottom line. Comer, for his part, believed his high profile would not only benefit Pro-Line, but the black community as well.

 

Isabell, whom Jim had so disapproved of, took an active interest in the growing company. "By the time we moved to Dallas in 1980," Jim says, "Isabell had already made the statement that I was doing too much in the company."

Jim says Isabell pressed Comer to restructure the company. "That's when we started getting all those vice presidents," Jim recalls. "Just a bunch of people sitting around doing nothing, really."

Despite the Curly Kit's wild success, Pro-Line could not keep up with demand--in part because of upheavals caused by the move to Dallas. "It allowed our competitors to enter the market," Comer recalls.

Comer had chosen Dallas because it was in the South, a midway point between the East and West coasts. At the time, the OPEC crisis had caused gasoline prices to skyrocket.

Dallas lacked a company anything like Pro-Line. If the city was sincere about promoting black businesses, Comer thought, here was an opportunity to prove it.

The business community quickly embraced this charming, charismatic black businessman--offering incentives, seats on boards, and access to inner circles. Dallas, which had precious few thriving black businesses, finally had a great success story in Comer.

"I used to say, 'Hell, this isn't the black community,'" Comer says. "'This is Comer Cottrell.'"

Black Dallas, however, initially shunned Comer, and he was vilified in the black press. One article, written in an obscure black weekly, The Metroplex News, referred to Comer as an "Uncle Tom," which so incensed Isabell that she bought the paper and shut it down. For Comer, who held such lofty dreams, the cool reception stung.

"Black people don't know what I did when I came to Dallas," he says now. "I came in and opened up so many doors that were closed to blacks, and they thought I was doing it and being used. In reality, when I went in--like in the Dallas Citizens Council--they'd never had a black there before. I told them, 'Look--I am not unique. There are other black people here, and the only way you'll ever develop relationships and build the community is you will have to invite them in.'

"What we did, we got another black in, then we got some Hispanics in, then we got women in. The same way with the Chamber; the same way with the bank boards. I don't need to kiss nobody's ass. I work for Pro-Line and for this community. I love Dallas."

Still, Comer says, he saw in Dallas a black community that seemed almost willfully segregated from the social and business scenes. "Let me tell you about Dallas," he says now, disappointment still evident in his voice. "Black folks here don't recognize opportunities here."

Eventually Comer managed to win over his detractors. Dallas City Councilman Al Lipscomb admits to being one of Comer's biggest critics in the early years. "We thought he was a snob," Lipscomb says. "But he disarmed every damned one of us with his humility. We thought he was going to be stuck-up like some of us can be at times.

"I am not saying that he walks on water, but he's done a lot for this city."

In the high-flying 1980s, Comer and Isabell lived jet-setters' lives, mingling with rich and famous people all over the globe.

In 1982, in a touching affirmation, the city of Mobile invited Comer, Isabell, and their two toddlers to participate as grand marshals in the city's Mardi Gras festival. Comer Cottrell had arrived.

Pro-Line's staff had grown to 180 people and annual sales had climbed to $36 million. Pro-Line's research and development departments were busy lining up new products. Harold Jones, then Pro-Line's credit manager, recalls Comer working 12-hour days, seven days a week. "He was always at work," Jones says.

But Jim was deeply unhappy, and growing more resentful every day. Comer's efforts to court celebrities and politicians--among other issues--bothered him.

"During our opening in Dallas," Jim says wryly, "I made the statement that my goal was to own a champion thoroughbred, and Comer's goal was to be mayor of Dallas. People laughed, but he was very sincere about his associations with politicians. They were his heroes, more or less."

The early 1980s marked the entry into the market of several Curly Kit imitations--and sales of Pro-Line's top product began to decline. The company turned to research and development, and Jim came up with a child's relaxer which became known as the "Kiddie Kit." Although not the phenomenon that the Curly Kit was, the Kiddie Kit proved very successful, breaking sales of more than $1 million a year.

The family fault lines, however, were becoming all too clear.
Isabell, while not an employee of Pro-Line, played an increasing role in the business. "She was very intrusive," Jim says bitterly. "Plus, she didn't know what she was doing."

 

The backbiting and conflict be-tween Jim and Isabell and their prospective supporters eventually erupted into full view. Scenes were not uncommon. Comer, Jim felt, would invariably take Isabell's side, even though Jim had been the mastermind behind some of the company's biggest successes. "I was between a rock and a hard place," Comer says today.

