Robert D. Blackwell, Sr.: Someone You Should Know
A man walks and casts a shadow. In time, no one knows which is man and which is shadow; or how great the shadow that he cast.
Some college athletes leave it all on the field and walk away once their playing days are over. Not Bob Blackwell. He picked up the ball and ran with it–across the color line, up the IBM corporate ladder, and into a multi-million dollar tech consulting business. He is, as Harry Porterfield used to say, someone you should know.
In the introduction to his autobiography, My Evolution as an Entrepreneur, Robert Blackwell asked himself, “How do I start telling the story of me?” He thought a long time before coming up with the obvious answer: understand yourself: your strengths, your weaknesses, and your life experiences that will help others find their way through the corporate world?” Even for those of us who never have been, or ever will be, entrepreneurs, his story offers an insight into how to succeed in business and in life. He sums it up in just five words: sweat, determination, sacrifice, hard work, and ambition.
In the Beginning
Robert Blackwell’s humble beginnings did not promise success in the corporate world. He was born to Richard and Mary Ellen Blackwell on July 28, 1937, in Eastville, Virginia–delivered by a very capable midwife. Shortly afterwards, Robert and his mother returned to their home in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, a wealthy Philadelphia suburb. There was a saying in Bryn Mawr at that time, “you were either rich or black.” The Blackwells were black. Robert’s father was a porter and his mother a maid at Bryn Mawr College. On many blocks of the community, there were estates and mansions where the wealthy lived. Then, there were the three blocks where black people lived. Most people on those blocks worked for the people who lived in the mansions.
As a child, Robert attended Rosemont Elementary School, an excellent public school. Although he was a good student, he did not flaunt his academic side. In Bob’s neighborhood, it was better to be tough and street smart than book smart and nerdy. So, Blackwell developed his football skills. He became so good, he earned an athletic scholarship to the University of Witchita.
Young, Gifted, and Black
In the ninth grade, Bob Blackwell made an “interesting” discovery. He was meeting with an academic counselor to talk about his future. When he told the counselor he wanted to go into business, the counselor advised him to take typing, shorthand, and business math—effectively telling that he was black and poor, and poor black people did not go into business. Of course he had always known both of these things, but they didn’t seem important. Not until he learned the same counselor directed his white friends to take Latin, algebra, physics, and chemistry. The counselor knew that Robert’s parents were domestics and assumed he could only follow the same path. She was so wrong!
That advice, though not meant to be malicious, made Robert realize that skin color would always be a factor in his life. He understood that he would have to cross the color line to succeed. If he let that line hold him back, he would fail. He did not fail. In fact he ended up enjoying a 25-year career as a manager with IBM and later operated his own highly successful technology consulting company.
Behind Every Good Man
Most men are lucky if they find one good woman. Robert Blackwell found three, meeting all of them at critical stages of his life. The first was the secretary to his football coach at the University of Witchita. Assuming that college would be a lot like high school– six courses, lunch, and football practice, Bob was going to register for 27 semester hours, When the secretary saw this, she explained that it was not humanly possible to follow that schedule. She persuaded him to sign up for 15 hours, enabling him to survive for both academics and athletics.
The same secretary led Bob to the second good woman in his life, Mrs. Fugate, Dean of Women and math professor at Witchita. Mrs. Fugate was a “white” woman whose husband was a very successful lawyer and had been, at one time, the Mayor of Witchita. The coach’s secretary looked at Bob’s high school record and saw that he had taken no college prep courses. Knowing he was in trouble, she directed him to Mrs. Fugate’s non-credit math course. Mrs. Fugate was a no-nonsense, tough love kind of woman. She went about helping Bob fill in his educational gaps. Once, she caught Robert dozing off (a problem she had with a lot of football players) and threatened to call his parents. That was the last thing he wanted. Like the kid who got spanked for misbehaving in class, Bob knew he would get much worse at home. He managed to stay awake in Mrs. Fugate’s class.
One November Saturday, a couple of years later, Robert broke his leg playing football in Abilene, Texas and was taken to the black patient section of the hospital. The room was so filthy, he refused to stay there and went back to Kansas with the team. An ambulance met him at the airport and took him to a hospital in Witchita, where he remained for almost a month. On Thanksgiving Day, Bob Blackwell was sitting forlornly in his hospital room, 1,500 miles from home, when in walked Mrs. Fugate with turkey, dressing, sweet potatoes, cranberry sauce, and pumpkin pie—only one of her many kindnesses that helped him get through the tough times that he experienced throughout the next decade. The bond that they formed in those early days endured until Mrs. Fugate’s death at age 100.
The third good woman in Robert Blackwells life was the smart, beautiful lady who would become his wife, Marjilee Ovitie. Bob met Marjilee when he was still a student at Witchita, and she recognized that he had something special. Although, it must be said, she had to look pretty hard to find it at that time. In his own words, Bob had seriously messed up during his last years in college. He got in with a crowd addicted to playing cards, shooting pool, and carousing. His grades plummeted, and, as a result, he did not graduate after four years. With no scholarship and no football career, he ended up working as a janitor for Kansas Gas and Electric. Marjilee married him anyway, and stood by him when he escaped the utility company by enlisting in the army. It was a good move. The rigorous army training shaped him up and helped him became a responsible individual.
