Ken Pinson believes in one overall theme when it comes to business: Always give people more than they expect.
He proudly displays the words on a plaque in his office at the Titusville headquarters of Genesis VII, Inc., the industrial supply and general contracting company he founded in 1989. “The core value we have is we don’t believe in disappointing a customer,” says Pinson, president and CEO of the company.
The formula is working. In the last two decades, Genesis VII has generated revenues approaching $170 million, racked up awards and collected clients that include Walt Disney World, Lockheed Martin, and United Space Alliance.
The company is among an impressive roster of businesses in a diverse array of industries that make up Brevard County’s African-American corporate community.
Growing and Transforming
According to the latest figures from the U.S. Census Bureau, Brevard’s 1,500-plus black-owned businesses bring more than $161 million in revenue to the county. That’s not chump change. Nor should it be assumed that all African-American businesses have the same corporate thrust. As more African-Americans seized educational and economic opportunities available over the last quarter century, their interests and expertise diversified.
Alongside the more traditional personal-service establishments of beauty salons, convenience stores, and restaurants are black-owned engineering firms, government contractors, and green energy consulting firms.
“Traditionally, when I think of an African-American business, if it were 20 years ago, I would have thought of a barbershop, corner store, or a hands-on type of service, like plumbing,” says Dr. Nancy Gee, president and CEO of Gee Resolutions, Inc., a mental health counseling, employee assistance, and professional development firm in Rockledge. “Now, in my travels, I know that African-American businesses can range from community broadcast stations to toothpaste companies. Whatever you can think of as a business, we’re there. We might have been on our way back then, but I know we’re there now.”
Entrepreneurial Roots Run Deep in Brevard
From Richard E. Stone establishing Stone Funeral Home in Cocoa in 1923, to J.N. Tucker opening Tucker’s Cut-Rate Plumbing in Melbourne 11 years later, the entrepreneurial spirit runs deep in Brevard County’s black history.
“Back then, my father was only allowed to work in the black area of town,” says 73-year-old Leon Tucker, Sr., who helped his father acquire a license to work in the rest of the county in 1958. Now, the business has a predominantly white clientele and provides plumbing services in both Brevard and Indian River counties.
Janorise Stone, the widow of the late Rudolph Stone, Richard’s son, manages and owns the funeral home. “Our motto remains the same, that there is no substitute for experience.”
Rockledge Councilman Dick Blake, a lifelong resident, remembers the funeral home and several other black-owned businesses in the area while growing up in the 1940s. “We had everything from dry cleaning establishments to shoeshine stands, grocery stores, restaurants and two laundry mats.”
Even then, businesses thrived on the principle of supply and demand. “You had to get your own clothes cleaned, had to get food, needed medicine,” says Blake. “A lot of black businesses of that time started up because people wanted to own their own establishments and they saw a niche they could fill.”
These ventures played a significant role in the African-American community through the 1960s, when neighborhoods pretty much clung to themselves. After preachers, entrepreneurs were seen as the heroes and role models in the community. That lofty position took a slight hit in the 1970s, when minority businesses were walloped financially by larger companies like Winn-Dixie and A&P luring away customers with more products at cheaper prices.
But black-owned businesses began to rebound in the late 1980s and ‘90s, thanks in part to public sector, affirmative-action programs opening contracting and subcontracting opportunities in various fields.
Flowing into the Mainstream
Pinson was the manager at the Sears store in Titusville when two major events occurred in the late 1980s: Sears initiated a corporate downsize, offering longtime executives a buyout; and a national call went out for more minority-owned businesses to take on government contracts.
He used the buyout as capital for Genesis VII. The company quickly built a reputation in the mainstream business community as a go-to industrial supplier. “In my experience, it doesn’t matter whether it is a black- or white-owned company; in business, it goes back to the core values, what the company provides and represents. You have to know what you are doing, and surround yourself with good people who not only know what they are doing but enjoy what they are doing,” Pinson says.
Still, tapping into the mainstream can be “one of the biggest hurdles we have as black companies,” says Moses Harvin, president of American Services Technology (ASTI), a successful facilities support services and logistics firm in Rockledge. “That’s one thing people don’t want to hear, but it’s true. Things are slowly changing, but there are still instances where because of who you are, some people will not help you. But we’ve found some good people —both white and black — who have been very supportive,” he says.
So has Carol Watson-Edge, president and CEO of Casel Healthcare Training Center in Melbourne. Many of them are among the 2,200 students that have graduated from the center since it opened in 2003. “When we first started, like some businesses, we did feel we had to put out that extra effort just to prove ourselves. But our reputation grew over time and we are known for consistently providing exceptional training and service,” she says. “Now, our new business mainly comes through word-of-mouth from past students.”
Offering services that are flexible to the changing landscape of America helps Gee Resolutions stay financially afloat in a turbulent economy. In the nine years since its start, the firm has grown to a full-service counseling agency with a staff of 10 and revenue around seven figures. In addition to headquarters in Rockledge, the firm also offers on-site services at Robins Air Force Base in Georgia.
“My success truly comes from anticipating anything that could possibly happen and preparing myself for it,” says Gee. “As a business, we’re not incubated away from the community; we are a part of it. In order for us to continue doing what we do, we have to be available when they need us.”
Strong Faith, Family and Community Ties
Ask any successful African-American business owner how they manage to maintain staying power in a changing economy and odds are that a hefty dose of faith, family and community support are in the mix.
The three have always intermingled in the African-American community, says Rev. Glenn Dames Jr., president of the North Brevard NAACP and pastor of St. James AME Church in Titusville. “One thing that makes the majority of our African-American businesses unique from the mainstream is their strong sense of giving back. They have realized that the Lord has blessed them with quite a bit and they feel the need to return the blessing in some way,” he says.
Many business owners regularly mentor younger entrepreneurs and donate their time and money to community organizations.
Noted attorney Kendall T. Moore credits his faith as one of the motivating factors in him leaving a successful practice at the Johnson Law Center in Rockledge in June to become the president and CEO of Space Coast Strategies, a newly formed government relations and public affairs consulting firm.
“Growing up, I was blessed to have a faithful, dedicated, business-focused set of parents who taught me and my brother that God didn’t give you the spirit of fear,” he says. Armed with that knowledge, he is now working to help clients accomplish their business development and political goals. One thing that hasn’t changed is his passion for helping his community, especially those in need. Because “at the end of the day, it really is about ‘to whom much is given, much is required’,” he says.
Noted African-American Business Leaders of the Space Coast
- Michael Blake, mayor, City of Cocoa
- Dick Blake, councilman, City of Rockledge
- Rev. Glenn Dames, pastor, St. James A.M.E. Church
- Robin Fisher, county commissioner, Brevard County Board of County Commissioners
- Emma Harvin, president, One Source Office Products, Inc.
- Moses Harvin, president/CEO, American Services Technology, Inc.
- Robert Jordan, board member, Brevard Public Schools
- Kim Kassis, president, Black Media Works, Inc.
- Chantal Leconte, administrator, Wuesthoff Medical Center Rockledge
- Barbara Moore, president/CEO, Child Care Association of Brevard County, Inc.
- Kendall Moore, president/CEO, Space Coast Strategies
- Ethel Newman, provost, Brevard Community College
- Winston Scott, dean of College of Aeronautics, Florida Institute of Technology
- Joe Lee Smith, councilman, City of Rockledge
- Janorise Stone, funeral directress, manager, and owner, Stone Funeral Home
- Stockton Whitten, assistant county manager, Brevard County