Bruce S. Gordon Biography
Business Executive, NAACP Executive
Bruce S. Gordon's appointment in 2005 as president and CEO of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the oldest civil rights organization in the United States, caught many by surprise. Though Gordon had long been involved in civil rights issues, including the Urban League and the United Negro College Fund, he had built his reputation in the world of business. Gordon had enjoyed a long career in the telephone business and his expertise helped make his longtime employer, Verizon Communications, one of the most successful companies in the communications industry. As president of the retail markets group for the largest phone company in the United States, Gordon worked to keep Verizon's customers from straying in a highly competitive field. In 2002 he was named one of Fortune magazine's "50 Most Powerful Black Executives." Verizon's chief executive officer, Ivan Seidenberg, told Black Enterprise that Gordon was "an extraordinary executive whose marketing instincts and skills are unsurpassed." Gordon retired from Verizon in 2003. In a news release on the NAACP Web site announcing his appointment, Gordon said: "My goal as president will be to build on the legacy of this organization, to help it continue adapting to this new reality, and to extend its reach and influence to more of our youth, to more people of color, and to more leaders in the academic, business and political worlds."
Born on February 15, 1946, Gordon grew up in Camden, New Jersey, in a strict household headed by two educators. He studied at Gettysburg College in Pennsylvania, where he also played wide receiver on its football team. Gordon wanted to live in the city, and after his graduation in 1968 he applied for a management trainee post with the local phone company in Philadelphia. He accepted an offer from Bell of Pennsylvania—though he had no desire to make a career there, he told Nadirah Sabir, another writer for Black Enterprise. He explained, "I had this fear that if I stayed, I would be doing the same job my entire life."
At the time, Bell of Pennsylvania was part of the government-supervised telephone industry, which operated much like a public utility; there was one company providing the service to consumers, and its rates were regulated. But Gordon told Hayes, "Soon after I came into the Bell system, there were talks to convert the monopoly into a competitive business. The whole energy level picked up." Gordon ended his management training by accepting a job as a business office manager in 1970. He also fulfilled his political interests by writing a weekly column for a suburban Philadelphia paper, on subjects that often touched on some of the more contentious race issues of the day. At one point, he even considered leaving Bell in order to run an alternative urban school in Philadelphia, although he changed his mind just before handing in his resignation. "I wasn't a traditional person," he described himself at the time to Hayes. "Being a child of the '60s, I had a natural resistance to the status quo."
Gordon's determined personality almost ended his career in its infancy. There was a rumor that he was going to be fired, but a sales general manager and friend of Gordon's at Bell stepped in and requested that he be transferred to the sales department. Gordon told Hayes in Black Enterprise that his mentor "was Jewish and felt that he had also been a victim of discrimination. He liked that I was a black guy who had a lot to say about the business, and we connected on those terms." Gordon spent two years as a marketing sales manager before becoming a personnel supervisor in 1974. His career advanced quickly, and he held various management positions over the next decade, eventually becoming general manager for marketing and sales in 1985. In the interim, Bell of Pennsylvania was undergoing a transformation. Under existing antitrust laws, its parent company, AT&T, had been ordered to dissolve its local and long-distance phone companies, and in 1985 the deregulation resulted in the creation of seven regional "Bell" phone companies. The former Bell of Pennsylvania became the Bell Atlantic Corporation.
Bell Atlantic provided phone service for some 12 million customers from New Jersey to Maryland, and Gordon's keen business sense fit well with the new era. The phone company was suddenly forced to compete for customers, and Gordon worked with those under him in order to set and meet goals. After he became vice president for marketing in 1988, he was able to bring about even greater changes. He initiated retail kiosks and greatly improved customer service—once a thorny problem for AT&T/Bell. For example, research showed that the employees in Bell Atlantic's call center who were picking up only 70 percent of customer service or repair calls in the first 20 seconds. Gordon set a goal of 90 percent within that time frame, and looked for ways to meet the goal without simply adding more employees. He found that call center employees were often away at seminars, or just not at their desks. Within two months, Bell Atlantic hit the Gordon's mark.
But Gordon soon realized that the root of the problem might go even deeper. "I had to decide whether the people who got us to this point in history could take us forward," he told Sabir in the Black Enterprise interview. Gordon won approval to restructure the way in which employees could advance within the company. He announced that all positions were open to every employee, and that all had to compete for such jobs, which resulted in a 20 percent turnover of staff. Gordon also worked hard to ensure that he was personally as accessible as everyone else. He turned down a private manager's office, preferring to work on the same floor as many of his employees, because "information gets filtered when you're up there, and you cut yourself off," he told Black Enterprise.
Gordon was named group president for retail markets in 1993, and four years later was put in charge of a historic changeover, when Bell Atlantic and NYNEX, the New York and New England phone system, merged. The $26-billion deal gave Bell Atlantic millions of new customers from New York to Maine, and made it the number two telecommunications company in the United States. Gordon headed up the all-important integration team for the new merger, which entailed changing the logos on phone booths, buildings, directories, and even some 28 million monthly statements mailed to customers. It was a swift, successful changeover, according to focus-group studies, and helped earn Gordon Black Enterprise's Executive of the Year honor in 1998.
In June of 2000, Bell Atlantic merged with GTE, and both names were jettisoned in favor of "Verizon." Gordon remained as president of the retail markets group as the company grew, and continued to work within the company to help others. He founded a mentoring and networking group for African Americans at Verizon before retiring from the company in December of 2003.
His retirement, however, was short-lived, for in 2005 Gordon was tapped to head the NAACP. Once a strong force for civil rights in American, the organization that had been steadily diminishing in size and influence for years. Gordon's appointment signified to many observers that the organization's board was looking for someone to lead the group in a new direction. In an interview published on the PBS Online NewsHour Web site, Gordon explained that he was selected because of his business acumen and his proven record at solving tough problems. Describing his goals, the tough-talking Gordon proclaimed, "I intend to go where the trouble is. That says to me once we identify a problem, we will find its solution. If its solution is embedded in political intervention, so be it. If its solution is embedded in building relationships with Wall Street and corporate America, so be it. I'll find the trouble, I'll go to the trouble, we'll find the solution, and utilize any and every mechanism necessary to solve those problems." With his firm leadership and his proven record of business success, Gordon is certain to bring major changes to the NAACP.
Advertising Age, October 8, 2001, p. S27.
Black Enterprise, May 1995, p. 55; September 1998, p. 84.
Star-Ledger (Newark, NJ), July 11, 2002, p. 38.
USA Today, June 25, 2005.
"Conversation: Bruce Gordon," Online NewsHour, www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/race_relations/july-dec05/gordon_7-4.html (August 15, 2005).
"Key Executives," Verizon, http://newscenter.verizon.com/speeches/bio_gordon.vtml (August 15, 2005).
"NAACP Board Overwhelmingly Selects Bruce S. Gordon Next President, CEO," NAACP, www.naacp.org/news/2005/2005-06-25.html (August 15, 2005).
—Ashyia Henderson and Tom Pendergast