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

1/8/2014, 12:05 p.m.

Roxbury native Herbert P. Wilkins Sr., whose investments and financial insights helped build Black Entertainment Television, Radio One, and numerous other major media properties, died on Dec. 3 after a long illness in Columbia, Md. He was 71 years old.

In 1977, Wilkins 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, credits Wilkins for the success she and her son, Alfred Liggins, company CEO, have had. She called Wilkins “the gatekeeper for black entrepreneurs in the broadcast industry.”

Wilkins was born to Katherine and William Wilkins in Roxbury on Jan. 9, 1942, and attended public school in Boston. 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 & Co., independent public accountants. He also served as senior vice president of Urban National Corp., 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 composed 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.

Of 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 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 Dec. 11 at St. Johns Baptist Church in Columbia.