A Legacy of Firsts: John Fleming

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Photo: SUCCESS Partners Founder and CEO Stuart Johnson and DSN Publisher and Editor-in-Chief Lauren Lawley Head present John Fleming with the DSN Lifetime Achievement Award.

The Direct Selling News Ambassador and former Avon executive John Fleming does not like the spotlight shining on him. He would much rather speak to the accomplishments of his family, friends and colleagues.

However, there is a fascinating backstory to this soft-spoken leader—much more than the 44 years spent advocating the direct selling business model or the more than 1,000 people he has personally brought into the industry. It’s a narrative full of heroes and role models who have shaped his life and fueled his ongoing commitment to serving others.

The Harlem of the South

Richmond, Virginia, was only a few decades removed as the capital of the Confederacy when Peter Ramsey established his dentistry practice there. The first licensed African-American dentist in the State of Virginia was John Fleming’s maternal great-grandfather. While Fleming has no memories of him, he can vividly recall life with Peter’s son, Mercer Ramsey, who followed in his father’s footsteps with his own dental office.

During the 1950s, Fleming and his parents, John Sr. and Essye, lived with Mercer at 106 East Leigh Street, a block containing the homes of successful African-American entrepreneurs of the day. Mercer was a well-respected businessman in Richmond and the earliest influence on Fleming’s life. “I looked up to him as a statesman,” he said. “It was the way he carried himself. He dressed up every day in a coat and tie. Most of all, he was a man of purpose.”

When he returned to Richmond after attending what is now known as Hampton University in Hampton, Virginia, John Sr. went into business with his father running a full-service automobile center. Though John Sr. was a college graduate, his father insisted that he work as a mechanic for the first few years to learn the business before eventually taking it over. That mandate allowed John Sr. to cultivate business relationships with the African-American community as well as white businessmen in the city. He eventually became the first African-American to sell cars with a major dealership in Richmond.

“Dad had become friendly with the people who owned the Lincoln-Mercury dealership,” said Fleming. “He never worked at the dealership because at that time African-Americans were not allowed on the showroom floor. But because of his auto service business, he knew when people needed cars. So he would take them to the dealership, earning commissions on the sale of cars all while running the filling station.”

To Fleming, his father was a vocal, confident leader, completely different from his quiet, formal grandfather Mercer. “He could talk about anything—whether national news, local politics or town gossip, he seemed to be a voice in everything. I saw those leadership qualities in him.”

Those qualities were particularly evident in John Sr.’s interactions with Richmond’s leading black entrepreneurs. The family’s filling station was located in a section of the city called Jackson Ward, where almost all of the businesses were owned by African-Americans. “Dad knew them all and they all patronized each other—whether it was hotels, nightclubs, restaurants or tailors,” said Fleming. However, even a thriving business and entertainment community could not deflect what lay outside the boundaries of Jackson Ward—racial tensions that permeated Fleming’s day-to-day living.

Lawley Head and Fleming share the stage as they present the world’s top direct selling companies for 2016.

A Mother’s Lesson

Richmond of the 1950s was a racially divided city, with no diversity in its neighborhoods. While Fleming’s mother Essye, called Garnet by friends and family members, and her family were prominent citizens in the African-American community, she knew that her son would encounter bias from the white population. Yet she never instilled hatred or fear in him. “She would never talk about it,” said Fleming. “Even when we went to Thalhimer’s, she would just go about her business.”

Thalhimer’s was a popular department store that enforced strict segregation laws. African-Americans were not allowed to shop with whites. “When we would go downtown so Mom could cash her check there, we had to go to the third floor,” said Fleming. “We were not allowed on the first and second floors, which were for whites to shop. If we needed to buy anything we had to shop in the basement.”

Through those formative years, Garnet taught her son not only to survive but to thrive while growing up in such an environment. “My parents and the African-American community were always focused on education,” Fleming said. “Education was the answer to everything. As long as we were learning, our parents and grandparents knew that we were going to survive and be able to live healthy, successful lives as contributors to society.”

Focusing on the Future

One area of Richmond that was very special to Fleming was the city playground. It was there that Fleming and his friends, including his good friend Arthur, would spend countless hours at the football and baseball fields, tennis courts, model aircraft field and public pool. Arthur, who lived in the groundskeeper’s house on the playground with his parents and brother, right next to the tennis courts, gave Fleming the first tennis racket he ever owned, a Bancroft wooden racket.

TEXTFleming’s wife, Joyce, applauds his accomplishments and celebrates his years of service to direct selling.

The memory of that racket would come to mind 18 years later as Fleming was driving from Chicago to Kankakee, Illinois. It was July 5, 1975, and Fleming was headed to a business meeting when he pulled his car to the side of the road to listen to a radio broadcast. On the other side of the world his good friend Arthur was about to make history. Fleming sat there listening as Arthur Ashe became the first African-American tennis player to win a Wimbledon Championship. “I know exactly what I was doing because it was such a big moment,” he said. “When I realized Arthur could win, I just pulled over and turned the radio up as loud as it could go.”

At the time Ashe was pursuing his dreams of playing professional tennis, Fleming was focusing on his future. Even though he was awarded a full scholarship to Hampton, he chose to enroll at the Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT), a private university in Chicago noted for its engineering, to pursue his dream of becoming an architect.

Fleming spent the next five years at IIT learning the necessary skills and then landed a job with one of the most prestigious architects of the 20th century: Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. Originally from Prussia, Mies is widely regarded as one of the pioneers of modern architecture along with Frank Lloyd Wright, Le Corbusier and Walter Gropius. His major works, which included a mix of steel and glass, include the Seagram Building in New York and 860–880 Lake Shore Drive in Chicago.

