Robert K. Greenleaf, founder of the modern servant-leadership movement, defined a servant-leader primarily as one who focuses on “the growth and well-being of people and the communities to which they belong.” Ron Busby fits that definition. With a focus on empowerment, Busby is a visionary with an innate desire to serve his community, develop the expertise of others and improve the performance of businesses for socio-economic sustainability. Referred to as one of the most successful CEOs in America, Busby answered the call in 2009 to take the helm of the U.S. Black Chambers.

As president and CEO of the U.S. Black Chambers, Inc. (USBC), he leads an organization comprised of 138 self-sustaining, viable Black Chambers in 32 states with more than 300,000 members. During his unparalleled professional journey, he climbed the ladders of some corporate America giants IBM, Xerox, and Coca-Cola and then satisfied a hunger for entrepreneurship, growing his first business from seven employees and $150,000 in annualized revenue to the largest black-owned janitorial firm in the country with more than 700 employees and $21 million in annualized revenue in just 10 years. Now he’s leading the charge in advocacy for economic empowerment.

Busby sat down with me to discuss his incredible journey, from where his strong roots began to the fuel that continues to ignite his passion for the success of the African-American entrepreneur today.

USBC 2018 National Business Conference

The Connect:

Mr. Busby, do you ever sit back and think about your story and marvel at where you started and how you are contributing to the narrative today?

Busby:

I think about so many others who have my story. I am just fortunate enough to get to tell mine. I remember being in the audience at rallies and speeches and thinking, “Wow!”  These cats have all this juice, what are they doing with it? Now that I’m that guy, I constantly check myself. What am I doing with the same opportunity that the guy before me had? Are people walking away from my conference, from my speech saying, “This cat is someone I can get behind?”

The Connect:

That is truly a testament to your servant-leadership. Who were your influencers growing up and how did they contribute to your desire to serve?

Busby:

It started with my environment. I grew up in Oakland, California. I had black teachers, black neighbors. The dentist was black, and the insurance man was black. The influences were all around me. You can’t be what you can’t see. I was fortunate to be raised by a mother and a father. My mother was a minister and an educator, and as an extremely spiritual woman, she showed me how to have faith in things that were bigger and more important than me. Because my mother was a teacher, I went to a different school every year. By the time I was in college, I was comfortable with meeting and interacting with different people of various backgrounds. My father was an entrepreneur and a Black Panther. I understood our struggle and ultimately, saw myself as a businessman in my community. I would see my father make payroll, do inventory, go after new clients, hire folks and fire folks. I saw the challenges. We would all work for him, my mom, my sisters and I. We had to clean offices, but when he would drop us off, I would get behind a desk and envision myself running things. I was able to visualize what I wanted to be by what I saw.

The Connect:

At a young age you were directly exposed to entrepreneurship. How did the experiences of your young adulthood translate into your professional path?

Busby:

I was a VP at Coca-Cola at 27 years old. I came in at 7 a.m. and left at 7 p.m.. One day my boss came to me and said, “pack your desk up.” Thinking I was being fired, I asked why. He said I was moving to Joe’s office. Joe was a 50-year-old who had been with the company for more than 20 years, came in at 9 and left at 5. He would go from being my peer to my subordinate. It had nothing to do with his ability to perform. The company was just directing efforts differently. I knew then I wanted to be able to control my destiny. I didn’t want to find myself reporting in 20 years to some kid who didn’t mind working four hours more than me. That’s when I began my exit strategy to leave corporate America.

My younger sister who was an attorney, recommended I run our father’s business. With an annualized revenue at about what I was making at Coca-Cola, I devised a plan of action that included strategy to double revenue every year. I grew it from $150,000 to $7 million. A book changed my strategy. I’d read Why Should White Guys Have All the Fun? by Blair S. Walker and Reginald Lewis, a lawyer and philanthropist and the first black billionaire. He used acquisition as a strategy to accumulate wealth. So, I purchased a firm in what is now referred to as Silicon Valley and grew the business to $15 million.

