J. Bruce Llewellyn, a Black businessman who made a name for himself in banking, broadcasting, bottling and groceries, died April 7 at the age of 82 after a long illness. But today, the Harlem native is being remembered as not only a trailblazing entrepreneur but as someone who never forgot his people or those less fortunate than himself.
“He cared about bringing people who was behind him up,” his widow Shahara Ahmad-Llewellyn told the AFRO. “He was always looking back.”
Loida Nicolas-Lewis, wife of Black entrepreneur and Llewellyn’s friend Reginald F. Lewis, agreed. “Bruce Llewellyn was very ambitious but at the same time very generous,” she said.
These were qualities he learned from his parents, his wife said. Both Jamaican immigrants, his father was a linotype (machine used for printing newspapers) operator and soda fountain shop owner and his mother was a homemaker.
He often used the story of his family’s success to give a different view of African Americans, his wife said. “For African Americans he made a statement all the time; by our very presence… by being the only non-White people in the room we made a statement,” said Ahmad-Llewellyn.
Llewellyn’s success, like his parents’, came from an unstinting work ethic, perseverance and a clear vision.
“There is no short road to success,” he said in a 1997 interview with the Black Collegian. “It emanates from long, hard years of concentrated effort, from going the extra mile and doing what others will rarely do. Succeeding is tough. It’s nerve wracking, gut-wrenching, and pain inducing.?
“However, there’s an old saying, ‘Hard work doesn't guarantee you anything, but without it you don't stand a chance.’” ?
Llewellyn was one of the nation’s most wealthy African-Americans, according to The New York Times, with a personal fortune at one point estimated at more than $160 million.?
Llewellyn’s entrepreneurial spirit began early as he worked in his father’s restaurant, became a door-to-door salesman and read Fortune magazine. He went on to graduate from high school at age 16, and went on to serve in World War II.?
Upon his release from the military, he used his severance pay to buy a liquor store in Harlem while attending the City College of New York on the G.I. Bill. After receiving his undergraduate degree, he earned a law degree from New York Law School in 1960.?After opening a private practice, he put all his available funds into buying Fedco Foods, a faltering chain of supermarkets in Harlem and the Bronx, in 1969. By the time he sold the chain in 1982, he’d quintupled the chain’s sales and tripled its number of stores.?
In 1983, Llewellyn, former Philadelphia 76ers star Julius Erving and Bill Cosby bought the Philadelphia Coca-Cola Bottling Co. In 1988, he would buy another Coca-Cola bottling company in Wilmington, Del. In 1985, he bought WKBW-TV in Buffalo, N.Y. and, along with several other investors, purchased South Jersey Cable for over $400 million.
Ahmad-Llewellyn said her husband parlayed his business savvy into others. “Bruce was quite a mentor; it’s something people don’t know about him. He took the time and the energy to mentor many, many business people and non-business people… and they have their success because he stopped and took the time to help them.”
In addition to his many business ventures, Llewellyn in 1963 joined with David Dinkins, future first African-American mayor of New York City, and others to form the 100 Black Men, founding chapter of the national organization that is an important Black social and philanthropic entity.
“He played a pivotal role in our path of influence and success, and will be sorely missed,” said organization President Phil Banks Jr. in a statement.
According to a Web site created by the family in his honor, jbrucellewellyn.com, in 1998 Llewellyn had double open-heart surgery. The resultant complications eventually caused his kidneys to fail, leading to a prolonged illness.
“It was very difficult [for him],” said caregiver, wife Ahmad-Llewellyn. “When you’re this very tall—6-foot-6-inch—big man and you’re used to being in charge of everything and to be at the point where you can’t walk, it’s difficult…. It was not good for Bruce and it was not good for me.”
Today, however, Ahmad-Llewellyn said she is looking back on their 30-year marriage with fondness.
She said, “We had a pretty exciting life.”
In addition to his wife, Llewellyn is survived by three daughters, Jaylaan Llewellyn, Lisa Llewellyn and Alexandra Clancy; one granddaughter and sister, Judge Dorothy Cropper.