Alumni Spotlight: Bob Robinson

Automotive business brings together family and dreams

The automotive business is a family affair for 1969 marketing grad Bob Robinson, President of the Robinson Automotive Group, locally owned and operated dealerships just outside of Wheeling in Triadelphia, W.Va. His daughter, Roberta Olejasz, and his son, Jim Robinson, are both dealer/operators within the business. Coincidentally, both also hold M.B.A. degrees from WVU, and like his father, Jim received his undergraduate degree at B&E as well.

The business has been serving the Ohio Valley for more than 60 years, with Bob Robinson's father as a dealer before him. Today, the dealerships offer eight brands (Chevrolet, Buick, GMC, Cadillac, Ford, Lincoln, Toyota and Scion), customer service operations and three state-of-the-art facilities on 10 acres of land right off I-70.

"We sold over 4,000 cars and trucks last year at this campus," Robinson said. But when he was starting his career, he didn't anticipate it would be a lifelong endeavor.

"Originally, I ran from (the car business) as far as I could get. The 12-hour days didn't attract me at all," he said. But after graduating from WVU, Robinson sold vehicles for six years for his father's business. "I saved my money and bought a store in New Martinsville. In a few short years we were a big store," he recalls. "I bought the store when I was 29. My goal was to be out of the business in 10 years and retire. I did that. In 1985, I sold the business to my sales manager and I retired for three years."

During that time, his children were in high school. The family travelled frequently and played a great deal of basketball.

"(Our kids) were gifted ball players who were both named to All-State basketball teams," he said. But after three years, Roberta and Jim graduated from high school. When he began to pick their brains for what they wanted to do after college, the answer surprised him.

"Jim said, 'Dad, all I ever wanted to be was an auto dealer.' I had retired, but my brothers had since bought my dad's business. So I bought it from them. That's how I got to Wheeling," Robinson said. And it was just as well, because it turns out his three-year hiatus from the auto industry was long enough.

"As soon as those three years were gone, as soon as our kids went to college, I missed (the industry). When Jimmy was interested, I looked for another business. I thought Roberta would do something else, but she actually wanted to do the same thing, too. So we started acquiring more stores to grow the business," he said.

Today, Robinson's role is to pitch in for Roberta and Jim wherever help is needed.

"I still sell vehicles. I watch numbers a lot and negotiate with the banks on property. But primarily I study the numbers. I spend most of my time with my daughter in the GM store. I have a pretty strong background, and I've seen a lot of things so I have my answers if they have a question," he said.

The automotive industry isn't the only thing the Robinson family has done together. Basketball is still a significant part of their lives.

"We're big basketball fans. I've coached for 20 years," said Robinson, who currently coaches for Wheeling Central Catholic High School and also coached for Mount de Chantal Visitation Academy. "We go to the WVU home ball games, and we go to a lot of away games, too. (WVU Head Men's Basketball Coach Bob) Huggins and I have been friends forever," he said. Robinson says what he loves most about the basketball games is the fact that people of all ages come together for their common love of the game, the team and the University.

Robinson has been honored throughout his professional career, including being listed as a Who's Who in West Virginia Business (2008), a list established by The State Journal as a way to tell the stories about people who bring strength and vitality to communities across the state of West Virginia through their entrepreneurship and leadership. In 2009, he received the YMCA Light of the Valley Award, meant to honor someone whose life reflects their contributions and dedication to the quality of life for youth and families in the community. He was also named a Time magazine quality dealer in 2000.

He has served in several leadership capacities including at Bethany College, the Wheeling YMCA and the Community Foundation for the Ohio Valley. He's served on the boards of directors for local banks and as Elder of three different Presbyterian churches. He has been a member of the Wheels Club since the late 1970s, is a lifetime member of the WVU Alumni Association and is also a member of the Mountaineer Athletic Club. He has served as the New Martinsville Parks and Recreation Commission Chairman, and served for one term as President of the West Virginia Automobile and Truck Dealers Association.

"That's a great group of people who were instrumental in expanding my professional life," he said. "The professionalism of the group helped me tremendously as I went through my career."

Robinson's time at West Virginia University also helped shape his 40-plus year career in the automotive industry. It shaped his personal life as well, by meeting his wife Anne at WVU.

"I was a first generation student on either side of the family to go to WVU. In those days, I grew up in a great small town, Harrisville W.Va. It was a great environment to grow up in, about 1,800 people," he said of his hometown. "Morgantown was a long way away and very intimidating for me. I had ventured out of the state some but I had only been to Morgantown once. But I was very social at WVU and wanted to meet people. Great adventure — it expanded my world," Robinson said.

"What I loved was that you all start out as freshmen and everyone's equal. It didn't matter who you were, but who you were going to be. There were no limits; you could be whatever you wanted to be."

Setting goals and sticking to them has been a vital strategy to Robinson's success over the years.

"The thing that has helped me a lot was that I wrote down my dreams and when I wanted to accomplish them. For the most part, I have lived those dreams. Write down big dreams and then go live them. Don't short yourself," he said.

"There are two things that are important. The first is a strong work ethic. The other one is understanding people and being able to communicate," he said. "You can make a lot of mistakes when you're young and correct them. But if you don't love your fellow man, can't communicate, aren't sincere — you're going to have a difficult time. But if you're real and a hard worker, I think that there are no limits."