Colbert, Virgis William 1939–
Virgis William Colbert 1939–
As executive vice president of Miller Brewing, Virgis William Colbert is one of the highest ranking African Americans in corporate America. His rapid promotions through the ranks of Chrysler and then Miller attest to his talent and ambition. His successful career and devoted civil leadership distinguish him as a active role model.
Colbert grew up in Toledo, Ohio as the youngest of ten children born to Quillie and Eddie Colbert. His drive was inherited from his factory-working father, who made ends meet by starting a part-time business hauling junk to salvage yards. Colbert said of his father in Ebony, “His discipline and his work ethic are what have motivated me through the years.” His father died when Colbert was 13 years old. Colbert also cited as inspiration the partnerships of black men and women in his community who set standards of conduct for the next generation.
In 1967 Colbert, dropped out of the University of Toledo and took a position with Chrysler’s Toledo plant. While there he was promoted to foreman in 1968, general foreman in 1970, and manufacturing superintendent in 1973. Realizing that a lack of education would arrest his career goals, Colbert began taking classes at Central Michigan University and in 1974 earned a bachelor’s degree in Industrial Management. In the same year he also graduated from Earlham College Executive Institute. In 1977 Chrysler promoted him to general manufacturing superintendent.
Since 1968 Colbert has been approached throughout his career to join the labor or public relations side of business, always opting to pursue his interest in the bottom-line impact operations. His success in handling a union grievance prompted Chrysler management to offer a position with the plant’s industrial relations staff. However, Colbert declined in favor of remaining with operations. Colbert believes that the direct responsibility of the operations staff, coupled with its impact on the income statement, are integral to company success.
Joining Miller in 1979, as assistant to the plant manager of its Reidsville, NC plant, Colbert was soon transferred to Fort Worth, TX. Each year he received another promotion, making his rise to the top swift. Beginning with his first in 1981 to plant manager for Milwaukee’s
Born Virgis William Colbert on October 13, 1939, in Jackson, Mississippi; son of Quillie and Eddie Colbert. Resident of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Married: Angela Colbert; children: jilîan, Alyssa and V. William II. Education: Central Michigan University, B.S. industrial management, 1974; College Executive Institute, degree, 1974.
Career: Chrysler’s Toledo Machining Plant, 1966-68, foreman, 1968-70, general foreman, 1970-73, manufacturing superintendent, 1973-77, general manufacturing superintendent, 1977-79; Miller Brewing Company, assistant to plant manager, 1979-80, production manager, 1980-81, plant manager, 1981-87, assistant director can manufacturing, 1987-88, director can manufacturing, 1988-89, vice president of material manufacturing, 1989-90, vice president plant operations, 1990-93, senior vice president of operations, 1993-95, senior vice president of worldwide operations, 1995-97, executive vice president, 1997-.
Awards/associations: National Alliance of Business and Milwaukee YMCA citations; Ebony “50 Top Execs,” 1992; 100 Black Men of America Distinguished Leadership Award; Trustee for the Fisk University of Nashville; Chairman of the National Urban League Black Executive Exchange Program Advisory Committee; Chairman of the Thurgood Marshall Scholarship Fund; Milwaukee School of Engineering Board of Trustees; Boy Scouts of Milwaukee City Council Board.
Container Plant, he arrived at senior vice president of worldwide operations in 1995, and executive vice president in 1997. As executive vice president, Colbert’s responsibilities include overseeing brewery production, international operations, purchasing, and even information systems.
In 1991 Miller produced 43.6 million barrels of beer from its eight regional breweries. Colbert attributed the sale of such quantities to impeccable quality and distribution measures. The multistage process of distributing beer requires short and long term vision exemplified by Colbert. His ability to analyze, separate, organize and synthesize issues and ideas in a concrete, problem-solving manner was, and continues to be, evidenced by the correct production and distribution of beer under his supervision. Soft-spoken Colbert downplays his success with Miller’s bottom line, while highlighting his aims of integrating new brewery and management styles to ensure larger profits.
