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Herb Wilkins, trailblazing investor in BET and Radio One, dies at 71

By Ken Smikle
Target Market News

(December 12, 2013) Herbert P. Wilkins, Sr., whose groundbreaking investments and financial insights helped build Black Entertainment Television, Radio One, and numerous other major media properties, died on December 3 after a long illness in Columbia, Maryland. He was 71 years old.

In 1977, Herb founded Syndicated Communications, a venture capital firm that has provided equity capital to more than 120 companies in media and communications. These include some of the best-known African American and Hispanic businesses in the nation, like BET, Buenavision, District Cablevision, Radio One, TV One, WorldSpace, and Z-Spanish Radio. All totaled, the companies in which SYNCOM invested achieved a market value of more than $10 billion.

Robert Johnson, founder of BET called Wilkins "the smartest and one of the respected and influential African American business leaders I have had the good fortune to know."

"Herb was one of my best friends," said Johnson in a statement, "and a business mentor who guided me on the creation of BET and District Cablevision, the first cable system in Washington, DC. For his advice on all of my business deals, I owe a great deal of thanks for his contribution to my success."

Cathy Hughes, co-founder and chairman of Radio One, TV One and Interactive One, said she and her son, Alfred Liggins, company CEO, owe a great deal of their success to Wilkins "Alfred and I are in existence today because of who I used to affectionately refer to as the "godfather" of the broadcast industry. Herb and his partner Terry Jones put together our first million-dollar package.  If they had not believed in us we would not be where we are today. Herb was the gatekeeper for Black entrepreneurs in the broadcast industry." 

"Herb was a patient and firm lender, but he was so nurturing, in the way they helped us to grow.  When I could not make my payments to Syncom, I pled with him to be patient with me, and I promised that I would be the largest and most successful company in his portfolio. God has blessed me to make good on that promise."

Wilkins was born to Katherine and William Wilkins in Boston on January 9, 1942 and attended public school in his hometown. After receiving his bachelor's degree from Boston University in 1965, Wilkins graduated from the Harvard School of Business in 1970 and began a long, successful career in finance and management consulting.

Wilkins became Principal-in-Charge of Management Advisory Services for Lucas, Tucker & Company, independent public accountants. He also served as Senior Vice President of Urban National Corporation, a Boston-based venture capital fund.

In 1972, Wilkins co-founded Syndicated Communications Inc. along with partner Terry Jones and served as its first President and CEO. He also founded and formed the SYNCOM Funds group, which is comprised of a number of individual venture funds.

Wilkins served on the boards of Simmons- Lathan Media Group, BET Holdings, Inc., where he was a founding board member, and was a former director of Cowles Media Company

Among all his business accomplishments, Wilkins received his greatest recognition for the rescue and turnaround of Iridium Satellite Communications. The international communications company was created by Motorola at a cost of more than $5 billion dollars, but its failure became one of the largest bankruptcies in U.S. history. Attempts by investment bankers to sell the company were rejected by all of the "so-called" mainstream venture capital firms.

In 2001, Wilkins led the deal to acquire Iridium Satellite for approximately $25 million. The transaction included the acquisition of 72 satellites in orbit, a terrestrial communications network, various technological patents and significant real estate. Seven years later after recapitalizing Iridium, identifying new management and realigning the company's business model toward mission critical communications applications, the company was sold to GHL Acquisitions for approximately $560 million.

For his efforts to support rising minority communication companies, Wilkins has received numerous honors and awards and was named to the FCC's Advance Committee on Minority Ownership in 1984. A longtime member of the Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity, Wilkins received the organization's highest honor, the coveted Laurel Wreath.

Wilkins is survived by his wife, Sheran and their three children, Herbert II, Monique and Michelle, and seven grandchildren. Funeral services were held on December 11 at St. Johns Baptist Church in Columbia, Maryland.

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