Robert D. Blackwell Sr. Biography
Rose from Service Class to Computer Sales, Abandoned Top IBM Spot to Go Solo
Robert D. (Bob) Blackwell, Sr. could very well have settled into an early retirement at the end of his first career. As a consulting director at computer giant IBM, Blackwell was one of the highest ranking African Americans in the information technology (IT) business. Born into a family of domestics barely a generation out of slavery, Blackwell had excelled beyond all expectations, including his own. "People ask about careers, but I thought I needed a job," he told Crain's Chicago Business of his corporate beginnings. "It was after I got to IBM and saw it that I became ambitious." In 1992, that ambition caused him to walk away from his cushy corporate job to found Blackwell Consulting Services. In just over a dozen years, Blackwell has built his company into an IT consultancy powerhouse with nearly 500 employees. A generous leader, Blackwell has credited much of his firm's success to those employees. "'We get the work done' is our common attitude," he told the TeQnology Web site. "Our ideal type of employee will subordinate to the needs of the client. They need to care about what they do and have passion!"
Rose from Service Class
to Computer Sales
On July 28, 1937, Robert D. Blackwell was delivered by a midwife at his grandparents home in Eastville, Virginia. Shortly thereafter, his family moved to the wealthy suburb of Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, just outside of Philadelphia. "Black people only represented about 2 percent of the population and represented the service class. … mine was no exception," Blackwell told TeQnology. While his father worked as a janitor, Blackwell excelled in football, basketball, and baseball at Radnor High School. "I was also, at the insistence of my parents, a good student," Blackwell told TeQnology.
After graduating high school in 1955, Blackwell earned a football scholarship to Wichita State University in Kansas. When an injury forced him to hang up his cleats, Blackwell turned his attention to psychology and earned a bachelor's degree in 1966. He toyed with the idea of pursuing a master's in the field, but a school dean nixed that idea. "Her advice to me was to 'Get a job,' since I was married with small children," Blackwell told TeQnology. He had married Marjilee Blackwell in 1961. The couple went on to have two sons and three daughters.
At about the same time, IBM Corporation visited the Wichita campus seeking minorities for its rapidly expanding firm. The dean arranged a meeting, and Blackwell was hired. "In those days, it wasn't necessary to have prior computer experience because nobody knew anything about computers," he told the Brooks International Web site. After 24 weeks of training in Chicago, Blackwell became a systems engineer, designing applications for hospitals and universities. In 1971, he shifted gears, moving to marketing and sales.
Abandoned Top IBM Spot to Go Solo
Except for a two-year stint as the assistant information technology director for the State of Kansas, Blackwell spent the next twenty years moving up IBM's ranks. By 1989, he was overseeing $250 million in sales to clients including Ameritech, Waste Management, and Inland Steel. In 1990 Blackwell became one of the highest ranking African Americans at IBM when he was appointed director of the company's Greater Chicago Consulting Services. He oversaw areas such as outsourcing, systems integration, application development, complex calling systems, value-added networks, and fee-based education. During a two-year tenure, he led a staff of 200 and saw the consultancy double in size each year.
At the height of his 26-year career, Blackwell decided to leave IBM and go solo. "I was running IBM's consulting services and I really liked it," he told Brooks International. "I thought having a consulting firm was something that didn't require a lot of capital and the barriers to entry were low." Another key factor in Blackwell's decision to launch his own firm was a shift he saw in IT's future. "Manufacturing had moved off shore and people were starting to outsource. And I knew there was going to be a market for information technology services," Blackwell told Black Enterprise.
Before leaving IBM, Blackwell solidified key relationships that would help him get started. After one of Blackwell's most important clients at IBM expressed dismay at his impending departure, Blackwell suggested the client ask IBM to sub-contract Blackwell's new firm in order to maintain their business relationship. "I worked like a dog to walk out the door with that one client, and as a result was able to start off renting an office and hiring people," Blackwell told Inc. Magazine.
Built Business as Father-Son
With son Robert Blackwell Jr. as a partner, Blackwell Consulting Services opened in 1992. Within 15 months, the firm had clocked more than $2 million in billings from IBM contracts alone. Despite this prodigious start, the company faced some major roadblocks. "The biggest obstacle was that we were a nobody," Blackwell told Black Enterprise. "We had no brand. No one knew who we were."
