John Levy Procope Biography
Insurance executive, publisher
A newspaper publisher and marketing executive, John L. Procope began a second career in midlife when he joined the Wall Street insurance brokerage E.G. Bowman, founded by his wife Ernesta Procope. That company, rising from storefront beginnings selling $25 insurance policies to African Americans in Brooklyn, New York, became the largest minority-owned insurance brokerage in the United States, with a client list that included state governments and Fortune 500 companies. "What I would have people remember about my husband," Ernesta Procope said in an interview quoted on the Web site Black World Today, "was that he was a visionary for African Americans in the 20th century, an entrepreneur who provided means for us to obtain access to capital."
Born June 19, 1925, John Levy Procope was a New York City native. He had two sisters. Procope served in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and attended Morgan State College (now Morgan State University), graduating in 1949 with a degree in business administration. In 1955 he received a degree from the graduate program in business at New York University. Procope made future contacts as a member of the Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity and the Sigma Pi Phi graduate fraternity, and as an adult he became a member of several other clubs and fraternal organizations.
Procope began his career with several stints as an advertising representative in the publishing field, including one for the Afro-American Newspapers chain, which dominated the black press around the northeastern United States. In 1954 he married Ernesta Bowman, who had founded E.G. Bowman the year before.
The marriage was her second; the firm bore the name of her first husband, real estate broker Albin Bowman. Though John Procope was a low-level advertising salesman at the time, she told Shelly Branch of Black Enterprise that she thought he was "a man who thinks like an entrepreneur." The Procopes worked together as E.G. Bowman experienced growth due to the expanding ranks of the black middle class, and contraction due to the "redlining" trend of denial of insurance to African Americans in the 1960s. John Procope was involved in efforts leading to the implementation of the anti-redlining Fair Insurance Requirements program, popularly known as the Fair Plan, in 1968. But he did not officially join the firm until many years later.
Procope rose in the ranks of the advertising industry, becoming a marketing specialist at the Batten, Barton, Durston and Osborne advertising agency. By 1965 he was a vice president of advertising at Tuesday Publications, and the following year he became vice president and general manager at the New York Amsterdam News, the largest black-oriented newspaper in the United States. After a brief stint as director of marketing at Slant/Fin, a maker of baseboard heating units, he returned to the New York Amsterdam News as president in 1970, joining with a group of other investors to buy the paper. In 1974 he took on the dual role of publisher and editor.
Though he had little journalistic background, Procope wrote editorials and was unafraid to stir up controversy. When a large blackout cut power to New York in 1977 and the city suffered an outbreak of looting, Procope used the front page of the Amsterdam News for an editorial attacking what he called a "massive vacuum of leadership in the black communities across the city." As quoted by Jennifer Lee in the New York Times, he argued that since black community leaders "hadn't exercised real leadership prior to the blackout, there was no established communication with our young people to use as a base for communication when the looters began." Procope served as chairman of the city's Emergency Aid Commission, supervising payments to businesses affected by the looting.
Procope ran into controversy of his own in 1979, when several of the co-owners of the Amsterdam News tried to remove him as publisher because they felt that E.G. Bowman's contracts with the city of New York placed Procope in a conflict-of-interest situation. The Procopes contested the allegation, and he remained in his position. Procope also served two terms as president of the National Newspaper Publishers Association, an association of black-oriented newspapers, and he held leadership positions at New York business organizations such as the Harlem Business Alliance.
Bowman was growing thanks to affirmative action policies and Ernesta Procope's entrepreneurial drive, and in 1979 the firm moved into offices at 97 Wall Street. John Procope left the Amsterdam News in 1982 to focus on the Bowman firm full time, taking the position of chairman of the board. One of Bowman's breakthrough sales came that year when it became broker of record for the insurance of part of the Alaska pipeline project. Procope helped shepherd the firm through some difficult times when it was accused of mishandling New York City human resources funds and was banned from further city contracts, resulting in the layoffs of 16 employees. The Procopes claimed that the charges were politically motivated, and by 1984 they had been exonerated by the city.
The Bowman firm began a period of slow but steady growth after that, with premium income rising from $26 million in 1987 to $35 million in 1993, even as the insurance industry stagnated during the recession of the early 1990s. Procope pointed to racial factors as an explanation for why the company had not grown even faster, telling Branch that "we're disappointed that in our 40th year, we're not handling a billion dollars worth of [premiums]. Were we white, I know we'd be doing a minimum of half a billion dollars." The relatively small company's reputation for responsiveness helped it gain new clients ranging from the United States Information Agency to the Fulbright Scholars program and federally backed mortgage giant Fannie Mae. Its first major client, Pepsico, remained one of its largest.
As John Procope targeted black churches as an untapped source of business, the company grew further; he pointed out to Branch that the huge National Baptist Convention that met in New York "represented 30,000 churches. Thirty thousand! You know, 29,900 have white brokers. We take that very seriously." The company formed a partnership with high-flying financier Alan Bond, called Bond, Procope Capital Management in the early 1990s, but the Procopes dissolved the partnership well before Bond was convicted of securities violations.
Bowman became the largest black-owned (or female-owned) insurance brokerage in the country, and the Procopes were familiar figures in New York social circles; John Procope served on several important nonprofit boards of directors, including that of the YMCA of Greater New York. Bowman cultivated a participatory management style that encouraged the retention of several longtime employees, and the company maintained an independent existence after John L. Procope's death from complications of pneumonia on July 15, 2005. Ernesta Procope, as quoted on the Black World Today site, called him "my creative business partner, husband, and friend."
Best's Review, August 2005, p. 13.
Black Enterprise, December 1993, p. 100; August 2004, p. 111.
Jet, August 15, 2005, p. 51.
New York Times, July 18, 2005, p. A17.
"Visionary Entrepreneur, John Procope, Dies at 82," Black World Today, www.tbwt.org/index.php?option=content&task=view&id=520 (January 6, 2005).