Inside Track: Furthering minority ownership
The advancement of minority entrepreneurship as an evolving business environment drives most of the work of Jim Roberts. The owner of Jim Roberts Enterprises, LLC, draws on his own experience as a minority and his professional career as an investor and consultant to further the cause of minority business.
Roberts received his bachelor’s of science in civil engineering from the University of Michigan in 1983. Once out of college, he started working as an engineer for several different government agencies in California, Massachusetts and Michigan.
At the age of 21, while working for the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) for the state of Michigan, Roberts decided to start investing seriously. He set a goal for himself that once he had invested a certain dollar amount, he would purchase a toy car to symbolize his goal.
He ended up reaching that goal much faster than anticipated, and his toy car ended up being a very real Porsche 928.
“I realized that I was fairly disciplined in what I was doing,” Roberts said. “Whenever I got a raise or a promotion, I would take 80 percent of what I would get, and I’d put it into my investing or savings, and I’d put 20 percent into my everyday living.”
Roberts’ analytical style of thinking gave him an edge in managing his finances. By the time he was 30, he was putting over 30 percent of his growth into savings or investing.
His career as an engineer would take him to Earth Tech in Grand Rapids. During that time, he received his master’s in business administration from Michigan State University.
Roberts’ career in investment began with CB Richard Ellis in Saint Joseph, where he served as managing director in the global corporate services division.
“I had about 3,000 people working for me in 52 countries,” he said.
Roberts worked the corporate sector for about seven years before deciding to become an entrepreneur. Working for CB Richard Ellis forced him to travel a lot, and he knew it would prevent him from being around his children. The venture led to him to starting Jim Roberts Enterprises, LLC, in Saint Joseph.
For the first year, Roberts did independent consulting for his former employer, CB Richard Ellis. He realized he had a marketable skill as an investor after about seven people who knew him and knew about his investing approached him looking for help with their own finances.
Roberts thought to himself, “there’s an opportunity here.”
But to have a career as an investor, he had to receive the proper licenses. He reached out to the firm he used for his own investments, Centennial Securities in Grand Rapids, for sponsorship. Centennial Securities licensed him as an investor, and he was able to offer services in investing on top of his consulting practice.
In 2013, Roberts and Centennial Securities formed a joint venture, named Jim Roberts – Centennial Securities Advisory Services, LLC, in which Roberts has majority ownership. He also has 50 percent ownership in Lake Company LLC, a small real estate firm that owns a 3.5-acre shopping center in Saint Joseph.
Despite his current success and ownership of multiple companies, Roberts’ minority status caused him to face challenges along the way. In college, he had to deal with being one of the few Hispanic students in the engineering department.
“I was probably one of the few persons of color in the engineering college,” he recalled. “To see an African-American or a Hispanic or Native American in engineering was very rare.”
Roberts said others discouraged him from applying to the University of Michigan, even though he had some scholarships. He was told minorities don’t tend to do well in engineering and that he himself had a low chance of graduating.
“That made me just even more determined to graduate,” he said.
Roberts did graduate, and he left Michigan with several accolades. He was president of his graduating class, president of the American Society of Civil Engineers and part of the student engineering council. He also was inducted into the Vulcans, a senior honorary leadership society at Michigan.
“It’s a secret society, so you can’t apply to be in it,” Roberts explained. “They either pick you or they don’t.”
Roberts also was on the board for the engineering alumni association at U-M for eight years and on the board directors for the executive MBA alumni association at Michigan State for eight additional years.
His awards include two Michigan minority supplier of the year awards, Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce EPIC Award for minority business of the year and he was selected by Michigan State as a distinguished alumnus.
Roberts said he defines himself as a big believer in karma. His ethos involves “paying it forward,” or doing right by somebody with the hope they do the same to others.
“If I do something good for somebody, I don’t ask for anything in return,” Roberts said. “But if they can do something good for somebody else, eventually it comes around.”
Most of Roberts’ work involves consulting with women and minority-owned business owners. His portfolio includes Ocean Omega Inc., a minority-owned tech company in Grand Rapids, and Sterling Massey, a minority insurance agent through State Farm in Kentwood.
Even though the percentage of minority-owned businesses in West Michigan is small, Roberts claimed minorities are the fastest-growing demographic of entrepreneurs. Part of that trend, he argued, comes from the changing demographics of the country.
“The unfortunate thing is that when people think of minority businesses, they don’t think of intellectually based businesses, they think of commodity-type businesses,” he said.
Roberts argued that, even though commodity businesses are important, in order for the “ecosystem” of minority businesses to be sustainable, there needs to be a strong basis of both intellectual and commodity-based businesses.
He gave the example, “it’s no different than saying that, as a corporation, we’re going to buy all of our toilet paper from a minority-owned business, but all of our legal work, strategy work or financial work is going to be done by majority-owned companies. We need to be represented in all spheres.”
In an interview with MBE Magazine, Roberts cited a statistic that only 8 percent of financial advisors in the U.S. are minorities, but he also said that there is an opportunity for change. Over 43 percent of existing financial advisors in the U.S. are over the age of 55. As the current field of financial consultants approaches retirement, that would open up the field for a new generation of minority professionals.
The struggle to help minority entrepreneurs get off the ground and present themselves as worthy of business depends mostly on corporate perceptions of minority business. Based on his own experience, Roberts said that when corporations have to fire minority business owners, it creates a harsher stigma as opposed to firing majority entrepreneurs.
“I will try to push back on them and say, ‘So, you’ve never fired a majority-owned company?’” Roberts said. “They’ll say, ‘Yeah we fire them all the time.’ OK well, if you fire them all the time, but you’ve just had to fire one minority company, then what’s the difference?”
Roberts’ focus on minority achievement extends to his community involvement. For about 16 years, he’s been a volunteer teacher for junior achievement to elementary and middle school students, teaching them basic business and advertising strategies.
“It’s amazing what the kids will do,” Roberts said. “One of the things I’ll have them do is make an advertising poster, or where they would pick to put their business, so it’s interesting to see how their minds work.”
Roberts also is a chairperson of the Michigan Minority Supplier Diversity Council (MMSDC) and an MMSDC-certified minority business owner. The organization provides a network of support for minority business enterprises (MBE) and matching up MBEs with corporations looking for minority entrepreneurs. The MMSDC is aiming at holding a matchmaking event in early October in Grand Rapids.
“I think it’s important for minority businesses to support each other,” Roberts said. “I like to give back. I like to help people.”