MY RELATIONSHIP TO A LIVING ICON
COMER COTTRELL, FOUNDER OF PRO LINE PRODUCTS
By Dr. Edward Tony Lloneau
Mr. Cottrell passed away on October 3, 2014d. I was a consultant/friend. The following is a history of that relationship. I first met Comer when he was a men’s clothing department manager at Sears, and we soon became friends. He was interested in starting his own business, but was not sure what business to invest in. I was manufacturing a line of hair care products called “Hair Food” and a thio-based product called “Curling Iron Relaxer” – that was doing fairly well in the local L.A. area. He came by my location (that was a converted beauty shop), and saw how the products were produced. A few months later, he started selling his first products in a store front building on South Broadway, in what was then known as South Central L.A. At that time, the products were being produced by a private label company, and the Broadway location was an office and warehouse.
Later, as the business grew, he moved to a larger building in Gardens, California, where he could produce his products himself. At that time, he needed a filling method to put the products in the bottles and jars. Equipment designed to do this was expensive. He remembered when he came by my place that I had an innovative system that I put together that did the job at a large reduction in cost using an air pump and gravity to fill containers. Comer adopted this system and it served its purpose until he moved into a larger facility in Carson, California – just south of L.A. He adopted this same filling method only on a much larger scale. By this time, he had moved on to putting his products into aerosol spray cans with an attractive black textured label with gold printing. He owned the equipment to manufacture the product that became the best selling product in the line.
Later, he was approached by the Standard Oil Company to cease and desist using the name Pro Line, because they owned the trademark to that name. Comer came to me as to how he could defend this. I did some research and discovered that Standard did own the trademark to that name, but only as it pertains to petroleum products. Comer was seriously considering changing the name to avoid a costly and time consuming legal fight. But when I informed him that it was legal to use for a cosmetic category, he ignored Standards claims, and they never contacted him again.
Although Comer started the business with only $600, and as he grew, he needed financing to grow, especially with the need for the aerosol and other production needs. He was friendly with the Black players on the L.A. Rams football team. They invested in the company, and their likeness appeared on the first posters advertising the Pro Line products. This solved the age old problem of Black businesses getting financing. He later repaid the funds with a generous bonus. The endorsement of the players was a great promotion for the products. During one of our conversations, he asked me what is it that is needed in the beauty industry that is not being made available to the Black consumer. I thought about this over the next few weeks. At that time, around 1978, the curly perm for Afro hair was popular and referred to as “the Jheri Redding,” developed the product by taking the same product that the cultures that had straight hair use to put a permanent curl in that type hair. All that they did was to take the same combination of products with a new set of instructions to put a permanent semi-relaxed curl on Afro hair. The difference was that the hair was wrapped on rods “onbase” very tight in order for the kinky hair to straighten out on the smooth rods. When the curl was done on naturally straight hair, the hair was wrapped “off base” with very little tension. The Jheri Curl method took hours, and was very uncomfortable to the patron. But because of the attractive appearance the process was very popular for both females and males that gave birth to the “Unisex Salons” in the Afro communities.
I was also a consultant to Mr. Willy Morrow who created the California Curl. He took an item from my Curling Iron Relaxer product, reworked it into a cream similar to a relaxer cream only with Thio in place of sodium hydroxide, as the active ingredient. This new product and procedure was much faster with little or no discomfort. Mr. Morrow had a limited success, but due to lack of distribution and cost over runs, his idea was soon copied by other firms who had more financial means and distribution outlets. The most notable of these was Soft Sheen with a product called “Care Free Curl.” This product was so successful that it turned Soft Sheen into a multimillion dollar company in a very short time. Soon other companies jump into that market, but Care Free was the leading product. The situation here was that the products were only available in Beauty Supply stores, and sold exclusively to license cosmetologist as per the manufacturer’s instructions. Beauty salons were charging upwards of $85-$120 for the service. The items in the procedure were sold in large sizes separately. My advice to Comer was to develop the same product in kit form, and make it available to the masses in retail outlets. This gave birth to the Curly Kit.
When I first became aware of this product, I purchased a kit and soon discovered that the components and the instructions could not create a curl. I called Comer to inquire about this. He said that the product was not selling, and that the retailers and distributors were returning the product, and that he was going to chalk it up as a lost. I told him not to do that, and explained to him what the problem was, and how to make it right. First, he had to replace most of the items in the kit with items that were compatible to forming a curl. Next the instructions had to be rewritten to be understandable to a non-professional consumer. He asked me to do the rewrite of the instructions. Three months later the Curly Kit was ready for redistribute, and it became an instant success in 1980. That same year, Pro Line moved to Dallas, Texas. This was a good move because it put the company in the middle of the population of the U.S., resulting in less cost for distribution and faster available of raw materials for production. Also, this put him within the vaccinate of the military distribution center that was the main start of it all.
In 2005, Pro Line was sold to the Alberto Culver Company for around $85 million, who were also the parent company of Sally’s Beauty Supply. As of December 2013, the company is now owned by the Unilever Company based in the U.K.
The preceding is my recollection of my association and friendship with Mr. Comer Cottrell and the Pro Line experience.
Dr. Edward Tony Lioneau
(no I in bonding)
A few months before the move to Dallas, the California government banned the propulsion ingredient in the spray cans from hyper carbons to fluorocarbons because of air pollution concerns. This left Pro Line with a large inventory of spray old sheen that he could not legally sell. So as a thank you to me for my consultations, he gave them to me. At that time, I was living in Baton Rouge, Louisiana and hyper carbons were not banned there. When the 18 wheel truck arrived at my home, the product took up my entire garage and then some. I relabeled the cans and sold them all within four months.