When Robert’s enlistment period ended, he got a job driving a taxi, working hours on end to support his growing family. After one particularly grueling day, Marjilee found him asleep in the bath tub at three o’clock in the morning. That was it. “I didn’t marry a taxi driver,” she told him. “Go back to school!” She packed up their children and went to live with her parents in Louisville. Robert went back to Witchita. This time, he studied hard and graduated. Once again, Mrs. Fugate had his back. She contacted IBM, for whom she had been an academic advisor, and insisted they offer Robert Blackwell a job. They did, and thus began Blackwell’s 25-year climb up the IBM corporate ladder.
How to Succeed in Business By Really Trying
Once he got his foot in the door at IBM, Robert was determined to work harder, longer, and better than anyone else. If others got to work at seven, he was there at six. If they left at five, he left at eight. Since IBM was all about sales, he began by learning the company’s golden rules of good salesmanship. Rule Number One: deal only with the executives of a company where you hope to sell your product. Rule Number Two: know what you’re selling and convince executives that they need your product and that they need to do business with IBM. Rule Number Three: look like you belong in the office of the CEO—wear white shirts, striped ties, black shoes, black sox, and blue suits. Rule Number Four: understand the client’s business problem, and show how your product will help solve that problem.
In 1965, dressed for success and trained for the job, Robert called on his first client the Love Corrugated Box Company. The owner was Bob Love, who happened to be president of the local John Birch Society. IBM had offered to give that assignment to someone else, but Robert said, “Look, I’ve been black every day of my life and I’ve had to deal with prejudiced white people. If I can’t do this, then I don’t belong here. Just let me go out there and show that I can work hard and get the job done.”
Right away, Robert encountered an antagonistic female accountant named Billy Bartlett who told him in no uncertain terms that he knew nothing about accounting and couldn’t help the company. “Well, Billy,” he said, “you do understand accounting, and you understand the business. On the other hand, I understand the equipment and I can make it work to solve your business problems today and tomorrow. You make up for my accounting shortcomings, I’ll make up for your technology shortcomings. Together, we’ll get this thing done.” Billy still didn’t like him, but she believed him. When the job was finished, Love Box ran better than before, and Robert had learned an important lesson right out of the corrugated box: don’t assume that people who don’t like you won’t accept you as a problem-solver if you can improve their business. They may not invite you to dinner, but they will mail you a large check.
Movin’ On Up
Robert became one of the best and brightest on the IBM sales staff, but he was still hoping to go into management. When that opportunity presented itself, it was not with IBM, but with the State of Kansas. He was offered a position as assistant director for information and technology, managing more than 200 programmers and overseeing a lot of new technologies. It was a good job, and he loved it. But he did not love the extent to which politics and politicians kept getting in the way of the good things that could have and should have been done. Sound familiar? He also did not like being caught in the middle of political infighting. When his boss got fired after a new party gained the majority, the new boss called him in. “I know you don’t like me,” he said, “but I’m the boss now. You do what I tell you or else.” With a wife and five children to support, Robert couldn’t consider the “or else.”
But somewhere, the gods were smiling on Robert Blackwell. On that same day, his phone rang, and it was an old IBM friend from Witchita who had been made a market manager in Chicago. He wondered if Robert would be interested in joining his team. Robert flew to Chicago, interviewed, and got the job. In a touch of poetic justice, he went back to Kansas and he confronted the smug boss who was so sure he had his employee in a bind. “I don’t need you,” he said “and I don’t need this lousy job. Good-bye,” The look on the guy’s face was worth the price of admission.
The Rest is History
Robert’s last years at IBM were textbook. He began as an assistant manager, worked his way up to manager, and went into the consulting end of the business. He was riding the crest of the wave. But everything changes, and IBM, once the undisputed leader of the technology world, fell on hard times. The outsourcing and service areas were doing well, but the rest of the business was not. In an attempt to downsize, IBM offered many of its senior staff lucrative termination packages that included full benefits. It was an offer Robert Blackwell couldn’t refuse. Twenty-five years earlier, he had joined IBM as a naïve young kid. It was time to move on. He left with an impressive set of credentials, including a solid understanding of computer technology, sales, and management.
To Blackwell Consulting and Beyond
Leaving IBM opened the curtain on Act Two of Robert Blackwell’s extraordinary life. Drawing on his computer technology and management skills, Robert and his son, also a technology expert, opened Blackwell Consulting in 1992. They were later joined by Blackwell’s daughter Pamela. The three of them made the company one of the largest minority-owned businesses in the technology industry, focusing on package and custom application solutions, infrastructure and network solutions, and IT management services. Like IBM, Blackwell Consulting provided training programs, mentoring, and employee recognition. In their first year, the company brought in more than $2 million in billings from IBM alone. More big companies came on board and revenues kept growing. Blackwell Consulting survived the dot.com crash of 2001 and pulled in $28 million that year. Pamela was promoted to president and chief operating officer in 2004 and vowed to increase revenues to $100 million by 2008.
You Gotta’ Know When To Fold ‘Em
As Robert Blackwell had already learned, nothing lasts forever. In 2008, a serious Depression gripped the country and Blackwell Consulting. Revenues suffered, and they were losing money. All of their big clients were cutting costs by moving their IT work to India. Robert did what he had to do—he sold the business and walked away.
End of story—well, not quite. Robert’s phone has a habit of ringing at the most auspicious moments. He had no sooner settled into his “retirement” when another opportunity came calling. This time it was the DuSable Museum of African American History in Chicago asking if he would take over as interim director and CEO. Blackwell, a board member of the museum, didn’t skip a beat. Once again he saw an opportunity, and he took it; casting an even greater shadow over the landscape of his life.
Filed under: Living in Interesting Times