“I’m of the opinion,” says entrepreneur Michael V. Roberts, Sr., “that we have to be the ones to turn the Dr. Martin Luther Kings of America, those streets that are more shameful than positive images for our great leader. That we, as black people, should take the responsibility of changing that image and redeveloping the community ourselves.”
Roberts, a self-made millionaire, is chairman/CEO of The Roberts Companies, a diversified group of businesses that include commercial real estate, construction, communications, and aviation.
The entrepreneurial spirit has been with him since childhood. “When I was a boy old enough to cut grass, my dad told me it was time to cut the yard. He paid me the equivalent of a dollar,” he recalls. “When the neighbors saw that I did a pretty good job, they in turn asked me to cut their grass. They paid me five dollars. I said, ‘Aha! This working for yourself thing is not too bad.’”
Roberts still had enterprise on his mind as a high school student. “Even when I was in school, I was doing things like selling dashikis,” he says. “I would sell to book stores back when it was still sort of cool to do that.”
After receiving his law degree from St. Louis University in 1974, Roberts and his brother Steven founded Roberts-Roberts & Associates (RR&A), a business consulting and construction-management firm offering management of all phases of construction projects, including ensuring the participation of minority- and woman-owned and local small businesses. RR&A has managed MBE/WBE participation as construction contractors, vendors, and suppliers in projects nationwide exceeding $30 billion.
At a time when upwardly mobile blacks were moving to the suburbs, Roberts moved “two blocks from the projects where I lived for ten years. And in the course of doing that gave me a great feel for, and comfort level with our people.” That “feel and comfort level” influenced Roberts to run for office. He was elected and served on the St. Louis Board of Aldermen from 1977-85. His leadership in the creation of innovative strategies for financing propelled St. Louis into a major redevelopment phase that lasted throughout the 1980s.
Roberts himself participated directly in that boom through his development company, now called Roberts Brothers Properties (RBP). He recognized that there was a great deal of under- or undeveloped land in the community. ”I started buying all types of inner-city property when nobody was touching it,” he says.
In 1982, Roberts acquired a vacant Sears, Roebuck building, the city’s largest (200,000 square feet) commercial office building outside the downtown business district. By 1985, the renamed Victor Roberts Building had become a thriving commercial center, delivering goods and services to over 3,000 people a day. In 1991, RBP opened an Aldi supermarket on the corner of the building’s parking lot. In 1999, it developed a parcel adjacent to the building, attracting Blockbuster Video into the minority community for the first time.
Roberts Plaza, LLC was formed in 1999 when Roberts purchased a strip shopping center and freestanding store in St. Louis’ fashionable central west end. Anchored by the city’s largest grocery store and located at one of its busiest intersections, The Shops at Roberts Village was completed in early 2003 and brought a new shopping plaza and jobs to the area adjacent to the Victor Roberts Building.
RBP’s extensive portfolio includes several other high-profile projects. He purchased the former St. Louis School Board building in downtown St. Louis in 2003, and renovated the site into Roberts Lofts, 47 loft apartments and first-floor commercial space.
Also in 2003, RBP bought the Orpheum Theater, a former vaudeville house in lavishly ornamented beaux-arts style, from the original owner’s family. With seating for 1,500, the Roberts Orpheum is a venue for mid-sized theatrical shows, concerts, weddings, and corporate and special events.
In 2006, RBP broke ground on the renovation of the historic Enright School into Roberts Place, a gated community with 70 apartments and 24 3,000 square-foot single-family homes designed to meet LEED (Leadership in Energy Efficient Design) standards for environmentally sustainable, responsible development.
Roberts is also among a handful of African-American hotel developers. He began with the18-story, 182-room Roberts Mayfair Hotel, the first and only African-American-owned hotel in downtown St. Louis and the first affiliation of one with Wyndham Hotels Inc. Originally opened in 1926 Roberts acquired the hotel in 2003. One of the city’s best-known boutique hotels, it sits in the center of the convention district and consists primarily of luxury suites.
Roberts Tower, a 24-story glass tower adjacent to the Mayfair, has 58 luxury condos, a four-star restaurant, a spa and exercise room, and meeting rooms. It’s designed to achieve LEED Gold certification.
Roberts owns 11 hotels, including Roberts Crowne Plaza Hotel, Marietta –Atlanta; Roberts Comfort Inn-Busch Gardens; Roberts Clarion Hotel-Johnson Space Center; Robert and Roberts Isle and Resort, the largest African-American owned resort in the Bahamas. He also owns Roberts Centre of Denver (CO), a downtown office building.
Roberts’ other business ventures include Roberts Broadcasting Co. (1989), the licensee for WRBU-TV in St. Louis, as well as TV stations in Jackson, MS and Columbia, SC. Roberts Wireless Communications, opened in 1998, provides Sprint PCS service to more than 2.5 million residents of Missouri, Illinois and Kansas.
Roberts’ success in financing and building a wireless telephone network led to a merger of Roberts Wireless with Alamosa PCS, Washington-Oregon Wireless, and Southwest PCS in 2001, creating Roberts Tower Co., Sprint PCS’s largest affiliate, covering over 15 million people in 13 states. Roberts Aviation owns two aircraft, a Gulfstream III 12-passenger luxury jet and a Hawker 8eight-passenger mid-sized jet.
Formerly an RBP division, Roberts Custom Cabinetry & Woodworking became an independent firm in 2005 as a result of commercial client interest in the craftsmanship produced for other projects.
Roberts is also the author of Action Has No Season; Secrets and Strategies to Gaining Wealth and Authority (AuthorHouse, 2005), and has spoken at numerous universities and business conferences. Both his book and his speaking engagements focus on a central theme.
“I want people to know not to continue to make the mistake of saying, ‘Oh look, I had that idea two years ago.’ Now, someone has taken the idea that you had and they’ve made millions of dollars. I want people to lose their fear of failure. It’s nothing more than a mental construct. It’s not of nature –– it’s not like lightning or thunder. And it should be eliminated from your mindset.
“I want people to be “actionaires,” he says. “I want people to realize that all they have is a second. That in the 86,400 seconds given to us every day in 24 hours, use every moment to its fullest extent. Use it, or you will lose it.”