Soon, by most accounts, Pro-Line had split into two camps: Comer and Isabell's against Jim's.

Jim says he started drinking heavily, and began to develop ulcers. Increasingly, he recalls, he would come into the office to find that decisions had been made without him. Once, he says, he came to a board meeting to find that without his knowledge Isabell and Comer had hired a consultant from a rival manufacturer. "I had absolutely no respect for the man [the consultant]," Jim recalls.

At the same time, Comer's camp introduced a hair revitalization kit to the market, but consumers rejected it because, although studies showed it strengthened the hair shaft, results were not visible.

"It was visibly overpriced," Jim quips. "And it fell flat on its face. It dang near bankrupted us and lost the company about $900,000."

With the expansion of the company, the decline of the curl, concessions to distributors, and the construction of Pro-Line's $4.6 million headquarters in West Dallas, profits seemed to be slipping away. "I was begging them to turn this thing around," Jim recalls. "I said, 'You've got to protect your profit.'"

Soon afterward, Jim decided to leave the company. He made arrangements to sell his shares back to Pro-Line, but as there was no company in existence quite like it, the brothers had a hard time coming up with a valuation for Jim's stock. They ultimately agreed on an undisclosed amount plus interest payable to Jim.

Comer watched miserably as his brother packed up and left. "It hurt," he says now. "I missed him tremendously."

The two proud brothers had drawn their line in the dirt and neither would cross it. Jim felt Comer had betrayed him for a woman who knew little about the business; Comer felt Jim had challenged his own business acumen, and refused to try to talk his brother into staying.

"He thought if he left the company it would collapse," Comer says. "He thought that once he left, we wouldn't make it."

That was in 1983.

Last month, Comer Cottrell walked into his office, fretting aloud. "Did you read the paper this morning?" he asked his executive assistant, Elaine McNeely.

"Yes," she said.
The paper had covered Dallas Mayor Ron Kirk's visit to South Africa. It seemed that Kirk, after weeks of waxing hopeful about the possibility of rubbing shoulders with Nelson Mandela, was not going to get to meet the legendary South African president after all. "I wish he would have called me," Cottrell mumbled. "I could have got him an invitation."

Comer had met Mandela on one of his many business trips, scouting the post-apartheid South African hair-care market. There's a way to accomplish things in South Africa, Comer explained. He has close friends who are close friends with high-ranking members of Mandela's political party, the African National Congress. Cottrell could have called his friends, who would have thrown a dinner party for their friends in the ANC. Mandela would have made an appearance out of respect for his comrades. That's how things are done in South Africa.

But Kirk left South Africa without ever laying eyes on his hero. He should have called Comer Cottrell.

Even Comer's detractors admit the man knows how to get things done. Sitting at his desk in his executive offices, the portly, aging businessman with thinning gray hair looks unassuming. But his sleepy eyes and grandfatherly voice conceal a razor-sharp intellect and an ability to influence others. He is kindly, alternately profane and endearing, and slightly gruff, but Comer Cottrell's power lies in how he makes you feel about yourself.

"I like his style," Al Lipscomb says. "I don't give a damn if you are in coveralls or a three-piece suit. Comer will treat you right if you allow him to. But now--let's face it--he's self-made, and he knows B.S. from Shinola."

The phone rings. It's a distributor of Cottrell's who's complaining about a young upstart whom he says is trying to steal his business.

"Look, let me tell you," Comer says. "You are one of the viable distributors left and have the most integrity, as I see it, in the industry. That company, they do all kinds of crap."

Before long, it's clear from Comer's side of the conversation that the industry is going through some serious problems. Comer reveals that he has hired a bankruptcy attorney full-time to protect Pro-Line's interests when distributors go out of business. He sympathizes with his pal on the phone, assuring him that his business isn't ruined; that he just has to roll with the punches and play it smart. "By being credible," he says, "you can always move in when they go.

 

"Times have changed," he tells his pal. And Comer for one is going to change with them. "There is a time when I just say, 'We have to collect our money and we have to get it or we can't ship.'"

With his friend the distributor only slightly mollified, Cottrell hangs up. The days of easy profits, like those of the ubiquitous jerry curl, have gone away.

Continued...


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