Chief executive officer, Barden Companies
Born: December 20, 1943, in Detroit, Michigan.
Education: Attended Central State University, 1963–1964.
Family: Son of Milton Barden (mechanic and auto laborer) and Hortense (maiden name unknown); married Bella Marshall (Barden Companies' president and COO); children: one.
Career: Record store, 1960s, owner; newspaper owner, 1967–1972; Lorain County Times , 1974, partner; Lorain City Council, 1972–1975, council member; Don H. Barden Inc., 1976–1981, president; WKYC-TV, 1977–1980, talk-show host; Barden Cablevision, 1982–1994, CEO; Barden Companies, 1994–, CEO.
Awards: Trumpet Award, Turner Companies, 2004; Seven Living Legends, Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick and the Detroit City Council, 2004.
Address: Barden Companies, 163 Madison Avenue, Suite 2000, Detroit, Michigan 48226.
■ Don H. Barden started up his first business with only $500 and a dogged determination to control his destiny; in the 1960s, using an instinctive entrepreneurial acumen, he opened a record store. From this humble beginning Barden made inroads into the cable industry, eventually achieving success as the first African American cable-company owner. He then moved on to the casino industry; he first acquired a riverboat casino in Gary, Indiana, then used his experiential expertise and an uncanny knack for being in the right place at the right time to purchase three more casinos—including one in Las Vegas, making him the first African American to own a casino there.
Don Barden was born on December 20, 1943, in Detroit, Michigan. His parents, Milton and Hortense, taught all of their 13 children the value of hard work and determination. During high school Barden excelled at sports as a member of his school's basketball and football teams. He went on to Central State University, in Wilberforce, Ohio, but money for college was scarce; he left after his freshman year. Barden moved to Lorain, Ohio, and worked various odd jobs while saving money. He soon amassed $500 and opened a record store, where he began promoting shows and booking bands. Before long he had started a small record label as well as a publicrelations firm.
Though Barden gained experience through his various businesses, he was not reaping the level of profit he desired. That changed when he moved into the field of real estate and helped the U.S. government find a location for a new militaryrecruiting station. After Barden identified a building, he secured a commitment from the government for the military to lease the facility. Bearing the letter of commitment, he procured a bank loan with which to make the purchase; he sold the building two years later for $50,000, doubling his investment.
Barden soon switched gears once more: he started a newspaper with a partner, creating the successful Lorain County Times . He later enjoyed a short political career with his election to the Lorain City Council, serving two terms between 1972 and 1975.
After leaving the public-service arena, Barden became a talk-show host on WKYC-TV in Lorain. He soon learned of openings in the cable industry; he helped put together a deal wherein 4 percent of the cable-television franchises in Lorain and another community were set aside for investment by African Americans. Barden himself purchased a share of each franchise for $2,000 apiece, shares which he later sold for $200,000.
Perceiving cable to be the future of television, Barden began locating primarily black communities to wire. The City of Inkster, Michigan, awarded Barden his first home-wiring contract. He completed the work on time and under budget, earning himself a reputation as a reliable and respectable contractor; he soon won contracts in other communities.
In 1982 the mayor and city council of Detroit, Michigan, began seeking bids to wire the city. Barden invested $500,000 to write a proposal, and his efforts paid off when he was awarded the contract. However, in spite of his business know-how and good reputation, Barden still lacked the capital to fund the project, which involved laying wire both above and below ground.
The Canadian company Maclean Hunter of Toronto agreed to purchase 25 percent of Barden Cablevision for $230,000. Maclean would eventually own 60 percent of the cable company, with Barden owning 40 percent and maintaining 51 percent of the voting rights. In addition, Maclean loaned the company $15 million; Barden also received an $80 million loan from a Canadian bank.
Barden began wiring Detroit in 1986 and used an unorthodox approach in order to lure customers and expand his business. While most cable operators sought affluent customers as subscribers, Barden targeted the less well-off. He began the practice of "churning," or signing new customers while canceling delinquent accounts. Barden Cablevision soon grew to include 120,000 subscribers.
