Comer Cottrell, who started with $600 and a borrowed typewriter and built a fortune making and selling hair-curling products to African-Americans, died on Oct. 3 at his home in Texas, where he had become the first black person to own part of a major-league baseball team. He was 82.
His family announced the death without specifying the cause.
Along with his brother, James, and another partner, Mr. Cottrell opened the Pro-Line Corporation in downtown Los Angeles in 1970. They rented a small warehouse, borrowed a typewriter from Comer Cottrell’s daughter, took $600 from savings and started mixing hair-care products by hand. They produced a few more successes than failures, but in 1980 Pro-Line struck gold. The partners came up with a way to replicate a hair style called the Jheri curl — named for Jheri Redding, who invented it — that involved softening the hair with one solution and curling it with another. At a time of Afro styles, the glossy, loosely curled Jheri caught on with celebrities like Michael Jackson and Lionel Richie. Pro-Line’s product was intended to allow people to do their own Jheri curls at home instead of going to salons, which had been charging $200 to $300.
Pro-Line’s Curly Kit Home Permanent sold for $8 a box, on which the company made almost $4 profit.
There had been larger hair-care companies that specialized in marketing to African-Americans, but Pro-Line was different. Forbes magazine in 1981 called the Curly Kit “the biggest single product ever to hit the black cosmetics market.”
In its first year, Curly Kit lifted Pro-Line’s sales from $1 million to more than $10 million. Mr. Cottrell became the company’s sole owner after buying out the others. He sold it to the Alberto Culver company for between $75 million and $80 million in 2000.
In 1989, he was part of a group led by George W. Bush that bought the Texas Rangers. His investment was $500,000. When the club was sold in 1998, he received $3 million.
Mr. Cottrell worked as hard at civic activities as he did at business. One reason he invested in the Rangers, he said, was that he had believed Mr. Bush might someday be governor, or even president. Mr. Cottrell had his picture taken with a half-dozen presidents.
In Los Angeles, Mr. Cottrell was president of a black businessmen’s association. After moving his company and his family to Dallas in 1980, he successfully campaigned to join that city’s famously swaggering, almost all-white business establishment. He broke the color barrier of the powerful Dallas Citizens Council and became the first black person on the board of one of the city’s dominant banks, Texas Commerce. A Republican, he helped Ron Kirk, a Democrat, become the first black mayor of Dallas in 1995.
Mr. Cottrell’s integration of white sanctums was not always smooth. In a memoir, “Comer Cottrell: A Story That Will Inspire Future Entrepreneurs,” published in 2007, he recalled hearing members of the citizens council letting “the ‘n’ word slip” in his presence, then profusely apologizing.
But blacks were not always welcoming, either. He was called an “Uncle Tom” in a Dallas black newspaper because of his association with whites. He said that although he and his wife invited many black people to their parties, the invitations were seldom reciprocated.
“My wife and I felt totally snubbed and definitely had hurt feelings,” he wrote.
Mr. Cottrell’s ample philanthropy was highlighted by his purchase of the campus of the historically black Bishop College in Dallas for $1.5 million at a bankruptcy auction in 1990. He then persuaded Paul Quinn College, a black college in Waco, Tex., to move to the Dallas campus. He contributed $1.7 million for renovations.
Comer Joseph Cottrell Jr. was born on Dec. 7, 1931, in Mobile, Ala. His mother held various jobs, including washing clothes and working as a housekeeper for a country club. He and his brother raised rabbits and sold their meat and fur. His father sold insurance, and young Comer liked to make the rounds with him. “At that age, I didn’t think people ever died,” he told The Black Collegian magazine in 1990. “He gives them a receipt, a little piece of paper, and he comes back every week and gets money from them until they died. ‘My God,’ I thought, ‘this is business? I love it!’ ”
After graduating from a Roman Catholic high school, Mr. Cottrell served in the Air Force and managed a base exchange. He attended the University of Detroit, a Jesuit school, with the idea of becoming a priest but left after two years.
