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(Left) MIKE ROBERTS chairman of the board, The Roberts Companies
(Right) STEVE ROBERTS president, The Roberts Companies

BROTHERS,
BUSINESS PARTNERS...
FRIENDS


ROBERTS BROTHERS OVERSEE GROWING $460 MILLION,
34-COMPANY EMPIRE.


BY PAM DROOG

On a recent Sunday in Atlanta, a few guys got together for brunch before the National Basketball Association All-Star game. The group included former President Bill Clinton; former Atlanta mayor Maynard Jackson; former Atlanta mayor and United States ambassador to the United Nations Andrew Young; Perry Christie, the prime minister of the Bahamas; and St. Louis businessmen and former Aldermen Mike and Steve Roberts. “The one person who knew everyone was me,” says Mike Roberts.

When they’re not dining with dignitaries, the Roberts brothers might be making phone calls, attending meetings or considering deals on behalf of The Roberts Companies, a diversified $460 million, 34-company empire. Holdings range from real estate development to business consulting, television stations to wireless communications, aviation to construction...even a gated community in the Bahamas.

Mike is chairman of the board and Steve is president of the company. Each division is named Roberts—even Roberts Isle. And why not—they’ve earned it. “We’ve been breaking down barriers as long as we can remember,” says Steve Roberts.

THE VILLAGE

The hub of all things Roberts is the Victor Roberts Building, a former Sears store on North Kingshighway at Martin Luther King Blvd. The brothers bought it in 1982 and named it for their father who retired from the U.S. Postal Service after 39 years; he’s chief financial officer of The Roberts Companies. Today his namesake building houses an eclectic mix of 50-plus restaurants, retail shops and service businesses. On the top floor are the Roberts’ corporate offices and the master control studio for their television stations.

The brothers were born just a couple of blocks away and spent their early years nearby. They have a younger brother, Mark, who now works in the Denver office and will manage the company’s upcoming Jackson, Miss. office later this year. The youngest Roberts, Lori, works in the company’s St. Louis office.

From a young age, the two brothers were devoted to each other, and to excellence. “We were always linked together,” says Mike, who’s three-and-a-half years older than Steve. “We were pretty much interested in achieving our goals, and in working.”


Steve and Mike Roberts discuss the business of the day.

The brothers cut grass, shoveled snow, delivered newspapers. “In college I had a little business trying to sell dashikis (colorful shirts) and African paraphernalia to bookstores,” Mike says.

Both Roberts attended college as Danforth fellows. Mike attended Lindenwood University, then earned a J.D. degree from Saint Louis University School of Law in 1974. He also attended the Hague Academy of International Law in the Netherlands.

Mike had considered a career in medicine, since the most successful African Americans he saw were doctors. “I also thought of being an Episcopal priest, because in that role I could pontificate to people on Sunday mornings,” Mike says. “But I realized if I went to law school and got into politics I could pontificate every day.”

Steve attended Clark University in Massachusetts. Like Mike, he considered careers in medicine and ministry, “but I think we both realized independently our destinies were in different directions,” he says. He also returned to St. Louis for law school, earning a J.D. and L.L.M. at Washington University.

While Steve studied law, Mike launched Roberts-Roberts & Associates, in 1974. “We never planned to practice law,” Mike explains. He believes “law school is a great extended liberal arts education that also teaches you a new language, how to think, how to perceive opportunities more quickly.”

Mike perceived an opportunity based on his knowledge of Title VII law and how it addressed discrimination in the workplace. “At the time a lot of big companies had big class-action lawsuits against them that cost hundreds of millions of dollars,” he says. “So we had their attention.” Roberts-Roberts & Associates worked with public and private sector clients including Nooter Corporation, Anheuser-Busch, Southwestern Bell, Bi-State Development, MoDOT and others, consulting on increasing participation of minority and women-owned businesses in multi-million-dollar capital construction projects.

At the same time, Mike pursued his goal of seeking elective office. He’d always been active in college and community politics, but he got a real taste of the lifestyle in 1976, when he was Jimmy Carter’s campaign manager in St. Louis. “When he was elected I was at the White House every month,” Mike says. He played tennis with Hamilton Jordan, Carter’s chief of staff, and hob-nobbed with cabinet members. “It was quite an illuminating experience,” he recalls. The following year, 1977, at age 28, he became the youngest person ever elected to the St. Louis Board of Aldermen—that is, until Steve, age 26, was elected two years later.