An Introduction to Direct Selling

Fleming knew that Chicago was the place to be for architecture, so it made sense to him to stay there and not return to Richmond. In addition, he had met and married a nursing school student named Joyce and had begun a family. However, the financial weight of a new family began to take its toll on him as he was earning only $19,000 a year as an architect. It was during this time that Fleming was recruited by a stranger who became a best friend, Willie Larkin.

“When Willie first approached me about a direct selling opportunity, I thought it was the most hilarious thing in the world,” said Fleming. “I had a big ego about architecture. It had been a dream for so long that it was hard to get away from it.”

But Larkin, a schoolteacher and a man Fleming greatly respected, knew Fleming could use the opportunity to earn additional income. “Every time I would complain to him about my financial stress,” said Fleming, “he would flip it around and ask what I was going to do about it.”

Larkin invited Fleming to be part of his direct selling business, which offered biodegradable cleaning products and, some years later, a skincare line and nutritional line. Fleming went to meetings with him and watched him demonstrate the products at home parties. After a year and a half of part-time involvement in direct selling, Fleming had earned $54,000. And so, in 1972, he decided to give up architecture and go full-time in direct selling.

In 1976, Fleming played an integral part in founding Better Living Products Inc. The company owners wanted Fleming to take a corporate position as Vice President of Sales, which he did for several years. With his philosophy of the industry firmly grounded, Fleming set out to teach and advocate the principles and values of direct selling to others.

The Wild, Wild West

After 10 years with Better Living and a brief stint as CEO and President of the company when it was purchased by an investment group put together by Fleming, he decided to be a consultant for direct selling companies. Current Tupperware CEO Rick Goings was President of Avon North America when Fleming started his consulting business. Goings and then-CEO of Avon Jim Preston wanted to contemporize Avon and asked Fleming and former Shaklee executive Rich Perry to redesign the company’s compensation plan, create a new approach to training and implement what was to be called the Avon Leadership Program.

TEXTJohn and Joyce Fleming

“At the time, they had a single-level compensation plan,” said Fleming. “They did not reward on organizational structures except for a one-time reward for recruitment of a new Avon Representative. There was no incentive for developing other people.” Fleming and Perry developed a new program in which Avon ladies could share Avon with others and receive benefits through three levels of compensation. As the project was coming to a close, Goings and Preston invited Fleming to be the project leader who would bring the new program to life in the field.

Fleming accepted and joined Avon as a director. Within four months he was promoted to Vice President of Sales Contemporization. Goings and Preston saw Fleming as someone who could come into the company and not upset the applecart while still contemporizing Avon.

When Fleming took over the Western region it was the lowest-performing region in the Avon U.S. portfolio. There was no growth, and Avon had been losing money there for quite a few years. Within 18 months, however, Fleming and his team had turned it from the worst-performing unit to the top growth unit. And, for six consecutive years it was Avon’s best performing unit.

“We called our area the Wild, Wild West,” said Fleming. “We were so proud of our accomplishments. We used the theme song from Will Smith’s movie of the same name, and we celebrated at every meeting and every event.”

After more than a decade out West, Fleming returned to New York to work with current AdvoCare Interim CEO Brian Connolly, then another Avon executive, to ensure that every region of the company received the benefits of the program. Fleming spent the next few years traveling the world, including stops in South America, Europe and Asia, to share the program with other Avon executives.

A Lifetime of Achievement

By Christmastime 2004, Fleming was considering retiring from Avon. He had been happy there, but there were other goals he wanted to achieve in life. At the beginning of January 2005, he gave his one-year notice to Avon. The following year, during a round of golf with SUCCESS Partners Founder and CEO Stuart Johnson, Fleming accepted what he believed would be a 12-18 month stint. Johnson wanted him to take the helm of the fledgling publication Direct Selling News, and help fulfill Johnson’s vision to build a respected trade journal for the direct selling channel.

TEXTDSN Ambassador John Fleming

Fleming’s 18 months turned into nine years as Publisher and Editor in Chief of DSN, doing exactly what Johnson had envisioned. He retired once again in 2015, becoming DSN’s Ambassador and passing the torch to new Publisher and Editor-in-Chief Lauren Lawley Head. This past April, at the DSN Global 100 Celebration of the top direct selling companies in the world, Fleming achieved another first.

In acknowledgement of his 44 years in the industry and his ongoing commitment to advocating the business model, Fleming became the first recipient of the Direct Selling News Lifetime Achievement Award. It is the second time he has been recognized by his industry peers; in 1997 the Direct Selling Education Foundation inducted him into its Circle of Honor.

This year’s award has once again brought to mind the interesting road Fleming has been traveling for a lifetime. Through his experiences he has become an amalgam of the people in his life, developing the very best qualities to be found in a leader. From the way he carries himself, to how he treats others and effortlessly leads with quiet confidence, to him life has been about standing up for what you believe in and living your life with purpose, always while lifting others to reach their own potential.

In true Fleming fashion, he accepted the DSN award as he has lived his life: humbly, gratefully and with appreciation for those who have helped him along the way. There is a quote that seems remarkably fitting for Fleming as you consider his life and his passion for helping others. It is this: “True heroism is remarkably sober, very undramatic. It is not the urge to surpass all others at whatever costs, but the urge to serve others at whatever cost.”

That quote is from Arthur Ashe and, surely, he is smiling from above as he watches his good friend John Fleming embody those very words.

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