The $50 billion conglomerate Phillip Morris Companies, Inc. greatly aided Miller’s marketing prowess, purchasing a controlling interest in the brewery in 1969. Then the world’s eighth largest brewery, innovative advertising, including slogans of “tastes great, less filling,” boosted Miller’s status to the second largest brewery, surpassed only by Anheuser-Busch. Despite Miller’s profits, they do not play a major role in the conglomerate’s own bottom line.
Since 1979 Colbert’s business card at Miller Brewing has changed numerous times to reflect his continuous career advancement. Company insiders attribute Colbert’s lightning rise to his use of diplomacy and a penchant for meeting company needs. Additionally, Miller appreciates Colbert for his presence as a positive African American role model. While he spends a majority of his time attending production, budget, warehouse planning, engineering, research, strategic planning and marketing meetings, Colbert also travels several days per month to other plant sites.
Colbert feels fortunate to work for this company which actively seeks diversity among its 8,000 employees. Colbert believes that affirmative action is working within this company, as evidenced by people of color and females at all levels of the organization. Miller’s parent company, Phillip Morris Company of New York, links compensation for department heads to their ability to hire and promote qualified women and minorities, so that employee makeup will mirror its consumer base.
Colbert has an extensive record as a civic volunteer and the awards that come with it. Named among Ebony magazine’s “50 Top Executives in Corporate America” in 1992, Colbert also received 100 Black Men of America’s Distinguished Leadership Award. With 61 chapters, 100 Black Men offers community involvement programs for youth, education and economic development throughout the United States. Colbert also sits as a Trustee for the Fisk University of Nashville, Chairman of the National Urban League’s Black Executive Exchange Program Advisory Committee, and Chairman of the Thurgood Marshall Scholarship Fund.
As a Milwaukee resident, Colbert serves on the Milwaukee School of Engineering’s Board of Trustees and the Boy Scouts of Milwaukee City Council Board. He helped to develop the Milwaukee Tutorial program, which provides tutoring without charge to grade school students by Miller employees and retiree volunteers.
Through public speaking engagements Colbert has expounded on his methods for achievement. His philosophy on success was detailed in a speech at the Southeastern Wisconsin Black MBA Planning Council in Milwaukee on September 21, 1993. Colbert emphasized hard work, knowledge, and preparedness as necessary fundamentals. He urged young business professionals to set, define, and actively pursue written goals. In addition, Colbert advised individuals to remain flexible toward organizational objectives. Confirming the importance of proper dress, mannerisms, and observation of company rules, Colbert suggested that future leaders learn how promotions are actually made and adjust accordingly.Colbert stressed that there is no room for perceived personal, political, gender or racial slights in the business world. Colbert advocated that such emotions be downplayed in favor of attaining business success. He furthered the belief that a positive attitude, confidence in one’s abilities, and a desire for excellence without excuse will help to ensure individual acceptance within an organization. “Always think positively about yourself and your ability. If you don’t, no one else will. Even more importantly, if you do, you will find that in most cases people will take you as you see yourself.” Colbert cautioned young business people to be aware of how they are perceived by others, both socially and professionally, encouraging them to set personal goals higher than those set for them by their employers.
Colbert’s strong conviction for giving back to society was stated in Ebony, “…the price of prodigious achievement is the obligation to give generously of your time, money and expertise to ensure that other Blacks will follow in your footsteps.” In a January 15, 1993 speech delivered to Omega Psi Phi Fraternity members, Colbert challenged African Americans to collectively to accept responsibility for their actions. He pointed to social, economic and occupational barriers for blacks, calling on his fraternity to help black Americans. Colbert urged individual responsibility, while encouraging influential members of black communities to save black youth. He specifically appealed to his fraternity brothers to lead such efforts, advocating positive role models for young black males. Colbert serves as one such role model, defining success for African Americans through his own example.
Black Enterprise, June 1992, p. 370.
Business Journal-Milwaukee, July 6, 1996, p. 8.
Ebony, Sept 1991, p. 31.
Jet, Dec 20, 1993, p. 22; July 29, 1996; August 11, 1997, p. 32.
Vital Speeches, Jan 15, 1993, p. 215; Dec 15, 1993, p. 141.
—Marilyn Williams and Allison M. Marion
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