Thursday, December 17, 2009

Herman Malone, an evolving provocateur

Herman Malone is a provocateur. He wants to incite the Colorado business community to eliminate racism from its ranks.

Al Lewis, who writes in the Denver Post for Dow Jones Newswires, once turned down an opportunity to write about Malone's book (and mine), "Lynched by Corporate America," because he decided the word "lynched" in the book title was too provocative to be used atop Malone's story.

Yet over the years of a sometimes controversial and always entrepreneurial career, Malone has made it his business to be provocative, and it would be unlike him to give up his principles in the face of press criticism. (Or even the absence of it, since Lewis essentially kept a review of Malone's book -- and mine -- out of the pages of the Post.)

But I write here now about Malone's business for the same reason I co-wrote our book with him.

Black-owned businesses in Colorado are being discriminated against now; they were discriminated against when Malone's story of discrimination by U.S. West started in 1992; and they probably will continue to be discriminated against in the future, at least by the state of Colorado, because Colorado has taken no steps to eliminate discrimination in the state purchasing process.

And there is a documented history of discrimination against minority-owned and women-owned businesses by state purchasers.

Malone's primary business, RMES Communications Inc., self-described on its website as "Your Interactive Multimedia Solutions Provider," sells Internet-based business and entertainment services through kiosks at Denver International Airport.

It used to provide pay phones at DIA, and still owns a few there, using the most advanced model of public pay-phone available, but pay-phones are a dying business now, eliminated largely, but not entirely, by the ubiquitous use of private cell phones.

Malone said RMES posted more than $2 million in revenue in 2008, although 2009 sales have been hit hard by the tough economic and travelling environments caused by the recession.

"We continue to evolve," he said, describing how he has moved the company into digital signage, music downloads, and social-networking applications for travellers as well. He's also hoping to expand RMES kiosks into public-transportation facilities, perhaps into future Fastracks stations for example.

But all that work of RMES is largely being delegated nowadays to employee family members.

Malone is concentrating now on a public-speaking career, taking the message of his book and a personal message about contracting and surviving prostate cancer on the road to businesses and business-student audiences.

"I will be talking about two things that stop people in their tracks," he said. "Racism and cancer."

He has found that race infects the treatment of cancers for both black men and black women, just as it has infected business conducted across America, which is basically what his story is about in "Lynched by Corporate America." The book is the first and only one ever written about discrimination in contracting against minority-owned businesses.

The former U.S. West, now Qwest, has taken steps to eliminate the discrimination against black contractors that is documented in Malone's (and my) book. But the recent $9 million local settlement of an employee-discrimination lawsuit filed against Idaho-based grocer Albertsons, over allegations of ethnic slurs, graffiti and abuse of African-American and immigrant employees at a distribution center in Aurora, illustrates one of Malone's primary speaking-tour messages:

Racism is still alive in Corporate America, and it eats away at the nation's business community just as cancer devours its victims of all races -- from the inside out.

"And I have a solution," says Malone. "The solution I am talking about is a very simple one. We've got to talk.... We gotta' talk about our differences."

Citing President Barack Obama's "teachable moment" of having a beer at the White House with Cambridge, Mass., police Sgt. James Crowley over differences roused by the policeman's arrest of African-American Harvard scholar Henry Lewis Gates Jr., Malone said the only way to end racism in America is by talking about it. The only way to eliminate discriminatory treatment of cancers is by talking about how that discrimination occurs and what treatments work best, he says.

"So I'm going to be talking about all the things you see every day in the news," Malone said. "We've been afraid to have those kinds of discussions.... I want to be part of that dialog."

Yet, for Malone, his speaking tour is really just an extension of the provocative business career he started when he opened Rocky Mountain Electrical Supply (the previous name of RMES) back in 1976. Marketing remains a key ingredient.

Malone says candidly that sales of "Lynched by Corporate America" are not what he had anticipated when he paid for publication of 3,000 copies.

But during the three years since the book was published, Malone has studied the book-publishing trade. "Ninety-nine percent of all authors' sales are less than 5,000 copies," he's learned. "The problem is you need to have more promotional dollars.

"You've got to have that -- or a publishing company that is willing to invest those dollars.... The other way you [can market the book] ... is that you do public speaking, which is what I'm embarking on right now."

Marketing. It's an essential business ingredient Malone has been teaching me ever since we first sat down together to begin writing "Lynched."

As for myself, I'm only beginning to learn the lessons he teaches.

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