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Cottrell, Comer Joseph, Jr. (1931-2014)

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Cosmetics entrepreneur Comer Joseph Cottrell, Jr. was born in Mobile, Alabama on December 7, 1931.  His father was a life insurance salesman, and his mother, Helen Smith Cottrell, performed a variety of cleaning jobs.  Cottrell became fascinated with business at an early age.  He marveled at how his father managed his numerous clients’ premium payments, all with a promise to pay a benefit at death.  As a youth, he joined with his brother, James, in a rabbit meat and fur selling business.  

Although his heart was set on business, after completing a Roman Catholic High School, Cottrell attended the University of Detroit during 1947 and served in the U.S. Air Force from 1948 to 1952.  After the Air Force, Cottrell returned to Mobile briefly and lived in Oakland, California before settling in Los Angeles, California in 1956.  There he drove a taxi, worked on a commuter train, sold construction materials, and was a salesman for Sears, Roebuck & Company.

Starting in 1970, using $600 in savings, 39 year old Cottrell joined a friend and his brother James in developing Pro-Line, a cosmetics enterprise that produced haircare products for African Americans.  Using their connections with California Congressman Augustus Hawkins, they were able to access U.S. military markets at home and abroad.  Eventually Pro-Line expanded into African, Caribbean, and Asian markets.

Initially, Pro-Line produced oil sheens for Afro hairstyles, and then developed detangling sprays and sprays to keep hair in place.  The company’s major coup came in 1980, however, after African Americans became enamored with wearing loose, glistening, and curly hair, popularized by entertainers Michael Jackson and Lionel Richie.  The “Jheri Curl” as it was called, cost $75 in beauty salons and involved mixing harsh and dangerous chemicals into one’s hair.  The Pro-Line team developed a safe method that allowed “Jheri Curls” to be produced at home from a $7.50 “Curly Kit.”  

Soon after introducing this new line, the company moved from Los Angeles to Dallas, Texas to cut costs.  By the end of 1981, Pro-Line had become a leading African American haircare products company with about $22 million in revenue. With that success, Pro-Line became an acquisition target by a number of cosmetics giants during the 1980s and 1990s.  Cottrell finally sold Pro-Line to Alberto-Culver, a leading U.S. cosmetics firm, for $80 million in 2000.

Before and after selling Pro-Line, Cottrell used his wealth to aid African Americans in Los Angeles and Dallas.  He was a major donor to politicians in both cities.  In the late 1980s, he contributed about $3.5 million to purchase and renovate bankrupt Bishop College, a historically black institution in Dallas.  In 1990, he relocated another black Texas institution, Paul Quinn College, to the Bishop College campus.

In 1989, Cottrell became the first African American part-owner of a U.S. major league baseball franchise, the Texas Rangers.

Comer Joseph Cottrell died on October 3, 2014 at the age of 82 in Dallas, Texas.  He left behind a wife, Felisha Starks Cottrell, and five children. He was an important member of a selected line of African American entrepreneurs beginning with Madam C. J. Walker and Annie T. Malone who used the African American hair care market to amass sizeable wealth, some of which was later employed to support African American community institutions.  

Sources:
Ayana D. Byrd and Lori L. Tharps, Hair Story: Untangling the Roots of Black Hair in America (New York:  St. Martin’s Griffin, 2002); Comer J. Cottrell, Comer Cottrell by Comer Cottrell: A Story That Will Inspire Future Entrepreneurs (Dallas: Brown Books Publishing Group, 2008); Douglas Martin, “Comer Cottrell, Who Got Rich on Hair Curling, Dies at 82,” New York Times, October 14, 2014, http://www.nytimes.com/2014/10/11/business/comer-cottrell-pioneer-of-hair-products-for-blacks-dies-at-82.html?_r=0.

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