By DOUGLAS MARTIN
J. Bruce Llewellyn, whose success in fields as varied as banking, broadcasting, Coca-Cola bottling and groceries made him one of the most prominent black businessmen in America, died Wednesday night at his home in Manhattan. He was 82.
The cause was renal failure, said Edward Lewis, a friend and legal guardian for Mr. Llewellyn. Mr. Llewellyn had been on dialysis for years, Mr. Lewis said.
Throughout his life, Mr. Llewellyn repeated his father’s dictum that blacks must work twice as hard as whites to achieve half as much. In an interview with The Black Collegian in 1997, he asserted that success had not come easily, calling it “nerve wracking, gut-wrenching and pain inducing.”
“You must act to acquire it with a vengeance and to pursue it with a passion,” he said.
Mr. Llewellyn was one of the nation’s richest African-Americans, with a personal wealth estimated at times to exceed $160 million. He was appointed to government posts and advised presidents.
In 1963 he joined with others, including David N. Dinkins, later to become mayor of New York City, in founding 100 Black Men, a social and philanthropic organization that began in New York and expanded throughout the United States.
“We pushed our guys onto bank boards, into government jobs,” Mr. Llewellyn told The New York Times in 1976. “We’re the most dynamic group of black men in the country.”
Perhaps his greatest triumph came in 1985 when he put together a group of black partners to buy a majority share of the Philadelphia Coca-Cola Bottling Company. It was the first of the company’s bottling plants to be acquired by a black person. Four years earlier, Jesse Jackson and his advocacy group Operation PUSH had demanded that Coke open its bottling ranks to black ownership, pointing out that blacks were a major consumer of Coca-Cola soft drinks.
Mr. Llewellyn, a deep-voiced, barrel-chested man who stood 6-foot-6, found initial success by mortgaging everything he owned to turn a tattered chain of supermarkets in Harlem and the Bronx, the Fedco Foods Corporation, into a company with $100 million in annual sales.
Mr. Llewellyn’s use of a leveraged buyout in 1969 to buy Fedco came years before the tactic became commonplace.
“For an African-American businessman to receive multimillion-dollar financing in the 1970s was a landmark event,” said Robert Towbin of the investment bank L.F. Rothschild, Unterberg and Towbin, as quoted by the Encyclopedia of African-American Business.
In 1971 Jackie Robinson, a friend, asked Mr. Llewellyn to join the board of the Freedom National Bank in Harlem, of which Mr. Robinson was chairman. Mr. Llewellyn succeeded Mr. Robinson in 1973, and the next year took a leave of absence from Fedco to be the bank’s acting president. He succeeded in sorting out Freedom’s finances, partly by bringing in capital from white-controlled financial firms. (The bank ultimately failed in 1990 under other leadership.)
During the Carter administration, Mr. Llewellyn was appointed to head the Overseas Private Investment Corporation, an agency that supports American investment in emerging foreign markets. He also accepted business-related assignments from President Bill Clinton.
Part of Mr. Llewellyn’s success stemmed from tax laws aimed at furthering minority ownership of communications companies. When he and some black partners bought a television station in Buffalo in 1985, the seller, Capital City Communications Inc., could get millions of dollars of tax advantages by selling to a member of a racial minority. As a result, Mr. Llewellyn’s group succeeded even though it offered a lower price than other suitors.
Mr. Llewellyn’s associates said his deal-making skills transcended race, however. “No one ever had to bend any rules for J. Bruce Llewellyn,” Mr. Jackson once told USA Today. “He has the entrepreneur’s spirit, the will to risk for reward.”
Mr. Llewellyn reprised the Buffalo deal when he assembled a group to buy NYT Cable TV, a New Jersey concern, from The New York Times Company in 1989 for $420 million. Mr. Llewellyn put up 20 percent of the price (the minimum percentage required to get tax breaks for minority ownership) while the Comcast Corporation and Lenfest Communications Inc. each picked up 40 percent. Mr. Llewellyn became chairman.
James Bruce Llewellyn was born to Jamaican immigrants on July 16, 1927, in East Harlem. His father, Charles, a newspaper linotype operator, moved the family to White Plains when Bruce was 2. His sister, Dorothy Cropper, became a judge on the New York State Court of Claims. Gen. Colin Powell was a close friend of the family’s.
In White Plains, Mr. Llewellyn worked in a restaurant his father acquired. He sold Fuller Brush products door to door and read Fortune magazine. Graduating from high school when he was 16, Mr. Llewellyn joined the Army in a special cadet program. He later became the youngest officer in his battalion.
Afterward he used Army severance pay to buy a liquor store in Harlem. While running it, he attended the City College of New York on the G.I. Bill and graduated in 1955. After attending Columbia Business School and the New York University School of Public Administration and Social Service without graduating from either, he earned a law degree from New York Law School in 1960.
He then entered private legal practice and went on to several city and federal government jobs in small business and housing.
During the power blackout of 1977, riots caused $1 million damage to his Fedco stores, a warehouse and a computer center. But the company rebounded, and by the time he sold the chain for $20 million to Krasdale Foods in 1982, he had quintupled sales and nearly tripled the number of stores.
In 1985, Mr. Llewellyn realized his dream of becoming the first black to own a major bottler when he won control of the Philadelphia Coca-Cola Bottling Company, using stock he owned in a New York bottling company. He added new routes, products and equipment, and the plant thrived.
Mr. Llewellyn’s marriage to Jacqueline Brown ended in divorce. He is survived by his wife, the former Shahara Ahmad; two daughters from his first marriage, Lisa Llewellyn and Alexandra Clancy; one from his second, Jaylaan Llewellyn; his sister, Judge Cropper; and a granddaughter.
In recent years Mr. Llewellyn suffered from kidney and heart problems and had lived apart from his wife. In 2008, Mr. Lewis, Maurice Sonnenberg, and Donald McHenry, a former United Nations ambassador, were appointed guardians to look after Mr. Llewellyn’s health and financial and legal affairs.
To many people in business, Mr. Llewellyn showed that investing in the black community could be profitable, as it was in the 1970s when he tailored his merchandising and employment practices to the black consumers and workers at his Fedco stores.
His often-repeated point was that political and social power grew out of economic power. “Minorities have to understand that the world revolves around the golden rule,” he wrote in Fortune magazine in 1990. “Those who have the gold, rule.”