Earl Yancy deals in coal, but his specialty is caring

THE vegetable soup at Yancy Minerals is terrific. So are the chicken-and-almond salad and the strawberry cake. The accouterments of lunch are elegant, too: A pink linen tablecloth, pale-mauve linen napkins, and a slender vase of irises adorn the table. But Yancy Minerals is not a restaurant -- it's an industrial wholesaler of raw materials, whose chief commodity is coal. It is also among the five most profitable black-owned enterprises in the United States.

``I've always been interested in the individual and his comfort level,'' says E. J. Yancy over lunch in his corner office, ``in how a person can shape his environment to meet his needs.''

The road Earl Yancy has traveled to his position as president of a high-risk, fast-moving coal brokerage business began in Lafayette, La., he says -- with stop offs in the US Marines, West Berlin, Yale, Harvard, Tanzania, and the coal mines of eastern Kentucky, and with stints at dairy farming, dog training, martial arts; an association with the Black Panthers; research work in education and human behavior; and teaching architectural design and city planning at Yale and Harvard Universities.

A talk with Mr. Yancy reveals the thread that runs through the myriad variations of his career. It is a desire to provide beautiful, workable environments for people, whether they be the low-income families for whom he planned housing in graduate school, or his own employees, whose elegant, light-filled offices he designed himself. And to Yancy, an environment consists of more than just a physical structure.

``It's caring,'' he says. ``It's mutual respect, it's nonhierarchical in the truest sense. It's an attitude that fundamentally we start off with decent people. We like to focus on the merit of the contribution a person makes, irrespective of his title. But underlying that we also have very high standards in terms of what we expect from an individual. One of the things I ask people to do is to be respectful of each other, to start off from the position that we care about each other. If there are some things that we have to say that are difficult, we focus on the thing, not on the person.''

The son of a foreman in a construction business in Lafayette, Yancy became interested in architecture while attending Southern University in Baton Rouge, where he obtained his undergraduate degree in architectural engineering. While working for his master's degree in architecture at the University of Art and Architecture in West Berlin, he met another American, Susan Rosenthal, who was teaching English in her parents' homeland. She and Earl Yancy were married some years later, and Mrs. Yancy has been in charge of the finances at Yancy Minerals since its earliest days.

On returning to the US in 1970, Yancy added a master's degree in city planning from Yale to his list of credentials, and then prepared a PhD dissertation at Harvard in educational-behavioral research. He also taught architecture both at Yale and Harvard, directed the Black Environmental Studies Team at Yale, and participated in research projects in behavioral maintenance and modification in developing countries, which took him to Switzerland, Tanzania, Latin America, and northern Canada.

So why, with this academic, altruistic background, did Yancy switch from research concerned with the betterment of human conditions to the mineral business? Is this a case of '60s-style idealism ``selling out'' to the capitalism of the ``me generation''?

Yancy smiles knowingly. ``That was a big issue for me, but I finally resolved it. [Going into business] is not running away, and it's not abandoning values that I have. It's just seeing whether I can take the same set of values and live them in business. That means how you work with people, how people work with you.

``I think I'm not very different from many other people who face these issues and who are putting together a different kind of business fabric. There's a camaraderie of people who have similar values, who are looking for the appropriate vehicle to develop them.''

During its first seven years, Yancy Minerals operated out of the Yancys' home. While in the basement of their house in New Haven, they expanded to a staff of 11 employees. They also went from their first year's gross sales of ``zero,'' Yancy says, to their current roster of around 50 clients, about 25 percent of whom buy minerals for the United States government.

Within the next year or so, Yancy Minerals expects to acquire a number of coal mines -- in order, as manager Richard Oder puts it, ``to have a consistent product that we control for our major customers -- that we can represent as ours.''

What advice would Yancy give other minority people setting out to start their own businesses? ``Find somebody whose advice and opinion you really trust, who's at the most senior level in your field. When I only had a business plan and no customers, I already had a group of mentors. If a person goes into a business where he doesn't have the family connections or the background normally associated with it, having a group of mentors he can bounce ideas off is the single most important factor.''

His key mentors not only gave him invaluable advice, but stayed with him to serve on his nine-member board of directors. They include board chairman John Seiler, who for 17 years was an administrator and a professor of organizational behavior at Harvard Business School; financial analyst Alan R. Finlay of the investment firm Scudder, Stevens & Clark; and Mark R. Joseph, president of Anker Energy Corporation and managing director of Anker's coal mining and marketing activities.

Yancy also expresses appreciation for those companies that have ``gone out of their way'' to do business with a minority-owned company, even though this may expose them to acts of deliberate noncooperation from other links in the chain of a transaction who object to dealing with blacks.

``There are corporations who have done a lot to take the initiative in implementing some government-mandated directives,'' Yancy says. ``I want to compliment those companies. Someone had to say, `OK, I believe in your sincerity. I'm willing to place my source of supply at jeopardy in order to help you build your business.' ''

As Yancy Minerals continues to expand, Earl Yancy is concerned that the family feeling, and the pleasant atmosphere now prevailing there, not be lost.

As of last summer, for example, there were eight bicycles parked outside the office. Yancy bought them for the employees to use anytime they feel the need for a little exercise. The offices have sunny white walls, white desks, off-white carpeting and colorful Oriental rugs, glass partitions, and lots of plants. The walls are hung with an impressive collection of black and white photographs -- many of them by Ansel Adams, Irving Penn, W. Eugene Smith, and Rodney Smith -- which Yancy has been buying to beautify the workspace.

But are there never any personnel problems? How does Yancy feel when the time comes to fire an employee?

The company's president chuckles and shakes his head. ``Recently I had the responsibility to fire somebody. He's still here. The reasons [for this] have to do with my not being certain that the basis for firing someone is legitimate, that we're being fair -- that we've given the person sufficient warning, and that we've given them the opportunity to succeed in the business. A lot of the time we're to blame.

``The real question is, am I assessing what a person can really do, or am I assessing how well he did the task that was assigned to him? How realistic was I in giving him that particular task at the outset?''

Ann-Louise Gaetano graduated from a local business school six years ago. She is now the customer relations representative at Yancy Minerals. She was asked what she especially likes about her job.

``The people. The way you're treated. Earl's attitude carries through on everybody. It's almost infectious. He really cares about everybody here and everything here. He also has the ability to really fire you up. If you give 110 percent, he manages to get 112.''

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