ON THE BOARD

“Being an alderman is one of the best experiences you can have,” Steve says. “I was in a good position to do a lot of good.” He was the chief sponsor of the St. Louis Centre and Union Station developments, and Mike was the force behind Grand Center. They both had a hand in Laclede’s Landing and Gateway Mall redevelopment.

Longtime friend Mike Jones, executive director of the Greater St. Louis Regional Empowerment Zone, served with the Roberts on the Board of Aldermen. “It was me, Mike, Steve, Virvus Jones and Wayman Smith, the political equivalent of the Temptations. We had a great time every Friday and put on a great show!” Jones recalls. “Each of us five guys were strong individual leaders, but we always found a way to support each other even when we occasionally disagreed.” Though he has been in public service a long time, Jones says, “that period will always stand out as the highlight of my public life.”


(left to right): MIKE JONES, STEVE ROBERTS, MIKE ROBERTS, WAYMAN SMITH and VIRVUS JONES—served together as Aldermen in the early ’80s.

Despite their accomplishments, Mike left the board in 1983 and Steve in 1991. “We both feel that government service needs to be rotated. New ideas should come in,” Mike says. “But just because you’re not elected, that doesn’t mean you can’t serve. We believed now we needed to put our money where our mouth used to be.”

As a result, in the past two decades, Mike and Steve have invested about $25 million in commercial and residential redevelopment in the city through Roberts Brothers Development. “In this environment we have our own laboratory, creating jobs and making sure folks can take care of their families,” Mike says. “We had political empowerment, but now we have economic empowerment, which is much more real and tangible.”

At one point the brothers owned about 90 residential units. Other acquisitions include the Victor Roberts Building; a 40,000-square-foot strip mall at Kingshighway and Delmar plus surrounding properties; the former W.K. Woods Stationery building at 209 N. 4th St.; the former St. Louis School Board headquarters at 911 Locust St.; Roberts Village a 27,000-square-foot development at Martin Luther King and Kingshighway; and a 42,000-square-foot center being built behind the Victor Roberts Building, earned Mike and Steve the Mayor’s Spirit of St. Louis Award last year.

“Every banker I talked to said that’s not a good location. So we set an example and put up a $4 million strip mall ourselves,” Mike says. “Now those bankers are saying please let us refinance you!”

TV STATIONS AND TOWERS


One day in 1981, the Roberts met a man who knew another man who wanted to meet African Americans who might be interested in owning a TV station. “We said, why not? We both had backgrounds in communications,” Steve says. At the time, minorities had an advantage when applying for a broadcast license. The Roberts did their homework and applied. “The challenge was, everyone else applying for the license also was an African American so we were back to a level playing field,” Steve says. “But that was the genesis of Roberts Broadcasting.”

Another challenge was it took six years to actually get the license. And when they got it, they had no programming for it. “We talked to religious broadcasters, shopping networks, everybody,” Steve says. “We met the founders of Home Shopping Network and established a strategic partnership with them. We’d take their programming off the satellite and they’d pay us to broadcast it in this market.”

The new station owners still were missing one vital component: a broadcasting facility. “The original TV stations in the market were built in the 1940s and ’50s, so building a new one was a major undertaking,” Steve says. The station, WRBU-TV Channel 46, which became a UPN affiliate in April, was the first new full-power television station in the St. Louis market in 20 years, and it’s the first fully-automated station in the U.S.

Armed with the experience of establishing one TV station, the Roberts built 11 more and sold eight of them to various broadcasting companies. Today the company owns and operates TV stations in St. Louis and Denver. The brothers hope to build stations in Columbia, S.C. and Jackson, Miss.

HOLD THE PHONE

Building all those TV towers, the Roberts gained expertise in construction, which led to the establishment of Roberts Construction Company in 1989. An affiliated business, Roberts Tower Company, locates, designs, builds and owns towers for television stations—and for the wireless communication industry.

“When we went through the painful process of putting together our first TV station, we also learned how the system works and became familiar with emerging technologies,” Steve says. “That led to our bidding at the FCC auctions for wireless-phone licenses, and that led to Roberts Wireless.” Again, the Roberts got their licenses—but needed the equipment and hardware to use them. That would cost about $65 million. Their clever solution was to make a deal with Sprint PCS to become an affiliate and return the government licenses.

With the help of Lucent Technologies, which loaned them $56 million for equipment and construction, Roberts Wireless developed Sprint’s PCS network in all of Missouri except St. Louis and KC, plus parts of Illinois, Kansas, Oklahoma and Arkansas. It was the only PCS company wholly-owned by African Americans in the nation. The company’s first Sprint PCS store opened Feb. 2, 1999 in Jefferson City. The late Governor Mel Carnahan and Lt. Gov. Roger Wilson attended the ribbon cutting.

