Thomas B. Shropshire Biography
Went from Arkansas to Africa, Took Miller to Number Two Spot, Built Business Opportunities for Minorities
Thomas B. Shropshire was one of the first African Americans to break the color barrier in corporate America when he became a top executive at the Miller Brewing Company in the 1970s. His position was of note because he was not promoted merely to meet diversity quotas at the corporation. The Business Journal of Milwaukee wrote that Shropshire did not have "the title of VP for urban affairs, minority affairs, or numerous other corporate labels that were specifically crafted to employ minorities in high-profile positions. Shropshire had bottom-line responsibility throughout his corporate career." Even as he forged his place in the executive suite, Shropshire worked to help other African Americans join him. "He believed in reaching back and helping others along the way," his wife Jacqulyn told Milwaukee's Journal Sentinel. "He didn't believe that once you arrived, you forgot where you came from."
Went from Arkansas
Thomas B. Shropshire was born to William and Irene Shropshire on October 15, 1925 in Little Rock, Arkansas. After graduating from Little Rock's Dunbar High School, Shropshire did a two year stint in the U.S. Navy during World War II. When he got out, he headed north to Missouri's Lincoln University, where he earned a bachelor's degree in 1950. Next he traveled to New York University and enrolled in the School of Business, graduating a year later with an Master's in Business Administration (MBA) degree. Following graduate school, Shropshire took a job as a sales representative with Philip Morris. His initial territory was Brooklyn, New York; later the company moved him to Chicago. Eventually he became a college supervisor for the company, creating marketing aimed at college-aged consumers.
In 1961 Philip Morris entrusted Shropshire with distribution and sales of its products in West and Central Africa. Two years later he was promoted to sales manager for tropical Africa. Another promotion came in 1967, when he became marketing and sales coordinator for all of Africa. In 1968 Shropshire made a huge leap when he was appointed managing director and CEO of Philip Morris Nigeria, becoming "the first African American to crack the CEO ranks in corporate America," wrote The Business Journal.
Shropshire moved to Nigeria to oversee Philip Morris's manufacturing and marketing operations in the country. Over the next four years, he trained nearly 1,000 Nigerian employees. He also established a 1,200-acre experimental farm to teach farmers the most efficient methods of growing and curing tobacco. This innovative method helped Philip Morris Nigeria do business with more than 12,000 farmers throughout the country. Shropshire was also committed to community service in Africa. He volunteered on several boards, including the All-African Games Committee, the Nigerian National Swimming Association, the Nigerian-American Chamber of Commerce, and the University of Lagos Medical School.
Took Miller to Number Two Spot
In 1970 Philip Morris bought the Milwaukee-based Miller Brewing Company and tapped Shropshire to be part of a four-man team to oversee the transition. As head of marketing and sales, Shropshire was in charge of completely reorganizing Miller's sales department and distribution networks. He also oversaw the introduction of new products including the famous "tastes great, less filling" beer, "Miller Lite." It was one of his most brilliant and successful career moves. The Milwaukee Courier wrote, "[Miller Lite] revolutionized the brewing industry and made Miller the second-largest brewer in the world." It also solidified Shropshire's place as one of Philip Morris's most valuable executives.
During the first two years of Philip Morris's ownership of Miller, Shropshire held down both his role as CEO of Philip Morris Nigeria as well as the new title of vice president for market planning at Miller. He had also ascended to the board of directors of Philip Morris. In 1972 he left the company's Nigerian operations and focused completely on Miller. In 1978 he was promoted to senior vice president and treasurer of Miller. That same year he was also made a vice president at Philip Morris. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, Shropshire's marketing skills were integral to the phenomenal success of Miller. He conceived and implemented marketing strategies and programs aimed at ethnic and college-aged consumers. The result, according to The Business Journal, was that "Miller held the overwhelming share of the beer market among minority consumers, and a quarter of the market for all beer consumers." Shropshire also managed sports sponsorships for Miller, including deals with the National Baseball Association, the National Basketball Association, and NASCAR.
