Richie, Leroy C. 1941–
Leroy C. Richie 1941–
Attorney, company executive
Until 1998, Leroy C. Richie was one of the highest-ranking African Americans among the management ranks of the domestic automobile manufacturing industry. As general counsel and vice president of automotive legal affairs for the Chrysler Corporation, the attorney and former New Yorker was part of a corporate team that shepherded the automaker into a new, solidly profitable era in the late 1980s and early 1990s. His high-profile position helped pave the way for other minority executives among the “Big Three,” Chrysler, General Motors, and Ford; when Richie arrived in Detroit in 1983, there were few African Americans at the top executive level among the carmakers, but when he retired fifteen years later, that number had increased significantly.
Richie was born and raised in Buffalo, New York, the son of a train porter. From an early age, he felt he might have a talent for legal advocacy—he was an excellent student in high school, well-liked by teachers and students alike, and when his friends were called into the vice-principal’s office for disciplinary action, Richie often managed to intercede on their behalf. His talents as a persuasive arguer led him first to pursue a degree in philosophy at the City College of New York, where he graduated first in his class, and then on to the prestigious New York University School of Law. After interning at the New York City branch of the American Civil Liberties Union, Richie earned his J.D. in 1973.
Corporate law, not constitutional challenges, however, was Richie’s area of interest, and after passing the bar he landed a job with the New York City firm of White & Case. He chose this field, as he recalled in an interview with Ebony magazine, “because of the high activity and the intellectual challenge it offers.” Richie was with White & Case for five years, litigating on behalf of the firm’s array of corporate clients on real estate, tax, and insurance matters. In 1978, he was tapped to head the U.S. Federal Trade Commission’s New York City Regional Trade Office. It was the Commission’s largest such office in the nation, and as its director Richie was responsible for its antitrust litigation, overseeing settlement negotiations and numerous other complex legal matters. His track record there attracted the attention of both Chrysler Corporation chair Lee Iacocca and Richard Goodyear, then general counsel for the Michigan automobile manufacturer. They wooed Richie away from the Federal Trade Commission job to become Chrysler’s assistant general counsel for labor personnel and management in 1983.
It was also necessary to convince Richie and his wife Julia that relocating to the Detroit area would be a rewarding experience. The couple had spent much of their adult lives in the New York City area, were raising a family that would eventually number five, and were leery of uprooting. In an interview with the Detroit Free Press several years later, Richie admitted that he and Julia initially assumed they would both miss New York City’s “very special energy,” as Richie told the paper. Yet
Born September 27, 1941, in Buffalo, NY; son of Leroy C. (a Pullman porter) and Mattie A.(Allen) Richie; married Julia Thomas, June 10, 1972; children: Leroy, Lamont, Loren, Brooke, Darcy. Education : City College of New York, B.A., 1970; New York University School of Law, J.D., 1973.
Career : American Civil Liberties Union, New York City, law intern, 1972; admitted to the Bar of the State of New York, 1974, and to the Bar of the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals (2nd Circuit), 1974; White & Case (law firm). New York City, attorney, 1973-78; Federal Trade Commission, director of New York City Regional Trade Office, c. 1978-83; Chrysler Corporation, Auburn Hills, Ml, began in 1983 as assistant general counsel for labor personnel and management, became associate general counsel, 1984, named general counsel and vice president of automotive legal affairs, June 1986, retired, 1998; admitted to the Bar of the State of Michigan, 1985. Also served as general counsel for United States Golf Association; chair, Visiting Nurses Association, Detroit, 1988-90; chair, HP Devco (Highland Park Development Corporation), 1988-; Marygrove College, board of trustees (chair, 1994-); National Judicial College (treasurer). Military service : United States Army, 1961-64.
Member : American Corporate Counsel Association (board of directors, Michigan chapter, 1987-), Detroit Bar Association.
Awards : ArthurGarfield Hayes Civil Liberties fellowship award, New York University, 1972.
Addresses : Home —Birmingham, Ml. Office—c/o Highland Park Development Corporation, 12541 Second Ave., Highland Park, Ml 48203.
Richie was happy to discover that “Chrysler emulates that energy, especially at the top levels.” The Richies were also pleased to find a much different mindset in their new environs—the auto executive described Mid-westerners as “much warmer … when you’re 40 and come to a new place it’s not easy to establish new, meaningful relationships,” he told the Free Press in 1989.
In 1984, Richie became associate general counsel for Chrysler, and two years later was named general counsel and vice president of automotive legal affairs, making him the only African American among the executive ranks of the Big Three automakers at the time. It was no cushy job, and thirteen-hour days at Chrysler headquarters were not uncommon for him. “The most challenging part of this job is developing creative solutions to the legal problems that the company faces while remaining consistent with our “Can Do’ motto, Richie told Ebony magazine not long after taking the job in 1986.
During this era, Chrysler was emerging out of one of its darkest financial periods, and one of the most significant changes Richie was able to implement concerned the way the company farmed out its legal work. Standard procedure for automakers and other large corporations was to hire law firms when they needed them, and pay them hourly, which in product-liability lawsuits might run into millions of dollars. Richie instituted a flat-fee system for litigation, with one firm in each region of the United States handling the company’s litigation needs. Such firms had usually done work for Chrysler before and bid for three-year contracts to represent the automaker; the new system would greatly reduce the automaker’s costs for product-liability suits.
During his tenure at Chrysler, Richie was a low-key member of the executive roster until a controversy involving a prominent private golf club. He became the first African American accepted into the extremely exclusive Bloomfield Hills Country Club in 1992, an event that attracted little media attention—but when another African American auto industry executive was rejected for membership two years later, some called for Richie to resign from the club in solidarity. Richie’s “admission made a powerful statement to a sport that had been sullied by charges of racial discrimination,” wrote Detroit Free Press columnist Doron Levin, but when Roy Roberts, head of General Motors Pontiac-GMC division, was refused membership, the Bloomfield Hills Country Club was accused of racism. Several white General Motors executives resigned in protest, but insiders told Levin politics played far more a role— among the high-powered corporate executives that made up the Club’s ranks, some (possibly affiliated with competing automakers) had long resented what they saw as weight-throwing on the part of General Motors executives. Richie allegedly did his own investigation of his club’s membership policies and the Roberts incident, and found no discrimination; Roberts was admitted in 1996 after a second bid.
Richie retired from Chrysler in a management reshuffle that became effective in early 1998. He took on an increasingly higher profile in his adopted home, sitting on numerous local boards and even being named to a transition team for a new mayoral administration in Detroit in 1993, though he was not technically a resident of the city; his duties on the team involved the law and public-safety sectors of the city government. He has also become chair of the board of directors for the Highland Park Development Corporation, a nonprofit agency set up to lure economic investment to Highland Park, Michigan. This small, economically disadvantaged city is enclosed by Detroit and served as home to Chrysler world headquarters until mid-1990s. With casino gaming arriving in Detroit as the year 2000 neared, some large casino operators—needing local minority investors—tried to lure Richie, but he declined to become involved.
Automotive News, December 8, 1997, p. 1.
Detroit Free Press, February 13, 1989, p. 1B; December 17, 1994, p. 9B; June 21, 1996, p. IE; March 28, 1997, p. 1C.
Ebony, November 1986, pp. 164-170.
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