Eric Brown and Renee Cottrell-Brown Class of 1978
Partners Twice Over
Eric Brown ’78 and Renee Cottrell-Brown ’78 laugh a lot. Remarkable, some might say, for a couple who live and work together as CEO and executive vice president of sales and marketing, respectively, at the Dallas-based Johnson Products Company Inc. But talking to the Browns, who have run two global ethnic hair-care companies for 25 of their 31 years of marriage while raising two daughters, it’s easy to see the friendship they share. It all began with a chance encounter at USC.
“Renee was the very first person I met coming to Los Angeles,” says Eric, a Portland, Ore., native, recalling his first week of student orientation at USC. He hopped on a USC-sponsored tram that, back then, shuttled students to and from the south side to Westwood. “Coming back, I was the last one on. The only seat available was next to this lovely lady. I’ve always said it was fate. I just looked at her and said, ‘I’m done!’ ”
The ride revealed shared interests in photography and jazz and, although it was clearly not love at first sight in her mind, Renee knew she had found a friend. “We truly had a friendship because, quite frankly, I was dating other people at the time I met him,” she says.
The admission prompts the now familiar laughter and knowing glances between them. Renee, daughter of Los Angeles African-American business pioneer Comer J. Cottrell Jr., who founded the hair-care company Pro-Line Corp., was expected to date budding doctors and lawyers at ’SC - supposedly more suitable mates than Eric, who was from modest means and tooled around town on the RTD bus. She lived in a cushy campus dormitory; he in an abandoned fraternity house on 32nd and Vermont in a dilapidated room he furnished with crates, a hot plate and a toaster oven.
Even then, Eric and Renee seldom were away from each other, as both were part of the same clique of African-American students. But before leaving USC, Renee began seeing something special in the “shy kid” from Oregon.
“I always told my dad, ‘Eric has great potential,’ ” Renee says. The couple married and went to work at Pro-Line, and Eric became vice president of finance in 1986. Eventually, Renee’s father named Eric to succeed him as president in the late 1990s.
In 2009, with investors from California, the couple led a winning buyout of Johnson Products Company, one of the first African-American-owned businesses publicly traded in the United States, from Procter & Gamble Co. Now private, the company reportedly earns more than $25 million in revenues annually. And it is growing its philanthropic initiatives to promote ecological responsibility, empower local schools and raise awareness of domestic violence through its “No Excuse! STOP the ABUSE!” campaign, which also supports women’s shelters and foundations through multiyear grants.
“Most people say, ‘There’s no way I could work with my spouse.’ I think that is driven from the inability to allow the other to have their freedom to win on their own terms. The passion for the business - that’s what drives it 24/7. It’s not necessarily the work itself,” says Eric, who together with Renee indulges in travel, food and, yes, photography, in his spare time.