Shropshire's appointment to senior vice president at the Miller Brewing Company was significant because he was one of the first African Americans to rise so high in corporate America, solely as a result of work performance. The Business Journal noted, "When Philip Morris sent Shropshire to Milwaukee as part of Miller's new management team, he was not a token minority." Miller was one of the first corporations in the nation to actively promote diversity as a business strategy. Upper management at Miller believed that the best way to promote their products to all consumers, regardless of race, creed, or class, was by building a corporate structure that reflected that same diversity. It was an environment that allowed Shropshire to flourish, both personally and as a manager of Miller. "[His] skill in developing goodwill and networks within and across communities positioned Miller to make a run for the No. 1 position in the beer industry," wrote The Business Journal.
Built Business Opportunities
Because of his prominent role at the company, Shropshire was in a position to influence Miller's hiring practices. He ensured that the diversity that Miller displayed at the top was reflected at all levels of the corporation, from the administrative offices to the shop floor. The Business Journal wrote in 2003, "Even today, hundreds of minority production workers in Miller's plants speak fondly of Shropshire's role in their acquisition of blue-collar, middle-income wage jobs."
Shropshire's commitment to the African-American community did not stop with marketing campaigns nor employment policies. Along with his wife, Jacqulyn Calloway Shropshire—one-time director of Milwaukee's Urban League—Shropshire gave both time and money to promoting economic opportunities for minorities. The couple was so dedicated to this cause that the Opportunities Industrialization Center (OIC), a Milwaukee-based organization that promotes minority-owned businesses, created an award in their name. "Thomas was a pillar in this community," the president of OIC told the Journal Sentinel. "He was a leading national and local businessperson who worked to promote black businesses here." General Electric vice president Fred H. Black—also a top African-American executive—reiterated that praise, telling the Journal Sentinel, "Tom was a man who used his enormous talents to help our people."
Shropshire was also very active in community and corporate programs, serving on dozens of boards. They included Howard and Talladega universities; civic and charitable groups such as the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, the National Urban League, and Big Brothers/Big Sisters; and corporate boards ranging from Key Banks of Puget Sound to the Seven-Up Company. He was also heavily involved with Sigma Pi Phi, a national fraternity of African-American men dedicated to leadership in civic, social service, educational, and charitable pursuits. Shropshire served on several local and national committees for the group and from 2000 to 2002 held a top leadership position as Grand Sire Archon. He also served as vice-chairman of the Boule Foundation, the charitable wing of the fraternity which provides scholarships for minority students.
Forged Path to Success for
Others to Follow
Shropshire received many awards for both his corporate and community service. They included five honorary doctorate degrees from universities around the country, the prestigious NAACP Freedom Award for Business, induction into the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference's Hall of Fame, the Philip Morris Gold Ring Award, and the B'nai B'rith Human Rights Award. However, recognition was never the goal of Shropshire's hard work. "Tom never needed any titles or accolades," his wife told the Journal Sentinel. Instead Shropshire took satisfaction in knowing that he was helping others find their own way to success.
In November of 1985 Shropshire retired from Miller, though his 33-year-long career with Philip Morris did not come to an end. Though he and his wife relocated to Las Vegas, Shropshire continued to work for Philip Morris as a consultant for marketing and community affairs. The consultancy work, along with numerous charitable pursuits, kept Shropshire busy long after he had exited his corporate suite. When he died peacefully in his home on August 14, 2003, he left a sudden and sad vacancy. He also left a legacy that has continued to inspire minority executives who are following in the path he forged back when affirmative action was in its infancy and racism was rampant.
The Business Journal (Milwaukee), September 5, 2003.
Jet, Sept 8, 2003 Journal Sentinel (Milwaukee), August 16, 2003.
Milwaukee Courier, August 22, 2003.
The Prince George's Post (Marlboro, MD), August 28/September 3, 2003.
The Sun Reporter, February 16, 1994.
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