Roberts, Roy S. 1939(?)–
Roy S. Roberts 1939(?)–
Automobile industry executive
Roy S. Roberts is the highest-ranking African American executive in the American automobile industry. As general manager of the newly-merged Pontiac-GMC division of General Motors, Roberts is presiding over the third-largest automobile manufacturing enterprise in the United States and is charged with leading his division into the twenty-first century as a cost-effective and innovative unit. Roberts was named to the Pontiac-GMC post when two divisions, Pontiac and GMC Trucks, were merged in 1996. He is the first person in the history of General Motors to manage such a merger, which requires streamlining the marketing networks and combining the staffs of two separate entities into a single work force. Roberts told Black Enterprise magazine that his goal is to create “the most valuable customer-focused car and truck enterprise in the country, supported by the most highly motivated, skilled, committed employees and dealer organization.”
Roberts is a self-made man in the traditional sense of the word. He went to work on an assembly line right out of high school and worked his way through the ranks to become a union steward and a plant manager. While working full-time, he took college courses at night until he earned a bachelor’s degree. He joined General Motors in 1977, assuming a series of important positions that have culminated in his current post. Roberts is aware of his pioneering status in the automobile industry, where the typical executive is both male and white. He noted in Forbes that he has always been willing to shoulder extra responsibilities as a role model and a barrier-breaker. “I’ve been the first black everywhere I went,” he said. “One of my jobs is to see I’m not the last.”
The second-youngest of ten children, Roberts was born in Magnolia, Arkansas. His mother died when he was only two, and his father—a barber and factory worker— moved the family north to Michigan. Roberts’s father strongly encouraged Roy and his siblings to take their education seriously. Roberts told Black Enterprise that, thanks to his father’s prodding, every member of the family earned a bachelor’s degree or better.
In Roberts’s case, it took several years to complete a bachelor’s degree. Upon graduation from high school, Roberts went to work on the assembly line at Lear Siegler, an aerospace parts manufacturer. His boss urged him to attend college in the evenings and Roberts finished his undergraduate degree in business administration from Western Michigan University.
In 1977, Roberts took his first job at General Motors in Grand Rapids, Michigan as a trainee in the diesel equipment division. Within four years, he had learned so much on the job that he was given a position as plant manager. Between 1981 and 1987 he assumed several plant management positions, most notably in Rochester,
At a Glance …
Born ca. 1939 in Magnolia, AR; son of a factory worker; married with children. Education: Western Michigan University, B.A.; attended Harvard University program in international business.
Lear Sieglar (aerospace parts manufacturer), MI, assembly line worker; General Motors Corporation, Grand Rapids, MI, began as division trainee, became plant manager in Rochester, NY, and Tarrytown, NY, 1977-87, vice president for personnel, 1987-88; Navistar International, Chicago, IL, vice president for truck operations, 1988-90; General Motors Corporation, Pontiac, MI, manufacturing manager of Cadillac Motor Car Company, 1990-91, operations executive, 1991-92, GMC Division general manager, 1992-96, Pontiac-GMC Division general manager, 1996—. Member of executive boards, National Urban League and National Boy Scouts of America; former member of board of trustees, Morehouse School of Medicine.
Selected awards: American Success Award from President George Bush; named Executive of the Year by Black Enterprise magazine, 1996; named Executive of the Year by African Americans on Wheels magazine, 1997; honorary doctorate degrees from Florida A&M University and Grand Valley State College.
Addresses: Office —General Motors Corporation, 31 E. Judson St., MC 3108-11, Pontiac, MI 48342-2230.
New York and Tarrytown, New York. As a manager, Roberts earned a reputation as a tough but compassionate person who tried to streamline operations without resorting to the massive, morale-breaking layoffs so common during the era. “I never minimize the people side of the business,” Roberts explained in Business Week. “That’s one thing I learned as an hourly worker, a [United Auto Workers] member, and an employee coming up through the ranks.”
The rewards of compassionate management practices became apparent in Tarrytown, when African American assembly line workers met secretly with Roberts and guided him step by step through the entire manufacturing process. “After hours, when only certain guards were on duty, they took me through my paces,” Roberts recalled in Black Enterprise. “They taught me how to build a car. They wanted me to succeed.” Success was also an important goal for Roberts. Remembering his early career in a Black Enterprise interview, Roberts mused, “A lot of my waking hours were dedicated toward my next job and figuring out how I was going to get it. My goal then was to be an officer in this company.”