The Connect:

Were there certain events during your career as an entrepreneur that helped shape you into the servant-leader you are today?

Busby:

I sold the janitorial business and moved to Phoenix, Arizona to start my second firm.  Shortly after that move, my wife passed away. So here I am in a brand new city, I have two young sons, 5 and 6 years old, I have no infrastructure, no pediatricians, no babysitters, and I’m brand new to the community. So I got involved with a local church, Pilgrim Rest Baptist in Phoenix. There, no one cared who you were or what your job was. You were truly there to serve. The bishop worked with me and allowed me to be a servant-leader in my role as a senior usher.

The Connect:

You have faced and overcome tremendous personal tragedy. Have you encountered obstacles that took you from your planned path but ended up being divine redirection?

Busby:

I owned the janitorial business, and we had a contract to clean a local popular nightclub.  The owner was politically involved and asked if I was going after any of the business at the new Oakland Federal Building under construction. I said no, it was too large of a contract. He gave me the number of someone to submit my information to and urged me to call her. I did and she recommended that I get with a black business consortium. These were black businesses all going after various components of the facilities maintenance contracts. It took 40 staff to clean during the night, and another 25 to clean during the day. I had only 10 employees but submitted a bid any way. One hundred companies bid on this contract. During the process the number of proposers went from 100 to 50, to 25 to 10, and down to three. My company was in the final three. One company won for the night cleaning and another for the day. Although we didn’t win, we were awarded a smaller contract for a building in a rough part of town. We worked the $1,000-a-month contract as if we had won the $100,000-a-month Oakland Federal contract. And while we were providing quality service, the two firms that won were fighting against each other, blaming the other for poor performance. Nine months into the contract, both firms were fired, and we were awarded the complete contract, at over $1 million dollars a year. You never know where your opportunities are going to come from. You must give your best at each and every opportunity that presents itself.

The Connect:

As the saying goes, the reward for work well done is the opportunity to do more. You have had the opportunity to do so much. If you could change anything about your journey, what would it be?

Busby:

I wouldn’t have sold my father’s’ company. He walked away after it got to a size where he felt he could no longer bring value. I grew it, doubled in size every year. I got involved with city and state government contracts. Then I acquired a company and brought revenues to $15 million. I grew the company from five employees to 700. But the stress on the family ultimately caused me to sell it.

USBC President Ron Busby Advocating for Tax Reform

The Connect:

What keeps you motivated to fight for black businesses to have access to funding, training, opportunities, especially in the political climate we live in today?

Busby:

Everyone is caught up with this conversation about the wealth gap between white and black America. Someone else’s perspective of my wealth should not determine how we measure it. Black people as a community should look internally at our own success.  What can we do? Look at things from a solutions standpoint and ask, “How can we push our own agenda? What can I hold myself and my community accountable to?” Both corporate America and politicians get behind the US Black Chamber. President Obama coined our tagline: “The National Voice of Black Business.” I want to make certain I stay true to that calling.

The Connect:

When you retire and look back on your professional life, what will you be most proud of?

Busby:

I am proud of the Black Chambers across the United States. Our Five Pillars of Service are: Advocacy, Access to Capital, Contracts, Training and Chamber Development.

These pillars are important because we don’t have enough second generation firms. There are a lot of first generation firms. We’ve been conditioned to believe STEM is the only way to become rich and successful. Our community gets caught up in going to where employment opportunities are and not entrepreneurial opportunities. Other communities are not as interested in what is hot today as much as it is in generational careers. We have walked away from historic businesses and even our own communities because we believe someone else’s measure of success is better than what we’ve created for ourselves. Our President has coined the phrase, “Make America Great Again.” I say, in order for there to be a great America, there must be a great black America.  In order for there to be a great black America, there must be great black businesses. In order for there to be great black businesses, there must be great Black Chambers.


This exclusive feature is available in The Connect’s Holiday 2018 issue. You may purchase the full issue here, or download the digital version here.