ROCHESTER, N.Y. — Tony Jackson uses football parlance when he talks about the challenges of keeping a Black business going in 2021.
“Most people who bid on a client, they walk into the room, it’s first and 10,” said Jackson, the 62-year-old founder and CEO of Panther Graphics and co-owner of Panther Solutions in Rochester. “But every time I take those same meetings,” he smiles, “it’s fourth and inches. Fourth and inches.”
Factories like Jackson’s on Central Avenue, a gateway to Rochester’s northeast, are getting harder to find in the cities across New York. Panther Graphics has put people to work for 30 years, ever since Jackson decided to open it and have his office look onto the neighborhood where he grew up.
He can point across the street to an old R.C. Shaheen outlet and recall his backyard games of football with the boys from the neighborhood. The kinship he has here motivates him to provide for those who live here, like two one-time Iraqi soldiers who just moved into the neighborhood as they begin a new life in America.
“That’s what you do when you’re from Rochester. You work in your own community,” he said.
Jackson learned the fine print of manufacturing at a landmark Rochester business, forged in activism and corporate citizenship; a place a few blocks from his childhood home.
The FIGHTON factory opened in the late 1960s in response to Rochester’s race riots of 1964. It was an opportunity that arrived in just as turbulent a time in the city’s history as it saw a year ago, when a social justice movement following the death of Daniel Prude shook the city.
Back then, FIGHT, the social justice group whose acronym name stood for Freedom, Independence, God, Honor, Today, moved forward from the 1964 riots by calling out Eastman Kodak for having nearly no Black employees. In response, another corporate leader in town, Xerox’s Joe Wilson, asked leaders what was needed. FIGHT leader Minister Franklin Florence said a factory was needed to deliver opportunity to Rochester’s Black community.
Xerox invested in a plant that became known as FIGHTON, the first community development corporation in America. It would put as many as 300 people to work in Jackson’s neighborhood, an epicenter for the unrest of ’64.
FIGHTON made vacuums for Xerox and components for other companies, including Kodak.
“Then we had an enlightened company like Xerox corporation that said we’re going to do something about this and support the minority community,” said Matthew Augustine, a Harvard MBA and the man who would lead that factory through most of its life. “And that’s what a lot of major corporations are saying today.”
Augustine arrived from out of town in the 1970s as FIGHTON struggled to grow from its fiery infancy to mature business. He changed its name to Eltrex and led it on as a full-service business for another generation. Eltrex was later absorbed by Canon Industries.
Some say Eltrex stalled and didn’t make the impact it was built to achieve. Augustine is satisfied with the company’s legacy, but he believes the parallels between its arrival and the social reform energy born in the events of Daniel Prude make now a time for Black entrepreneur mentorship.
“Can it be successful? Will it be successful? Or will it just fade away?” asked Augustine.
(Panther Graphics founder Tony Jackson says if black-owned businesses are to remain viable in the city’s most at-risk neighborhoods, homegrown talent must be cultivated.)
Partnerships like that give Black-owned businesses like Panther Graphics the juice they need to close small deals and approach big companies.
“I’m a $2 million CEO and I’m negotiating with a $40 million CEO,” Jackson said. “I need some help.”
Where Eltrex first trained Jackson in manufacturing, now George Scharr and Flower City Corporation collaborate. The two operations formed a new venture, Panther Solutions. Jackson’s knowledge of manufacturing and the printing business grew with Flower City’s help.
“Everybody’s so busy all the time,” said Scharr. “Sometimes it gets hard to figure out what you can do for the community.”
Their 16-year partnership leads orders to Jackson’s presses. A Wegmans label run rolling off the Panther production line in late September was a Flower City contract.
“When it comes to light that you can do something to really help people, share your experience with what they’re trying to do,” Scharr said.
But nothing’s guaranteed. One major local company ended its business with Panther this summer via email, the kind of communication in which committed partners tend not to engage.
Josh Cummings is Jackson’s protégé. He sees the challenges Black business people like Jackson face from a whole different point of view.
“A lot of places talk a good game. But there’s no action,” Cummings said. “It never gets down to the final level of implementation.”
Relationship building is what Rochester’s presumptive next mayor is doing in his unprecedented six-month run up to taking over city hall. Malik Evans will have more than $200 million in newly arriving federal aid with which to invest in the neighborhoods where his city’s greatest challenges lie.
“So in order for us to get to a space where we are really, really proving economic opportunity, especially for African Americans, we got to kick it up to the next level,” said Jackson.
Jackson originally named his company as a tribute to the Black Panther Party, which was a symbol of Black power during the times Eltrex was born. At that next level, Jackson believes home-grown talent will make the difference.
Most of the brainpower behind Rochester’s Black-owned businesses over the years has come from women and men who came from other places.
Jackson tries to break that cycle with nearly every Panther personnel decision.
“That’s how I got here,” he said. “One of the models at Eltrex that I came away with was allowing folks to have an opportunity that they would not have normally had the opportunity to do.”
And where will that come from? Jackson just hired a young man who had never been in a printing shop before. He didn’t know if he could do it. A week later, he was running a line on one of the factory’s most expensive machines, taking his own step to rebuilding Rochester.
“In most cases,” Jackson said, “the people are already there.”
Credit: Source link