In 1987, Roberts assumed the position of vice president for personnel at the Tarrytown plant, an appointment that surprised many industry insiders. Roberts held that position for a year and “proceeded to sweep out 40,000 jobs,” according to a quote in Business Week magazine. He left GM in 1988 to become vice president for truck operations at Navistar International Corporation in Chicago. Roberts joined Navistar with the intention of becoming chairman. However, within a year, he realized that his business philosophy differed from the company’s chiefs. “I wanted to diversify [Navistar and] the chairman didn’t, so I came back [to GM],” Roberts recalled in Black Enterprise. “I came back knowing how to operate an entire company.” In 1990, Roberts was named manufacturing manager for the Cadillac Motor Car Company.
Roberts entered the upper management echelon in 1992 when he was named general manager of GMC, the premium, upscale truck division at General Motors. Roberts is credited with boosting GMC’s fortunes by capitalizing on the surge of interest in sport utility vehicles and light pickup trucks. In his first three years at GMC, the division broke all-time sales records every year as sales rose from 359,365 units in 1992 to 462,185 units in 1995, representing 7.1 percent of the world market for trucks and four-wheel drive vehicles. According to Alan L. Adler in the Detroit Free Press, Roberts’s success at GMC earned him the reputation as a “visionary” in the auto industry.
Traditionally, General Motors dealers sold both GMC trucks and Pontiac cars and minivans under the same roof. In the 1990s, officials at General Motors considered the prospect of merging the two divisions into a single Pontiac-GMC unit. The benefits of such a merger would be many: streamlining the work force, marketing, and sales staffs; ending duplicate corporate functions at two different geographic locations; and combining products aimed at the young, upper-middle-income buyer. Once the decision to merge was finalized, Roy Roberts became the logical candidate to run the new division— America’s third-largest car and truck franchise. On February 20, 1996, Roberts was officially named general manager of the Pontiac-GMC Division.
Roberts compared his new responsibilities to “changing the wheels on a car while you’re moving.” The demands of the job make it one of the industry’s “hot seats.” Roberts has been forced to eliminate numerous jobs and phase out dealerships. He is also responsible for keeping the Pontiac-GMC product line lively and attractive to potential customers. Most observers feel he is ideally suited to the task at hand. “I’m not the kind of person who can watch the gate for you,” he explained in Black Enterprise. “I’m not the kind of manager who maintains the status quo. Every day I come to work and think very seriously about how I can make things better. If I can’t, what’s the point?” Roberts added, “I’m convinced that in five years, we’ll be the premier auto company in this country in cost, quality, durability, and profitability.”
Cognizant of his position as a prominent African American auto executive, Roberts has devoted significant time to charitable causes. He has served as a board member for Morehouse School of Medicine, the United Negro College Fund, the Boy Scouts of America, and the National Urban League. In 1994, when Roberts was turned down for membership in the exclusive Bloomfield Hills Country Club, community leaders of both races vehemently criticized the decision as racist and unfair. As a result of the outcry, he was admitted to the club. The level of support Roberts received is truly indicative of the respect he has earned among his peers.
Roberts has received numerous significant awards and public commendations since becoming head of Pontiac-GMC. He was named Executive of the Year in 1996 by both Black Enterprise and African Americans on Wheels magazines. In the case of Black Enterprise, Roberts was honored as much for his leadership and charisma as for his accomplishments in the business world. Black Enterprise correspondent Caroline V. Clarke wrote, “As someone who has beaten the path from the assembly line to the executive suite, [Roberts’s] story is accessible to virtually everyone. And his warm, gregarious manner only makes it more so.”
General Motors has a mandatory retirement policy for all employees at age 65. Roberts will reach that mark soon after the turn of the century. However, with his many charitable concerns, numerous speaking engagements, and multifaceted executive experience, Roberts will certainly remain active for years to come. Reflecting on his ground-breaking career, Roberts told the Wall Street Journal, “I’ve never had a job that I disliked. I’ve never had a job I did not grow from. It’s been a good journey.”
Black Enterprise, June 1996, pp. 214-20.
Business Week, March 4, 1996, p. 38.
Detroit Free Press, February 20, 1996, p. A1; February 21, 1996, p. A1; June 18, 1996, p. E1; December 5, 1996, p. A1; January 9, 1997, p. C2.
Forbes, April 25, 1994, p. 186.
Wall Street Journal, February 21, 1996, p. B2.
—Anne Janette Johnson
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