Roy S. Roberts is used to plunging into tough situations at General Motors Corp. In 1987, he became GM's second-ever black vice-president and proceeded to sweep out 40,000 jobs. He later stunned insiders by leaving GM for Navistar International Corp.--then making an unlikely return that revived his career.
Now, Roberts, 56, is charged with steering the tricky merger of the Pontiac and GMC divisions. That consolidation, announced on Feb. 20, is a key step in GM's drive to streamline its 8,500-strong dealer network. And Roberts, who has headed GMC since 1992, is one of the lead executives. "We've done a lot of planning, but now it gets down to execution," says marketing chief Ronald L. Zarrella.
In merging the two divisions, Roberts likely will have to cut overlapping jobs in marketing and sales, as well as eliminate scores of stand-alone Pontiac and GMC dealerships. But the onetime factory worker, whose candor and charisma stand out at GM, thinks he can convince even those hurt in the process that GM can only prosper if it can radically change. "I never minimize the people side of the business," he says. "That's one thing I learned as an hourly worker, a UAW member, and an employee coming up through the ranks."
EBULLIENT. One factor in Roberts' favor: Merging the two units makes good business sense. GMC's pickups and sport-utility vehicles complement Pontiac's sporty car lineup. And nearly 60% of Pontiac franchises are already sharing space with GMC dealerships. Combining the two should let GM cut some 600 sales and marketing jobs, says Lehman Brothers Inc. analyst Joseph S. Phillippi. Adds Roberts: "If we can get some of the clutter out of the system...the dealer can spend his or her time taking care of the customer."
Roberts' new empire sold 1 million vehicles last year--and could expand. Frank Ursomarso, a Pontiac-GMC dealer in Union Park, Del., who co-chaired a GM committee studying dealer issues, says "a logical extension" of GM's streamlining strategy would be to add Buick to GMC and Pontiac. Zarrella denies any such plans in the "near term."
Roberts acknowledges that he's "feeling the heat" of his new position. But his ebullient personality should serve him well. "I always said Roy should be a gospel minister," says John Peterson, a GMC dealer in Bloomington, Minn. "He would have kept the churches full all the time."
Roberts has kept his own spirits high through some tough times. Born in Magnolia, Ark., he was one of 10 children. His mother died when he was 2 years old. His father moved the clan to Michigan, where Roberts began working on the assembly line at an aerospace plant after graduating from high school. In 17 years, he rose from factory worker (and union steward) to plant-management positions. In the evenings, he commuted 120 miles to Western Michigan University, where he earned a degree in business administration. "Roy and I grew up in an era where there was no substitute for a great work ethic," says Detroit Mayor Dennis W. Archer, a friend and college classmate of Roberts'.
SHOCKERS. Roberts joined GM in 1977 as a trainee in its diesel-equipment division and quickly went on to manage several factories. He was plucked from relative obscurity to become vice-president for personnel in 1987. The move shocked GMers--though no more than Roberts' decision a year later to leave to head the truck unit at Navistar, where he felt he had a chance to become CEO. But production problems dogged him there. He welcomed the chance to return to GM in 1990, to a lesser post as Cadillac manufacturing chief. Under him, GMC has had three straight record years, selling 462,000 trucks in 1995.
Roberts has also distinguished himself as Motown's most visible black auto exec. Yet he knows he's still watched closely. When the exclusive Bloomfield Hills Country Club rejected him for membership in 1994, many Detroiters were outraged at what they perceived as a racial slur. GM Chief Executive John F. Smith Jr. and J. Michael Losh, chief financial officer, quit in protest, though other GM execs stayed. Roberts never publicly criticized the club. Maybe he figured his success speaks for itself.