Still building teams: from basketball to employee recruiting & church communities

Wayne Robinson at the Metro Conference basketball championship
Robinson (No. 40) was a key player in the Hokies’ drive to the Metro Conference championship.

Wayne Robinson (FIN ’80) hasn’t followed Virginia Tech basketball in years, which may surprise those who recall the 6-9 former forward/center’s key role in the Hokies’ 81-35 record during his four seasons on the team, including the Metro Conference Championship — its only one — in 1979.

Unusual career change

Robinson was the first pick of the Los Angeles Lakers in the second round of the 1980 National Basketball Association draft and played for the Lakers and Detroit Pistons for a couple of years before playing professionally in Italy and Spain for a decade. The sport was an important part of his life, he says. But it’s a chapter that has closed — and is, he emphasizes, “well sealed.”

What occupies him these days is his job as a recruitment manager for Nucor, the nation’s largest steel manufacturer, and his work as senior pastor of a nondenominational ministry in his hometown of Greensboro, N.C.

An employer as reliable as the steel it makes

Based at Nucor’s Charlotte, N.C., headquarters, Robinson has been at the company for almost four years. (Nucor had been his client in his previous job at an executive search firm in Greensboro.) A leader in steel production and steel recycling (it produces steel from scrap metal), Nucor is unusual among American employers, Robinson notes.

“We haven’t laid anybody off in 40 years. Not a lot of companies can say that.” The company also has hefty cash reserves — about $1.4 billion — and little debt, and has made money almost every quarter, he says, for more than 30 years. However, its rapid growth of the past decade, including acquisitions of a host of steel and steel products companies, has been curbed considerably by the global recession.

Nucor’s quick recovery from the recession

As a result, for 2009, Nucor reported the first annual net loss in its history — $293.6 million, compared to record net earnings of $1.83 billion in 2008 — after demand for its steel and steel products plummeted by more than half compared with the previous year. Orders at its steel mills began moving up, however, during the second half of last year, as customers drew down their inventories, and the company was able to record a profitable fourth quarter.

From young and healthy to old and wealthy

Even during the slowdown, Robinson notes, Nucor managed to avoid layoffs. “We’re not union, so that also keeps us at much lower level of expense that we have to carry.” He adds: “our turnover is only about 2 percent a year, which is extremely low.” What turnover there is “doesn’t come because of people being dissatisfied with Nucor.” Instead, employees leave mostly due to retirement or injury, he says.

“Once you come in to Nucor, typically, you don’t leave, because the benefits can be tremendous.” Workers can double their “very competitive base salaries” through the company’s pay-for-performance bonus system, he says, if the economy and their divisions are doing well. “We always tell the story,” Robinson adds, “that if you start at Nucor as a young person right out of school, by the time you retire, you’re probably going to be a wealthy person.”

Recognized during the recession

Robinson notes with pride that the company was the focus of a “60 Minutes” segment last year that examined the impact of the economic stimulus package’s “Buy American” clause on steel plants and other U.S. manufacturers. Correspondent Lesley Stahl interviewed Nucor’s CEO and several steel workers and toured the Blytheville, Ark., plant with vice president and general manager Doug Jellison, also a Virginia Tech alumnus (Industrial Engineering and Operations Research ’80).

Recruiting the young to a unique culture

Describing the company’s culture, Robinson cites a focus on safety, employee empowerment, and a strong work ethic. Anyone can move up the ladder at Nucor, he says, if he or she is willing to work hard and relocate, if needed. Many of Nucor’s divisions are in such rural areas as Norfolk, Neb.; Plymouth, Utah; and El Paso, Ill. — and being off the beaten track is sometimes a tough sell in recruiting, he notes, especially among young people, who “place great value on work-life balance and their lifestyle outside work.”

Growing relations with Virginia Tech

The company may not be a household name, he says, but it is well known within a select group of universities. It has been recruiting for about 15 years at Virginia Tech, which it considers one of its six “core schools” for recruiting, research support, and other partnership opportunities. The company recruits at 25 other schools across the U.S., he says, but doesn’t sponsor research projects or professorships at those institutions.

Robinson shows a $5,000 check from Nucor
Robinson (right) presents a $5,000 check from Nucor.

