"Every position that I’ve held at GM, I was the first Black to have it. And I always made sure that I did the right thing for GM and the right thing for my people. I always believed that I had a responsibility to help other African Americans while at GM. I knew I had a responsibility to make sure that being the first Black was not a sin, but to be the last Black was a deadly sin."
People called Roy S. Roberts the $100 Billion Man. At the height of his automotive career, Roberts oversaw around 8,000 GM dealerships producing $100 billion in revenue. He led more than 950,000 employees globally and was the top African American automotive executive in the United States.
Roberts was born March 26, 1939, in Magnolia, Arkansas, to Turner and Erma Roberts. He was the youngest of ten children and grew up in absolute poverty. Roberts was two years old when his mother died, and his remaining family moved to Michigan.
Education and determination were keys to Roberts’ success. To support his own young family, Roberts worked nights so he could get his degree. He commuted 120 miles a day to attend Western Michigan University and graduated with honors. Roberts later attended the Harvard Executive Development Program and studied international business in Switzerland.
Roberts’ path to success was an uncharted road for a person of color. In 1977, he started working as a trainee for General Motors in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Within four years, he was promoted to plant manager—he was the first Black man to hold the position. Roberts continued to rise through GM’s ranks in Michigan and, later, New York. In 1987, he was elected Vice President in charge of personnel and became the highest ranking African American man at GM.
Roberts left GM in 1988 to join Navistar International Corporation as their third highest ranking executive. He returned to the GM family in 1990 as General Manager of the Cadillac Division. The following year he became General Manager of the merged Pontiac-GMC. In 1998, Roberts was promoted to GM’s group Vice President of Marketing, Sales, and Service. The same year, the Automotive Hall of Fame recognized Roberts with its Distinguished Service Citation.
Roberts retired from GM and the automotive industry in 2000. Since then, he has lent his passion and expertise to a variety of private and public interests. He remains active with national organizations such as the NAACP, the United Negro College Fund, the Urban League, and Boy Scouts of America.
Born in Magnolia, Georgia
Graduates from Muskegon High School and took a job as an assembly line worker
Graduates from Western Michigan University
Starts at General Motors as a trainee in the Diesel Equipment Division in Grand Rapids, Michigan
Promoted to Plant Manager in Grand Rapids, Michigan
Transfers to Rochester, New York plant as Rochester Products Division’s Eastern Operation’s Manager. Later takes charge of GM’s North Tarry Town, New York plant
Elected a General Motors Vice President in charge of Personnel Administration and Development Staff. He becomes the highest-ranking Black man at GM.
Hired as the No. 3 executive for Navistar International Corporation’s overseeing truck manufacturing operations.
Returns to GM as General Manager for Manufacturing, Cadillac Division
Becomes general manager of Pontiac-GMC and directed the merger of the two companies
Promoted to General Manager of Field Sales, Service, and Parts for the Vehicle Sales, Service and Marketing Group
Awarded the Distinguished Service Citation by the Automotive Hall of Fame
Elected GM’s group Vice President for North American Vehicle Sales, Service, and Marketing
Retires from General Motors
Inducted into the Arkansas Black Hall of Fame
Becomes Emergency Manager for Detroit Public Schools