But the brothers didn’t stop there. In summer 2000, Roberts Wireless merged with Alamosa PCS Holdings Inc., another Sprint PCS affiliate, for $4 million cash and 13.5 million shares of stock, about $280 million at the time. Alamosa also took over the $56 million loan from Lucent. The brothers kept their 154 Sprint PCS towers.

All this activity caught the attention of Forbes, Success and Black Enterprise magazine, which listed the Roberts’ broadcasting and wireless communications companies among the largest minority-owned businesses in the United States.

IF IT FITS...

“We are diversified,” Mike says. “I always felt that’s important. If you limit yourself to one sector of business opportunities in this economy, you die.” But, he explains, there is a logical connection between, for example, a wireless phone company and downtown office buildings. “A large part of building a wireless phone company is buying the real estate for the towers,” Mike says.

A real estate deal also was the catalyst for Roberts Steak & Buffet restaurant. The brothers bought a restaurant property complete with equipment and a good I-270 location. “We thought let’s reopen it, and we found someone to run it,” Steve says. The restaurant was sold to Cracker Barrel in May.

The aviation division, Roberts Aviation, was founded in 2000. “That fit with our other companies, because we had made a big sale and needed an appropriate tax shelter,” Mike says. The company owns and leases a 12-passenger luxury Gulfstream III and a mid-size eight passenger Hawker. “They earn their keep,” he adds.

Then there’s Roberts Isle, the brothers’ Bahamas property located near Nassau. “That put us into international business,” Mike says. The Roberts, who have private homes in the area and have been visiting there for more than 25 years, are working on permits for a $25 million, 54-unit residential development on 2.5 acres.

“We probably have someone submitting some kind of deal to us almost daily,” Steve says. “If it makes that first cut, or if we have a business related to it, we’ll look at the numbers, put a plan together and run it past our experts. None of them is ever shocked or tells us, this time you’ve gone too far.”

Adds Kay Gabbert, senior vice president of the Roberts Companies, “Our philosophy typically is, if there’s an opportunity, let’s go for it. We never say no. We always want next year to be different from this year, and it has been that way for the three of us for 21 years.”

INVOLVED AND COMMITTED

It’s hard to pick up a local publication and not find one or both Roberts brothers mentioned, not just for their business activities, but also for their leadership roles in professional and civic organizations. Mike is or has been a board member of the St. Louis Community College Foundation, United Way, Better Family Life, Home Shopping Network, Acme Communications and Alamosa PCS. Steve also serves on the Alamosa PCS board, as well as Allegiant Bank, Falcon Products and Silver King Communications. He’s vice chairman of the board of MERS/Goodwill, and also a board member of the Muny, the Repertory Theatre, the Missouri Historical Society, the Fair St. Louis Foundation, St. Patrick’s Center, the AIDS Foundation, St. Louis Black Leadership Roundtable and Whitfield School.

In addition, Steve is vice chairman of the Regional Business Council and a member of the RCGA’s Leadership Circle. From that perspective, he says he’d like to see more business people get involved in their communities. “I’d like to see them take just five percent of their time and become mentors, work with Red Cross, serve on local theatre boards, visit seniors or tutor children,” he says. Mike adds, “It’s not a sin to make a lot of money. It’s a sin when you don’t know how to reinvest through contributions back into the community to make a better society in which you operate your business.”

More of Mike’s business philosophies soon will be available in a book he’s writing, Action Has No Season: Understanding the Complexities of Gaining Wealth and Authority. “Basically it’s for my kids,” he says. “It’s the things you don’t learn in school.” Mike and his wife Jeanne have four children, including a twin son and daughter who will graduate next year from Pepperdine University School of Law—and join The Roberts Companies. Steve and his wife Eva Frazer, M.D., have three children.

In their free time, the brothers like to work. “We work seven days a week, not in the office, but we’re always thinking about the business,” Steve says. Adds Mike, “If you enjoy what you’re doing you never work a day in your life.”

Actually, they like to play tennis and ski. “We have always liked to fish,” Mike says. “Now, we do it at our own place in the Bahamas!”

Have things turned out the way they expected? “No, because we never expected anything,” Steve says. “Did we expect we’d be in the wireless communications business, or the tower business, or own a TV station? No! When we were growing up, those things would have been in our furthest fantasies, as alien as building condos on the moon.”

Roberts Earthview Village...now there’s an opportunity.


Pam Droog is a frequent contributor to St. Louis Commerce Magazine.


 

 

 


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