W. Thomas Robertson, Jr.
Class of 1952, BS
William Thomas (Tom) Robertson, Jr. was born on July 4, 1931, in a white clapboard house on an unpaved rural road in Cascade, Virginia, about a mile from the North Carolina line. He attended a high school in Pittsylvania County where courses in chemistry, physics, and solid geometry were not taught. Yet he managed to find his way into Virginia Techʼs College of Engineering and ultimately spend over 39 years in a rewarding career with Duke Power Company, a Fortune 500 company traded on the New York Stock Exchange, retiring as its Vice President in 1994.
Neither the two-room grades 1-7 school at Cascade that lacked indoor plumbing or running water, nor the countyʼs Brosville High School exist today except in Robertsonʼs memory. “It was a poor county,” he recalls, but the rural atmosphere and his work experiences with his father, a carpenter, and an uncle, who had a plant nursery and farm, piqued his interest in the field of agricultural engineering (AgE).
Robertson became used to hard work at an early age, since he worked either for his uncle or father all summers after the seventh grade, even through college. He recalls that his uncle purchased a small sawmill in 1944, right in the middle of World War II, to provide lumber. However, they had no power chainsaws and used two-man crosscut saws for felling trees and then mules to pull the logs to the mill. When not working at the sawmill that summer, he was plowing with a mule, or helping graft (bud) fruit tree seedlings, a big effort of the plant nursery.
When he started college in 1948 at age 17, he borrowed the family car to commute 18 miles to Virginia Polytechnic Instituteʼs (VPI) Danville Extension campus. Later, he moved to Danville and lived with a cousin. By the second year, life was a little easier and he resided in a dormitory.
At the Extension campus, Robertson studied calculus, plus the physics and chemistry he never had in high school, as well as other engineering-oriented subjects. This allowed him to enter the main Virginia Tech campus at Blacksburg in 1950 as an AgE major, today called Biological Systems Engineering.
At age 20, he was the first Robertson male family member to earn a college degree. He graduated in 1952 from Virginia Tech during the height of the Korean War. He applied for a direct commission in the Air Force, but receiving no quick response, he volunteered for the U. S. Army Corps of Engineers. He went to Fort Belvoir, Virginia, for basic training, followed by leadership training and then Officer Candidate School (OCS), graduating second in his class. He was commissioned in October 1953, assigned back to the Fort Belvoir engineer school, and subsequently received orders for Europe. “OCS and my military time was a super learning experience for me,” he says.
Returning to the states in 1955, he came off active duty with the rank of First Lieutenant. He married his wife Barbara and this eventful year also started his long career with Duke Power Company, today called Duke Energy.
The Robertsons went to Charlotte, North Carolina, from their honeymoon, where they still reside. He had accepted a position as an engineer trainee with the fuel department of Mill Power Supply Company, the subsidiary of Duke which did all Dukeʼs procurement as well as being a major wholesale electrical distributor business in the Carolinas. In 1965, he was named manager of the fuel department and moved to the inactive reserves from the North Carolina National Guard with the rank of major.
He progressively climbed the administrative ladder at Mill Power, becoming Vice President-Fuels in 1973, Executive Vice President in 1976, and President in 1977. With the last position, Robertson recalls the lack of fanfare with the appointment, saying “The president, who was to retire within a year, walked into my office on a late Friday afternoon and said, ʻDuke wants you to be the next president and weʼll talk more about it on Monday.ʼ He had a heart attack that weekend, and I started Monday on a fast learning curve.
“Duke was unique in the utility industry during that era, in that it did its own power plant (coal and nuclear) design, procurement, and construction,” he explains. “In the 1970s and 1980s, if these functions had been established as a separate company, it would have ranked in the top five in the nation,” he adds. His procurement group during these years was purchasing about $1 billion per year. Today, Duke Energy of the Carolinasʼ generation remains a little less than one-half nuclear and one-half coal, with the remainder hydro and natural gas.
“The huge challenges of the first energy crisis in the early 1970s pushed Duke into the coal mining business to help ensure a supply,” says Robertson. “I was part of the decision and we received high praise at the time. However, by the late 1970s, the coal market went south and when we could buy at a much lower cost than we could produce, Duke had to close its four mines,” he says. After they were closed, as an additional assignment, Robertson was made president of both the mining and the land companies with the responsibility to sell all.
“On the nuclear side in the late 1970s, with expected large demand for uranium, and an uranium cartel existing with prices soaring, Duke, again, to help ensure a supply for its huge nuclear program, entered into a joint venture in an insitu mining operation in Wyoming, named Western Fuels,” he says. As an additional duty, Robertson was named President of the venture. “Then, when the Three Mile Island nuclear accident occurred, we all knew about the nuclear cancellations and the grinding halt of future construction,” he reports.
The sales division of Mill Power continued to grow in the 1980s, establishing four additional sales and wholesale locations in the Carolinas, along with a new Mill Power Technologies Department that was an early pioneer in marketing programmable controllers and IBM industrial personal computers. “Mill Power sales reached $50 million annually and the division grew to nearly 200 employees,” says Robertson.
In 1988, Duke made the decision to take the procurement division, then about 125 employees, and Robertson out of Mill Power. He was elected Vice President of the parent company, and with the existing procurement organization from Mill Power, was assigned all the departments of a retiring Duke officer. He subsequently formed a new organization within Duke, named Procurement, Services, and Materials (PSM). This was the basic support organization for the Corporation, and, at its peak, totaled about 1,100 employees.
During his career, Robertson was active in numerous industry groups and government activities, especially those related to procurement and fuels, chairing a number of them. He became a Certified Purchasing Manager (CPM) and was recognized throughout his career as leading highly ethical, effective, and efficient procurement organizations, among other leadership qualities.
In Charlotte, he has participated in community and civic activities such as the Salvation Army Advisory Board; the community theater board; hospital advisory board; a University Advisory Board; Group Section Vice President United Way Campaign; a more than 30-year member of the Rotary Club of Charlotte; a past president, a Distinguished Rotarian Award, a Paul Harris Fellow and Major Donor; and past chairman and made life member of the Engineering Advisory Council, University of North Carolina at Charlotte. Through the Rotary Club and his church, he has supported Habitat for Humanity and helped build many houses in Charlotte. Duke Powerʼs leadership played a major role getting the NFL Carolina Panthers in Charlotte, with Robertsonʼs Real Estate Department taking the lead in negotiating and obtaining property for the stadium site.
After his retirement in 1995, Robertson was asked, along with some other retirees working with a consultant, to help establish a unique Duke volunteer retirement organization. The name selected was the DUKE POWER-ful RETIREE VOLUNTEERS. He was the Charlotte-area President during the first two years it was pioneered. Today, it is in 22 Duke locations across the Carolinas and the annual total retiree volunteer hours are around 250,000. It includes every type of volunteer service one can imagine. Robertson still averages about 25 hours per month with the effort.
For over 51 years, he and Barbara have attended the Hawthorne Lane United Methodist Church. Over the years, he has served on most of the churchʼs committees, many as chairman, and continues as a part-time Sunday School teacher. He and Barbara have two sons, the oldest Mark, a principal in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg School System, and youngest Jeffrey, a nuclear senior engineer with Duke Energy at its Oconee nuclear station. Both sons are married and the Robertsons have three grandchildren.
Class of: 1952
Year Inducted into Academy: 2007