He moved to Los Angeles and drove cabs, delivered mail and managed the plumbing department of a Sears, Roebuck store, where a co-worker suggested that there was a market for hair-care products for blacks. Mr. Cottrell, who had noticed that the Air Force exchange he managed sold no such products, agreed.
In 1969, he and his two partners began focusing on that market. They persuaded local chemical companies to develop products in return for promises to buy their chemicals. For working capital, they depended at first on credit from suppliers and could not afford advertising. (They could later afford it, however, using the line “A Black Manufacturer That Understands the Hair Care Needs of Black Customers.”)
And they kept prices very low. Their first product was an oil sheen, followed by a detangling spray, followed by a spray to hold hair in place. The first big seller was a hair relaxer for children, Kiddie Kit, which came out in 1977 and made $1 million its first year. Then came the Curly Kit.
“We looked at the curl process, and saw it really was a simple process, and people could do it themselves,” Mr. Cottrell said in an interview with the weekly newspaper The Dallas Observer in 1996. “It was no secret.”
Mr. Cottrell’s first two marriages ended in divorce. He is survived by his wife, the former Felisha Starks; his daughter, Renee Cottrell-Brown; his sons, Aaron, Comer III, Bryce and Lance; his brother, James; nine grandchildren; and one great-grandchild.
“Selling hope,” Mr. Cottrell once said, “that’s all the beauty business is.
Comer Joseph Cottrell (b. December 7, 1931, Mobile, Alabama - d. October 3, 2014, Dallas, Texas) was the founder of Pro-Line Corporationand philanthropist Comer Joseph Cottrell was born December 7, 1931 in Mobile, Alabama. His parents, Comer J., Sr. and Helen Smith Cottrell were Catholics. As a youngster, Cottrell and his brother, Jimmy, turned a pair of bunnies into a business, including selling their progeny as Easter bunnies, meat and fur. Cottrell attended Heart of Mary Elementary and Secondary Schools. At age seventeen, Cottrell joined the United States Air Force where he attained the rank of First Sergeant and managed an Air Force PX in Okinawa. Cottrell attended the University of Detroit before leaving the service in 1954. He joined Sears Roebuck in 1964 and rose to the position of division manager in Los Angeles, California.
In 1968, with an initial investment of $600.00, Cottrell and a friend got into the black hair care business. Then, with his brother, Jimmy, Cottrell manufactured strawberry scented oil sheen for Afro hairstyles and founded Pro-Line Corporation in 1970. By 1973, he made his first million dollars in sales. In 1979, Cottrell took the $200.00 “Jerry Curl” out of the beauty shop and into black homes with his $8.00 Pro-Line “Curly Kit”, which increased his sales from one million dollars a year to ten million dollars in the first six months. Shortly thereafter Cottrell moved Pro-Line to Dallas, Texas. At the top of the ethnic hair care business, Cottrell became a part owner, with George W. Bush of the Texas Rangers professional baseball team in 1989; turning a $3 million dollar profit on a $500,000.00 investment. He recently founded FCC Investment Corporation.
In 1990, he purchased and restored the 131-acre, HBCU, Bishop College campus for $1.5 million and transferred it to A.M.E. Paul Quinn College. Cottrell is a trustee of Northwood University and a member of the Dallas Chamber of Commerce, the North Texas Commission, and the Dallas Citizens Council. He is the former chairman of the Texas Cosmetology Commission and vice chair of the Texas Youth Commission. He has been a board member or officer of NAACP, National Urban League, YMCA, Dallas Family Hospital, Better Business Bureau, Compton College Foundation, Paul Quinn College and Baylor University Foundation. Cottrell was former vice chair of the Dallas Black Chamber of Commerce. Recipient of scores of awards, Cottrell hosted a yearly “Taste of Cottrell” event in Dallas.