By Leonard E. Colvin
New Journal and Guide
Entrepreneur Herman Valentine, Sr., 85, founder of the Systems Management American Corporation (SMA), died Sunday, April 30, 2023, according to his family in Virginia Beach.
Valentine defined himself in his bio as the CEO and Founder of SMA which he built by selling an onboard computer system to the U.S. Navy for over a decade.
Valentine and SMA were symbolic of Black business development fostered by ambition, hard work, opportunity and access to resources long denied people of his background.
Valentine said SMA was a “start-up” business that grew to a $60,000,000-dollar company in 14 years with a $500.00 investment in 1970.
The 19-story headquarters of SMA was located in the heart of Norfolk’s business district at 254 Monticello Avenue. It was a proud and inspirational symbol of Black economic achievement, especially at a time when racial barriers were high.
His success also inspired its share of envy.
Today the space where SMA once stood is occupied by Norfolk’s MacArthur Center Mall Complex.
Valentine directed SMA’s growth from scratch to the third largest Black-owned business in the entire United States for a decade.
In 1984 he was named Entrepreneur of the Year and received the award from President Ronald Reagan at the White House.
According to his obituary, Valentine came from humble origins. He was raised by his mother, Alice Hite, and father Frank Valentine, Sr. alongside his siblings Dorothy (Dot) and Frank. He would always credit Norfolk with being the city that shaped him.
Valentine was born July 26, 1937, and attended Booker T. Washington High School and Norfolk State University where he studied Business Management.
At one point he served in the U.S. Army.
After NSU he received training with the U.S.D.A. Graduate Administration.
He returned home to become NSU’s Business Manager from July 1969 to December 1970.
In that position, he was responsible for University Assets and Financial Controls.
“I was part of the team that converted and assisted with the first computer system installation on campus for business purposes,” he said in his LinkedIn Account. “I worked very closely with the IBM Team. All Campus Auxiliary Staff reported to me.”
In an article “And Still I Rise: SMA Sets Sights On Comeback” in the December 4, 1996 edition of the New Journal and Guide, Valentine talked about how he started and grew his business into one of the most successful in the country; how it fell from prominence and where SMA was headed at that time. He did continue to operate his business on a much smaller scale for a number of years after that interview.
Valentine said that while working with the U.S.D.A., he started a small computer keypunch company. This is how information was typed into computers at that time.
Using the federal minority contracting system, he submitted bids for contracts from NASA, EEOC, and the Department of Education. By 1980 his keypunch and consulting business was making $4.6 million.
Two years later, Valentine bought the 16-story J.C. Penny building for $4 million at 254 Monticello Avenue. This was the largest real estate purchase undertaken by a Black business owner in the city’s history.
He did this with a loan from the reluctant city of Norfolk.
“Nobody said I would be able to pay it back,” he said in the GUIDE, but he paid $3 million of it back in just three years.
That shut the mouths of doubters about his financial stability.
Valentine gave generously to non-profits as well as NSU and ODU.
He also supported programs for Norfolk Public school students. SMA provided a $100,000 grant that allowed 70001 Training and Employment Institute, a non-profit based in Washington, D.C., to team up with the Norfolk Public School District and create the SMA “Stay In School Program” for Norfolk school dropouts. It was the only one of its kind in the country. And, he provided after-school training and employment for unwed and pregnant teen mothers in various skilled jobs to save them from a life of poverty.
“Mr. Valentine was an iconic businessman who inspired young Black men (like me) to venture into a space that was considered unfamiliar territory!” said former Portsmouth Mayor and Businessman Kenneth Wright.
“I’ve been in business for the last 25 years and adopted his model of excellence as a roadmap to my success. I consider him a pioneer in the government contracting space. Well done, Sir!”
Valentine recalled in the GUIDE article that when SMA put its logo across the top of its building, no other building in the area was doing it. “Weeks afterward,” he said, “you saw every other major corporate building with their names being put on their buildings.”
SMA’s muscle was developed when Valentine received a patent for his SNAP II non-combat onboard Navy computer system, which he sold to the Naval ship contract.
SMA was contracted to build and install SNAP II as well as “ruggedize” it to endure the effects of combat and the rolling of Navy vessels plowing through the seas.
That one contract started at $7 million in 1984 and reached $62.2 million by 1987.
Slow payments on the contract and some complaints were common, but SMA grew at 85 percent a year.
Six years after winning the contract, SMA’s SNAP II was in 507 Navy Vessels.
In the late 80s, SMA expected a $111 million contract raise. It would assure SMA for years if approved and upgraded the system.
According to the GUIDE article, the Navy was “dragging its feet” in approving the big contract option to continue the SNAP II project.
The Navy, FBI a Federal Grand Jury were secretly investigating allegations of a kickback scheme being run by several of Valentine’s underlings.
The Navy refused to approve the contract extension. Employee layoffs and operations of SMA were cut back or abandoned.
Valentine’s financial empire was crumbling and his reputation was under assault.
Of the 5,000 SMA employees, 32 top administrators were charged. The worst offenders, Morgan Joe and Alton Skeeter were indicted on racketeering, perjury, and filing false tax returns.
Herman Valentine was cleared of any wrongdoing.
On a chilly Sunday morning November 24, 1996, the city demolished the SMA building with an implosion using high explosives.
It was televised on local TV.
Valentine continued the SMA operations and moved the abbreviated version to Norfolk’s Koger office building away from the downtown area.
Valentine told the GUIDE that after he was exonerated, people who doubted his innocence apologized and noted to him that the Navy “gave me a dirty deal.”
Valentine remained undaunted.
“I think if anyone knows me, they know I like challenges. I always want to succeed and overcome the odds,” Valentine said. “I have achieved a lot in the last 10 years. And I have also lost a lot, too.”
A member of the Phi Beta Sigma Fraternity, Inc., consistent recognition in rankings of Top 10 Black Businessmen, inducted into the National Black Press Hall of Fame, and recipient of the Colgate Darden Award were only a few of his honors.
Throughout his life Herman Valentine offered countless professional development opportunities for local men and women, minorities, and the disadvantaged, creating opportunities in his community for many who went on to develop lauded careers of their own.
He was an avid lover of horses and lived for many years on Cavalier Horse Farm, a place he dearly loved. He hosted horse shows and used his farm as a place for riders to train, some of whom went on to Olympic competitions.
He leaves behind his wife, Dr. Dorothy Valentine, their two sons Ward and Bryce, their families, and their grandchildren.