From day one, Blackwell Consulting was committed to "focusing on real technical problems people have," Blackwell explained to Brooks International. "We're not in some ivory tower somewhere contemplating what life should be about, but are actually down on the ground doing the project work." This turned out to be the firm's key to overcoming "nobody" status. Blackwell Consulting developed into the largest minority-owned IT consulting firm in the Midwest by focusing on package and custom application solutions, infrastructure and network solutions, and IT management services. By the end of 1993, the firm had landed two major clients, Waste Management and Abbot Laboratories, and revenues reached $2.7 million. Three years later that figure was $8 million.
As the company grew, so did a schism between father and son. Blackwell Sr. had a classic corporate mentality, steeped in discipline and hierarchy. Blackwell Jr. was an entrepreneur at heart, tuned in to the pulse of technological change. "You can see how there would have been a culture clash," the younger Blackwell told Crain's Chicago Business. The younger man did not take well to his father's direction, and the elder would not accept his son's freewheeling ways. After three years of fighting, Blackwell Jr. sold his share in the company and pulled out. No hard feelings lingered. "I just wanted my father to be my father," he told Crain's.
Catered to Employees and Diversity
Blackwell Consulting remained a family affair when Blackwell's daughter Pamela signed on in the mid-1990s. "The notion that your children can help grow your company is obviously pretty attractive," Blackwell told Crain's. However, he added, "First thing, you have to have a great company, so people want to come on board, even if they're not family."
To build a great company, Blackwell provided training programs, mentoring, and employee recognition awards. It has also instituted employee flex-time, allowing working parents to comfortably balance work and family. It was a reflection of Blackwell's personal philosophy. "My father sees this business as a family," Pamela Blackwell told the Winning Work Places Web site. "He always tells me, 'I have a wife and five kids at home and 300 kids at work.'"
Blackwell Consulting was also committed to diversity as a means of good business. "You have to focus on doing a better job than your competition, not your race," he told Black Enterprise. "You cannot overestimate the power of performance." In 2005 Blackwell told Computerworld, "We have 35 developers and architects whose first language is Spanish." He added, "We also have many Indians and Russians working for us. When you have these very diverse cultures coming together, you benefit from language expertise and differences in approaches."
Focused on Future of Continued
In the late 1990s and early 2000s, Blackwell Consulting grew exponentially. By 1999, revenues were up to $18 million. The firm survived the dot.com crash to pull in $28 million in 2001. By 2003 that figure had swelled to $31.5 million, landing the firm on Black Enterprise's ranking of the top 100 black-owned Industrial/Service firms.
By 2004 family forces at Blackwell were once again shaping the company's future. Pamela Blackwell was promoted to president and chief operating officer (COO) after having served several years as chief financial officer and vice president of human resources. She promptly announced plans to increase revenues to $100 million by 2008.
Son Robert Blackwell Jr. also came back on board when his company Electronic Knowledge Interchange (EKI) merged with Blackwell Consulting Services to form BCS. EKI, specialized in software applications development, managed services, and web services, had sales of $15 million in 2004. "It's a very nice fit," Blackwell Sr. told Computerworld. With a family of leaders at its helm and a proven history of growth, BCS hoped to transcend the tag of largest African-American owned IT consulting firm to become one of America's largest IT consulting firms, period.
Black Enterprise, February 1, 2003.
Crain's Chicago Business, April 7, 2003; January 24, 2005.
"Brains for Hire," Inc. Magazine, www.inc.com/magazine/20040401/gettingstarted.html (April 7, 2005).
"Q&A: Minority IT Pros Face Glass Ceiling," Computerworld, www.computerworld.com/managementtopics/outsourcing/itservices/story/0,10801,99436,00.html (April 7, 2005).
"Robert Blackwell, Consumer Behavior," Brooks International, www.brooksinternational.com/Robert_Blackwell_372.htm#Second (April 7, 2005).
"Success Stories: Blackwell Consulting Services," Winning Work Places, www.winningworkplaces.org/library/success/success.php?sid=116 (April 7, 2005).
"Threads: Bob Blackwell," TeQnology, www.TeQnology.com/threads/pioneers/bblackwell/ (April 7, 2005).
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