Black Enterprise — June 2012
Change Language:
Freshman Class Of CEOs
Jeffrey McKinney

Meet six newcomers to the B.E. 100s who are at the top of their game

THEY OVERSEE MORE THAN $550 MILLION IN COMBINED revenues and employ more than 1,000 people at some of the nation’s most vibrant and fastest-growing black-owned companies. They are the executives who make up the Freshman Class of be 100s CEOs. Their individual achievements rank them as the top execs who appear on the list for the first time—some at the head of freshly minted be 100s companies and others taking the lead of be 100s companies with longstanding legacies.

These bold, innovative, and brash commanders run their companies with a panoramic view and are unafraid to take risks in an ever-changing business climate. Entering the elite domain of the be 100s this year, they have displayed their valor by rising to the top tier of black business.



Link Howard III is leading the rapidly growing Detroit-based Powerlink Facilities Management Services, which provides maintenance, housekeeping, janitorial, landscaping, snow removal, and other building services. Afer years assembling a clientele that includes healthcare systems, schools, and utility companies, Howard’s efforts appear to be paying off. Powerlink debuted at No. 97 on the be industrial/ service companies list with revenues of $21.7 million in 2011, up from $11 million in 2010. The company has nearly doubled its workforce to about 600 employees, up from 350 in 2007.

Taking his experience in the federal service and private sector as a sales and marketing executive for an auto supplier, Howard originally started Powerlink in 2002 as a staffing firm supporting the automotive industry. Sensing that a downturn in that business was on the horizon, he diversified his firm in 2003 into Powerlink Facilities Management Services by shifting its efforts to provide facilities management services to clients in various industries.

Powerlink provides services throughout Michigan, Ohio, and Ontario, Canada, and on average manages about 1 million square feet per client. “We’re able to manage over large distances and large buildings,” says the 62-year-old Howard. Powerlink recently landed a partnership with Sodexo Education to supply building engineering services for more than 120 Detroit Public Schools. The five-year contract will generate $47 million in business from DPS and is Powerlink’s biggest deal to date.

Howard says that growth plans include attracting new customers, adding new business accounts, and acquiring other companies that complement Powerlink’s portfolio. The company will continue to thrive because it is continuously examining and refining its processes and remains open to change, says Lena Rodriguez, chief marketing and development officer for the Urban Entrepreneurship Partnership Inc., a program of the Kauffman Foundation. Powerlink completed a rigorous assessment process and was accepted as a UEP Recommended Supplier in early 2010.



Afer being groomed to assume the helm, Cynthia Day is ready to navigate Citizens Bancshares Corp. into the future. Day was named president and CEO of the Atlanta-based bank holding company and its main subsidiary, Citizens Trust Bank, in February. With assets of $397.2 million in 2011, Citizens Trust ranks No. 6 among banks on the be banks list.

Day, 47, became the bank’s skipper afer the death of James E. Young, the bank’s president and CEO since 1998. Day started working with Young to succeed him in 2005 when she became executive vice president of management services. Under Young’s guidance, she worked on all aspects of the bank including new product development and an acquisition strategy.

Citizens Trust has 11 branches throughout metro Atlanta and Columbus, Georgia, as well as Birmingham and Eutaw, Alabama. The bank employs 107 workers and serves some 6,000 consumer and commercial customers. Day’s appointment came when the bank posted the results of what was a challenging 2011. Net income for the bank slipped to $32,000, down from $316,000 in 2010, and generated revenue of $21.5 million versus $23.7 million the prior year.

The bank’s strategy this year includes getting rid of about $21 million in non-performing assets. Moreover, Citizens Trust is redesigning its online banking platform to improve its ease of use for customers and is employing Facebook, Twitter, and other social media strategies to attract more young professional customers. Citizens Trust wants to expand its footprint and is looking for acquisition opportunities in Alabama, Georgia, and the Carolinas, says Day.


PRESIDENT: Jessie Armstead

Former NFL football pro Jessie Armstead of All Star Motors in Hamilton, New Jersey, is expanding his holdings at a time when the recession, poor location, and other factors have forced many minority dealers to shut down. Overcoming adversity is not new to Armstead. The five-time Pro Bowl linebacker played 11 seasons with the New York Giants and Washington Redskins even afer a serious injury his sophomore year at the University of Miami appeared to diminish his pro career prospects.