In 1993 the State of Indiana approved the operation of riverboat casinos. Barden first teamed up with President Riverboat Casinos in an effort to make a purchase; unfortunately for Barden, President Riverboat was unable to produce its pledged half of the money. Following Maclean Hunter's lead, Barden sold his share of Barden Cablevision to Comcast Cable for $300 million. He then placed a successful bid with Gary, Indiana, to secure a contract for his riverboat casino, the Majestic Star, to open for gaming in 1996.
In Detroit, meanwhile, voters approved a proposal to bring casinos to their city. Barden, wanting to help in the rebuilding process, placed a bid. He was unsuccessful but undeterred. He argued for and won a chance to place a referendum before the voters, partnering with superstar Michael Jackson in an attempt to create the Majestic Kingdom—a complex that would comprise a casino, hotel, restaurants, and a theme park. Voters, however, turned down the referendum. Still unfazed, Barden tried—once again unsuccessfully—to purchase Greektown Casino in Detroit. In 2002 he and the Lac Vieux Desert Band of Lake Superior Chippewa Indians claimed that the 1997 Detroit Casino bidding process was unconstitutional. It seemed Barden would finally realize his goal of opening a casino in Detroit, but in 2004 a judge put another stop to this dream becoming a reality.
Barden eventually shifted his focus to acquiring three Fitzgeralds casinos that had filed for bankruptcy. To garner funds to make the purchases, Barden visited 40 institutions in a dozen cities. As selling points he cited the facts that the Majestic Star had a proven track record; the Fitzgeralds casinos were still generating profits and had excellent growth potential; and the casinos were being bought at a significant discount. He was able to secure $135 million and also put up $14 million of his own cash.
In 2002 Barden took possession of the Fitzgeralds casinos. One was based in Tunica, Mississippi, another in Black Hawk, Colorado, and the third in downtown Las Vegas. With the Las Vegas casino Barden became the city's first African American casino owner.
Barden Companies, with over four thousand employees, earned $347 million in 2002, 90 percent of which came from Barden's four casinos, his Tunica-based casino being the most profitable. Not one to rest on his laurels, Barden tried to acquire the rival Trump Casinos' riverboat casino in Gary, Indiana, and planned to open a hotel-casino on the Turks and Caicos Islands in the West Indies—all while trying to purchase another bankrupt casino in Black Hawk, Colorado.
Barden was involved in implementing innovations. His Barden Technologies company developed computerized voting machines; another company, Barden Entertainment, developed digital video jukeboxes that played music videos. Barden expected the voting machines to be certified and ready for use in 2006 and the jukeboxes to bring in $100 million by the same year.
Barden was described in a profile in Black Enterprise magazine, which gave its Company of the Year award to Barden Cablevision in 1992 and to Barden Companies in 2003, as a "soft-spoken man" (June 1992). He showed that he had great negotiating skills, whether for real estate or for licenses for new technology, and was a risk taker. With each new acquisition he gained more experience, and he continually used his new skills to move his companies forward. As quoted in Black Enterprise , U.S. Representative Richard Gephardt, a Democrat from Missouri, stated, "Don's success is a direct result of his sharp intellect and his dedicated work ethic" (June 2003).
In addition to being a member of the Executive Committee of the Democratic Party, Barden was the chairman of the board of directors for the Booker T. Washington Business Association. He was married to Bella Marshall, who was also Barden Companies' president and chief operating officer. The couple resided in Detroit with their son, Keenan.
Bray, Hiawatha, "Wired for Success," Black Enterprise , June 1992, pp. 134–137.
Dietderich, Andrew, "Barden Buys Three Casinos," Crain's Detroit Business , February 25, 2002, p. 18.
Huey, Erik C., "Fitzgeralds Owner Upbeat on Downtown," Las Vegas Review-Journal , February 20, 2004.
Hughes, Alan, "The House Always Wins," Black Enterprise , June 2003, pp. 126–133.
Lam, Tina, "CEO of Casino Operator Continues Fight to Build Property in Detroit," Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News , February 23, 2004.
—Ashyia N. Henderson