“We hope to foster a stronger relationship with the Pamplin College of Business,” Robinson says. During a campus visit last spring, he presented a $5,000 donation from the company to support the college’s diversity programs. Robinson also gave the keynote address at Pamplin’s fifth annual Diversity Conference last February.

Navigating the cultural divide

Robinson, who is the oldest of four children (brother Michael is a 1985 Pamplin finance graduate), fondly recalls his years at Virginia Tech as being an “outstanding” experience. Even though the school had fewer than 250 black students out of a student population of 19,000, “it was okay for me, because I had already learned how to navigate the cultural divide. That was pivotal, because there were some African-American student athletes who could not do so and didn’t succeed.”

Before Virginia Tech

He attributes his ability to thrive at Virginia Tech, as an athlete and a member of an underrepresented minority, in large part to his experiences at the Greensboro Day School, which he attended on an academic scholarship in 1972-76. He was the school’s first African-American student, he recalls (two others later enrolled during his time there). The city of Greensboro had seen its share of racial strife and civil rights protests in the previous decade, and, like many other cities in the South, was still grappling with the aftermath of desegregation decisions.

The early ’70s were still a very contentious time in race relations in Greensboro, says Robinson. “To go across town to the predominantly white, upper-class, college prep school was very hard at first. But I am so thankful that it happened, because it really helped put into perspective for me the value of a college education relative to sports.”

There, Robinson realized that he needed to learn not only “how to study but how to accept people being different and they had to accept me.” With the help of teachers who also mentored him, he graduated in the top five percent of the class and was senior class president.

Lasting connections

At Virginia Tech, Robinson received considerable guidance from finance professor Art Keown. “Without Dr. Keown, I don’t know if I would have made it. I spent a lot of hours with him, talking about the best way to handle the workload and doing whatever extra work was needed.”

Robinson also affectionately recalls the mentoring and friendship he received from late president Bill Lavery, whose son Michael became one of Robinson’s best friends, and university treasurer Ray Smoot, who was assistant vice president for administration at the time. Balancing studies and basketball was the most challenging aspect of his student days at Virginia Tech, he says. “Did I experience any racial tension in my four years? Very, very little. I could not pick up much. That doesn’t mean it wasn’t there. It’s just that I did not personally experience it.”

Basketball’s role

It certainly helped, he says, to be on the basketball team. “Basketball was king in the ’70s. Football was fledgling at the time, and football games at Tech were poorly attended. Basketball was packed every game — we sold out every game. There was a frenzy around basketball during the four years I was here.

“I played on some outstanding teams, some of the best teams in the history of the school. Socially, the atmosphere was electric, because we were winning. When you’re winning in sports, that transcends race. When the ball’s thrown up, nobody’s thinking about the color of your skin, they want to know whether or not you can put the ball in the basket.”

Turning toward service

After his professional basketball career ended in 1992, Robinson, whose parents had not been “heavy church goers,” discovered a yearning for a more fulfilled life, one that included spiritual and community service. He took up Bible study, seeking purpose and direction in his transition from sports to what he considered “a normal life.”

Deciding to focus on helping youth and young adults, he launched and ran a Greensboro center for several years that offered after-school and summer academic enrichment programs. “I wanted to be accessible to young people and to be a good role model, because I’ve had some good role models in my life.”

Spiritual success

News of his work spread, and local churches sought his help with developing their youth departments. Robinson, who had become an ordained minister, was hired by the 4,000-member Mount Zion Baptist Church, where, for seven years, he helped guide its younger constituents on spiritual growth as well as decision making, conflict resolution, and career planning.

Appointed senior pastor of the nondenominational New Millennium Christian Center in 2004, Robinson continues to focus on spiritual education and counseling for young adults.

Workplace diversity

Wayne Robinson speaks at the diversity conference
Though many companies have fully embraced the need for workplace diversity, the reality is that progress is slow, Robinson said in his address at Pamplin’s fifth annual Diversity Conference last February. Workplace diversity, Robinson said, means “employing people without discrimination on the basis of gender, age and ethnic or racial background.”

He discussed the essential factors for a successful corporate diversity committee and urged students to “enquire how companies frame their vision for inclusion and diversity” when considering internships and employment opportunities. “It’s okay to ask employers how they shape up in some of these areas. You may be setting yourself up for failure and frustration if you don’t ask.”

Virginia Tech Pamplin College of Business Virginia Tech Pamplin College of Business Magazine Spring 2010

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