How Charles James III’s management of his family’s 140-year business is a lesson in intergenerational wealth

BY Preta Peace Namasaba January 25, 2024 11:38 AM EDT
C,H. James III, formerly of C.H. James & Co.

Founded in 1883 by Charles H. James, C.H. James & Co. is one of the oldest African-American owned businesses in the United States. However, James’ great grandson took over the family business over a century later and is popularly credited with making C.H. James & Co an American household. It was Charles H. James III who turned the wholesale food distributor to a $100 million investment holding company.

Intergenerational control of Black businesses has been advocated as an effective and important aspect of guaranteeing intergenerational wealth among Black people in the United States. Although younger Black people expect to inherit some degree of wealth at the same rate as their white counterparts, the wealth that is actually handed over by Black and white progenitors are remarkably different. For every dollar that a white family possesses, a Black family has 25 cents.

At 19 years old, the founder James began a business bartering pictures of the recently assassinated President Garfield for vegetables in 1881. He went from peddling fresh eggs and produce in a backpack to a mule-drawn wagon and eventually to a warehouse. James quit the retail business and became a wholesale fruit and produce distributor in 1916 when his son joined the company.

The company grew under the tenure of E.L. James and Charles H. James II. By the 1960s, it had evolved into a multimillion dollar wholesale food distributor. Competition from national supermarket chains and discount food wholesalers had stagnated the business during the 1980s. Sales had leveled off to approximately $4 million. But the incoming leadership of James III would change the company’s trajectory.

Charles H. James III grew up helping his father with tasks such as driving trucks and making phone calls. He worked as a banker at Chicago’s Continental Bank after his undergraduate studies at Morehouse College. He followed in his father’s footsteps and earned an MBA from the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania. James III then used this business training to takeover the family business.

“Employees might think the only reason they are the boss is because of who their father is. By leaving, you know that you were on the fast track outside of the family business–you had a career, but you came back to help. It helps for the other employees to know that too,” James III once said about earning his place in the family business.

In 1985, James III took charge of the government contracting sector of the business. He had previously helped his father fill out the necessary paperwork to benefit from a government program allowing minority-owned business to skip the competitive bidding process for government contracts. James III became company CEO when his father retired three years later. He immediately set out to modernize the company’s business practices.

James III earned highly lucrative contracts with the Department of Veterans Affairs, the Department of Agriculture, and the Department of Defense. Within the next five years, James & Co. experienced an increase in average annual sales of 38 percent and reached $18 million in annual revenues by 1992. James III began to transform the firm from a local food distributor to an investment holding company through a series of acquisitions.

He purchased a controlling stake in North American Produce, a distributor responsible for delivering produce to 2,000 McDonald’s restaurants nationwide. James III invested $1 million in equipment and increased productivity by 40 percent and then sold his interests in the company in 1999. He earned a profit of $16 million in one year during the internet boom with his start-up,

C.H. James & Co. purchased a controlling interest in PrimeSource, a Dallas-based company that delivered restaurant equipment to over 27,000 fastfood restaurants in 2001. In only two years, James III grew the business to $140 million and sold his interests. He formed a partnership with Goldman Sachs’s Urban Investment Group and formed C. H. James Restaurant Holdings in 2004. They purchased 37 Burger King restaurants in Chicago, eventually buying six more. James III became Burger King’s largest African-American franchisee, reaching nearly $60 million in sales in 2006.

“Each generation of my family has created a bigger and better company. All my forefathers are my heroes—but especially my great-grandfather. When you consider what he did in his time, I really have no excuses,” James III noted on how his family inspired him.

In addition to his business endeavors, James served on the National Nutrition Monitoring Advisory Council during the tenure of President George H. W. Bush. He also lectured at Wharton School, Stanford University, the University of Southern California, West Virginia University and Morehouse College.

James III died in 2021 as a result of heart problems. He left behind a thriving business with more than $100 million in profit, having propelled the centennial family legacy.