Armstead, 41, retired in 2007 and opened Hamilton Honda in June 2009, under All Star Motors L.L.C., which has become the tenth-largest Honda U.S. dealership out of more than 1,000 stores. He not only drove his 135-employee dealership into one of the automaker’s top-selling dealers, but clinched the No. 15 spot on the be auto dealers list with $101 million in revenue for 2011. Anticipating a higher boost in Honda production, Armstead expects total sales this year to exceed $120 million.

In January, Armstead, along with business partner Mike Saporito and former New York Giants linebacker Antonio Pierce, acquired a bankrupted Cadillac dealership in Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey. The trio recently re-opened the dealership as Englewood Cadillac. Armstead anticipates Englewood Cadillac will achieve sales of $80 million to $100 million within a full year of being open.

Damon Lester, president of the National Association of Minority Automobile Dealers, says that though Armstead comes from a nontraditional background, he learned the business by attending a dealer academy and working in the dealership. Lester notes that the Englewood Cadillac deal makes Armstead the third African American to own a Cadillac dealership nationally.


MANAGING PARTNERS: Sherman Wright and Ahmad Islam

Filling a gap in the ethnic advertising industry, Sherman Wright and Ahmad Islam are using their expertise to build Chicago-based commonground into a fast-growing, integrated marketing agency. The two founding and managing partners, both 42, are part of a fresh landscape. Commonground debuted at the No. 8 spot on the be advertising agencies list with $15.3 million in revenues for 2011, up from $3.3 million in 2006. The duo expects commonground to swell to 140 employees in the next three years and revenues to top $50 million in five years.

The firm’s gazelle-like growth has come largely from its ability to offer clients integrated marketing services under one roof targeted to multiple consumer segments—including African Americans, Hispanics, and the general market—to provide a total market approach. Services include advertising, brand strategy, event marketing, and digital solutions. Capitalizing on 41 years of combined experience between its founders—Islam was previously employed at Leo Burnett, Nike, and Campbell Mithun, while Wright worked at Upshot and FKM—commonground’s client portfolio includes Coca-Cola, MillerCoors, Bacardi USA, Nike, Jordan Brand, Wrigley, Baxter, and Unilever.

Ken Smikle, president of Target Market News in Chicago, says Wright and Islam have brought to the table an agency culture that is rooted in a digital environment. A lot of advertisers require their agencies to have expertise in this space, notes Smikle. Commonground has a creative team that has a particular skill in connecting with technically savvy 18- to 39-year-old African Americans.


CEO: Monique Nelson

Monique Nelson is ambitious to carry forward the legacy laid by her predecessor, advertising icon Byron Lewis Sr., who is the former CEO of UniWorld Group Inc. the New York-based multicultural advertising and marketing communications agency. The newly crowned CEO acquired UniWorld in May, assuming 51% majority ownership of the agency. Founded by Lewis 43 years ago, UniWorld is the nation’s longest standing black-owned agency, ranking No 5. On the be advertising agencies list with $19 million in revenues for 2011.

The 37-year-old Nelson is eager to combine more digital, online, mobile, and social media disciplines with traditional media to help UWG’s clients grab a larger share of the $2 trillion spending power of multicultural consumers. “I want us to be as close to the consumer as humanly possible and to touch them in every way that we can,” says the brand marketer. “Digital is a huge part of that because African Americans and Hispanic Americans over-index in digital and mobile.”

Nelson joined UWG in 2007 afer a successful marketing career, both in the U.S. and internationally, at Motorola. As UWG’s senior vice president of brand integration, she helped the agency increase its digital presence with clients such as Ford Motor Co. And Colgate-Palmolive. As UWG’s new CEO, Nelson will oversee the day-to-day operations of the agency as well as lead its expansion. Throughout the years, UWG has created award-winning and impactful campaigns for clients such as Home Depot and the U.S. Marine Corps. Smikle of Target Market News says Nelson will have the benefit of lengthy experience to take the agency forward.