With $600 and a borrowed typewriter, Comer Cottrell entered the beauty business 17 years ago, marketing his own hair-care formula and building a company whose rapid growth once almost threatened its survival.
From a shoestring start in Los Angeles, Cottrell’s Pro-Line Corporation has expanded into a $26 million company that has 175 employees. With its headquarters now located in Dallas, Pro-Line has become the largest black-owned firm in the Southwest. It was ranked 39th in Black Enterprise magazine’s 1987 list of the top 100 black businesses in the United States.
Pro-Line’s beauty products sell well not only in the United States but also in the Caribbean, Europe, Africa, Saudi Arabia and the Orient.
Comer Cottrell at 55 runs an empire of creams and gels that has become the major success in his career. Nonetheless, some of his ventures over the years turned into disappointments. He struck out with a Chinese restaurant in a black section of Los Angeles, for example. And he sold his stable of race horses after he decided that the sport of kings was not for him. Cottrell has succeeded, as he puts it, in “selling hope–that’s all the beauty business is.”
Cottrell’s decision to get into the beauty business grew out of a discovery he made some years ago.
“I managed an Air Force base exchange and noticed that there were no hair products for blacks(check the hair extensions cost on hair shopping site),” he says. “Twenty percent of the people on the base were black. I talked to the authorities, and they told me there was no need for such products.” Cottrell then asked various chemical companies if their scientists could come up with products for the care of the then-popular “Afro” hairstyle. A successful formula was developed eight months later.
Since he could not afford to pay a company in advance to make the first batch of his new product, Cottrell persuaded a small manufacturing firm to gamble on him. The company made him a quantity of what he named Pro-Line Oil Sheen hair spray. He peddled his new product to black beauticians and barbers, and he paid off the manufacturer within 20 days.
In 1975, with Pro-Line then five years old, Cottrell opened a distribution center in Birmingham, Ala., but he found it hard to obtain shelf space in area stores. The Chicago-based Johnson Products Company, the market leader for black cosmetics, had all the displays.
It turned out that the Johnson company’s hard-working area manager was Isabell Paulding, who was a former Miss Black Alabama and a onetime runner-up for the Miss Black America title –and who would become Cottrell’s wife a year after they met.
In an interview in the Dallas Morning News in 1984, Cottrell said: “I got in touch with her and asked her to tell me how she did it. She wouldn’t tell me anything. I couldn’t hire her, so the only alternative was to marry her.”
By 1980, Pro-Line was running out of space for expansion of its Los Angeles plant. Cottrell looked eastward, where his major markets had been developed. He decided to move the company to Dallas–a move that he says nearly killed Pro-Line.
As production lines were being shut down in Los Angeles, Pro-Line came out with its Curly Kit Home Permanent. Sales jumped $11 million in 10 months.
“Here we were moving our equipment from California to Texas, and we couldn’t keep up with the orders,” says Cottrell. “Competitors jumped in with similar products.”
When the new $4 million, 127,000-square-foot Texas facility went into operation, Pro-Line fought back to keep its market share. It is now the fourth-largest ethnic beauty concern in the United States.
Strong competition from both general and ethnic firms has led Pro-Line to advertise on prime-time television shows such as “Dynasty” and ABC’s “Monday Night Football.” Pro-Line purchased time in 20 of the latter show’s markets around the country, says Rene Brown, the company’s marketing director, in order to advertise a new product for black men. It is a comb-through hair relaxer for those with short hairstyles.
Cottrell has a group of scientists working on new products as well as assuring the quality of those he is producing now. He is cautious, however, about expanding too fast. “We make about 18 percent profit,” he says. “We’re working on a five-year plan. We want steady growth.”
Photo: Comer Cottrell made his Dallas-based Pro-Line company a major player in the competitive cosmetics industry by creating hair-care products and beauty aids for blacks.