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Blackwell, Robert, Sr.(1937–) - Consultant, entrepreneur, business executive, Chronology, Starts at IBM

chicago consulting company firm

Robert Blackwell Sr. is the founder and chief executive officer of Blackwell Consulting Services, a Chicago-based company that is one of the top minority-owned information-technology (IT) consulting firms in the Midwest. A longtime executive with International Business Machines Inc. (IBM), Blackwell struck out on his own in the early 1990s to take advantage of what he correctly forecast as a growing need for information-technology consulting work. He has noted in interviews that his success came somewhat by accident. “My father was a janitor,” he is quoted as saying to Crain’s Chicago Business writer Julie Johnsson. “People ask about careers, but I thought I needed a job. It was after I got to IBM and saw it that I became ambitious.”

Born in 1937 in Eastville, Virginia, Blackwell grew up in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, an affluent suburb of Philadelphia and home to the prestigious women’s college of the same name. He earned a football scholarship to Wichita State University in Kansas, but an injury sidelined his athletic career. While nearing graduation and completion of a degree in psychology and English, Blackwell visited his math professor for some direction about his post-college plan. She suggested he apply to IBM, which had recently contacted her about recruits for their minority hiring program. Though he was a liberal arts major, the professor “told IBM, ‘Hire him or never darken my door again for a recommendation. He can do this,’” Blackwell recalled in an interview with Michele Fitzpatrick for the Chicago Tribune . “She also is the professor who had taken me aside after I was goofing off in her Algebra class. She said she’d call my mother to report I was a disgrace if I didn’t shape up. She set me straight. I had no tech training whatsoever, but I took the job.”

Chronology

1937 Born in Eastville, Virginia on July 28

1966 Joins International Business Machines, Inc. (IBM) as a systems engineer

1992 Retires from IBM to establish own company, Blackwell Consulting Services

2000 Becomes inductee of the Chicago Area Entrepreneurship Hall of Fame

2005 Teams with son’s business, Electronic Knowledge Interchange, to form Chicago’s largest minority-owned consulting firm

Starts at IBM

Blackwell began his career at IBM in 1966 as a systems engineer at a time when the company was becoming a powerhouse in the nascent computer industry. He moved over to the sales force within a few years, and into a management position thereafter. Eventually, he became director of IBM’s Greater Chicago Consulting Services Business, which was the company’s Midwest information-technology services division. When he retired in 1992, his sector was bringing in some $300 million in business contracts for IBM. By then, Blackwell was in his mid-forties and was well aware of the opportunities arising in the information-technology field. “I thought that a small company could do it just as well as a big company,” he explained to Black Enterprise writer Holly Aguirre. “I also thought that, as a small business, we could move quicker. There’s no bureaucracy. And there is only one level of management.”

Blackwell Consulting Services, L.L.C. was founded in July 1992, with Blackwell’s son and namesake, Robert Jr., as a partner. It began winning impressive contracts with consulting work both in the Chicago area and elsewhere, but a difference in management styles forced father and son to part ways in 1995. “The happiest person in the world was his mother,” Blackwell joked in the interview with Johnsson for Crain’s Chicago Business , “because she was caught in between these two guys having almost what seemed to be sibling rivalries.”

Blackwell’s firm continued to prosper during the IT boom in the 1990s, and its client roster grew to include the city of Chicago, United States Naval Academy, and Illinois-based retail giant Sears, Roebuck & Co. As a manager, Blackwell was committed to building a diverse, fluid team at his company, as he told Fitzpatrick in the Chicago Tribune , and stressed that he hired from an international field of applicants. “You need some raw genius,” he reflected, “some strong analytical skills, some project managers who are really task driven, somebody who is watching the whole forest instead of counting every tree, some persuasive people.”

Building a Staff and Family-Run Business

By 2003, that staff roster at Blackwell’s firm numbered some 240 employees, and the company was posting revenues of $30 million. It had offices in Cincinnati and Atlanta, among other cities, and did IT-consulting work for companies that by then included insurance giant Aon, Waste Management, Chicago Public Schools, and the Chicago Transit Authority. He has stressed that while municipal contract bids often include a requirement that a certain number of minority firms be included, in the end a strong results-oriented reputation has brought success to his firm. When asked to provide words of wisdom to a younger generation of IT entrepreneurs, he is quoted as saying to Aguirre in the Black Enterprise article, “You have to focus on doing a better job than your competition, not your race.”

Blackwell’s son prospered in the interim with his own IT consulting business, Electronic Knowledge Interchange, and in 2005 the two entities merged to become Chicago’s largest minority-owned consulting firm. Each would continue to operate on his own, with Electronic Knowledge Interchange retaining its e-commerce focus for clients that include Bank One and the Chicago Board of Trade. The two divisions, which shared internal resources as well as a parent company called BCS, had a combined total of 400 employees and revenues projected in the $60 million range. Blackwell served as head of the BCS holding company and chief executive officer of the original Blackwell Consulting business, while his son served as vice-chair of BCS; Blackwell’s daughter Pamela was also an executive with the family firm, and his other daughter, Leah, held a BCS board seat.

Blackwell is active in the New Jersey-based Association of Business Leaders and Entrepreneurs, a group comprised of leading African American executives, and is a trustee of the Illinois Institute of Technology. He was inducted into the Chicago Area Entrepreneurship Hall of Fame in 2000 and is an ardent patron of the arts, serving on the board of the ETA Creative Arts Foundation, a South-Side Chicago organization that promotes African American arts and culture, and the Joel Hall Dancers, another local group. He and his wife Marjilee are grandparents to six.

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