Frank Savage has a theory about what it will take to bring down the rate of African-American unemployment, which is hovering at 14 percent, higher than any other group in the nation. He believes the answer lies in the creation of owner-operated businesses.
“Small businesses are responsible for rekindling the economy,” said Savage, the CEO of Savage Holdings LLC, a firm that advises businesses seeking to expand into global markets, especially companies that want to invest in Asia and Africa. “One of the things that disappoints me about the government is the lack of focus on building up small businesses.”
Independent business owners, he said, create more than 70 percent of jobs in the country. Savage, who has homes in Connecticut and New York, said he supports small businesses even though he spent most of his adult life working in large corporations.
He came by his affinity for small business earnestly. Born in Rocky Mount, N.C. in 1938, at a time when Jim Crow held a firm grip on the South, Savage’s mother decided when he was 6 months old to relocate the family, including Frank and twin sister, Frances, to Washington, D.C. Though it was segregated, the District offered better economic opportunity for Blacks, many of whom moved there seeking well-paying jobs in the federal government.
In his recently-published memoir, The Savage Way: Successfully Navigating the Waves of Business and Life, Savage details how the entrepreneurial spirit of his mother, Grace, helped to catapult him into powerful positions at some of the world’s most prominent financial companies, eventually leading him to start his own investment firm.
At a time when many Blacks were seeking the safety of a good government job, Madame La Savage, as his mother came to be known in D.C., went against the grain, opening a beauty parlor, originally called Savage Beauty Clinic, down the street from Howard University. After hearing about the International Beauty Show, a hair show held at the New York Coliseum, she traveled to Manhattan to showcase her signature cuts and hairstyles to stylists from around the world. The only Black stylist in the show, she returned to the District and changed the salon’s name to La Savage Beauty Clinic International.
Little Frank was watching closely. The lessons he learned from his mother became the principles that guided him in his own work—self-confidence, honesty and integrity, hard work and cultivating good relationships with clients.
Savage imparted the importance of those principles in his memoir. He wrote that he has long been enthralled with the world’s interconnectivity, an interest that fueled his first trip abroad, to Libya, while he was student at Howard University studying political science and economics with a focus on international relations.
Savage said he has always believed that a relationship with the rest of the world is key to economic prosperity for Blacks in the United States and has long encouraged others to travel widely and keep up with global events.
“I always felt it is most important for African Americans to be involved on a global level and to understand the rest of the world—their cultures, their practices, their languages,” Savage said.
After graduating from college, Savage picked up a master’s degree in 1968 in international studies from the Johns Hopkins University’s Nitze School of Advanced International Studies. He followed that with a job in the international division of Citibank, then in business as the First National City Bank of New York.
He was the only black officer in the division. He worked in Saudi Arabia for two years, then in Monrovia in the bank’s Liberia operation for two more. A disagreement with the vice president of the Middle East Africa Division of the bank led him to quit, he said.
“It made me lose faith in the bank,” he said of the squabble. “It made me lose faith with my future in the bank.”
Ironically, later that year—1970, the federal government created a new program to provide equity for small Black businesses. That program would become important to Savage and other Blacks who hoped to become independent business owners down the line.
Over the next three decades, Savage climbed the corporate ladder. He served as chairman of the board of Alliance Corporate Finance Group, Inc., chairman of Alliance Capital Management International and a member of the board of directors of Lockheed Martin Corp.
From 1999 to 2002, Savage served on the board of directors of Enron Corp., a Houston-based energy company that collapsed in 2001 amid allegations of manipulation of energy and securities prices. Employees and shareholders lost nearly $11 billion in investments. Many of Enron’s executives were charged and convicted of financial crimes. New to the Enron board, Savage escaped from the controversy with no convictions, but it tarnished his reputation, he said.
“I was tainted by it although I had nothing to do with it,” said Savage. “It was almost impossible for me to raise capital.”
A hobby that he had picked up 20 years prior to the scandal helped him to recover his peace of mind—ocean sail boat racing.
It took five years for Savage to regain his reputation, he said. To stay in the game, he started his own global finance firm, Savage Holdings, LLC. He has recovered nicely. He is former chairman and trustee-emeritus of the Howard University board, a survivor of the Enron scandal and architect of a company that manages roughly $700 billion in investment money.
And when he needs a break, he heads out on his sailboat. •