Baker, Ahles & Kaskovich

Len Roberts recalls battling corporate racism as CEO at Shoney’s

Leonard Roberts
Leonard Roberts AP

RadioShack has had its share of drama over the years, but nothing like the crisis that former chief Leonard Roberts faced as CEO at Shoney’s before he arrived in Fort Worth.

Recently, at a Fort Worth dinner celebrating workplace diversity, Roberts for the first time publicly described his role in settling a massive racial discrimination lawsuit against Shoney’s in 1992. Roberts told the crowd that he personally confronted Shoney’s founder Ray Danner, who he said was a supporter of the Ku Klux Klan and had created a racist culture at the Nashville-based restaurant company.

“This company operated for decades with a culture of systemic racism,” Roberts said in his speech at a banquet for North Texas LEAD, an organization he helped create that matches companies with minority job applicants. “Ray Danner and his executive team simply believed that blacks were bad for business.”

The speech was powerful, coming at a time of racial turmoil in the country and brought some gasps from the audience, said Gyna Bivens, the Fort Worth City Councilwoman who is executive director of LEAD. She called it “a story of courage.”

Upon being hired as CEO at Shoney’s in 1989, Roberts said he was told about the lawsuit filed by managers who were fired for employing black workers. Depositions were filled with incriminating evidence. Danner would visit restaurants and, if he saw too many black employees, tell the manager “that the coffee was too dark in here and needed to be lightened up.”

Danner instituted a policy of blackening the letter “o” on Shoney’s job applications to signal a black candidate, and he matched executive contributions to the Ku Klux Klan.

Shoney’s board continued to support their former CEO, who had been bought out of the company, but Roberts was convinced the case had to be settled. So one night, after consulting with attorneys on all sides, he went to Danner’s home to present an ultimatum.

“I remember it as if it was yesterday,” he said.

Danner would agree to settle the case within 24 hours and personally pay the $130 million settlement, Roberts said he told him, or Shoney’s would join the lawsuit on the side of the plaintiffs.

He laid out evidence in detail, including “never before seen photos of Danner getting dressed in his KKK outfit.”

“Danner was fuming,” Roberts said. “If he had a weapon handy, I really believe he would have used it on me that evening.”

Instead, Danner had his security men throw Roberts out of his house. The next morning, Roberts received a phone call from the company’s lead director, telling him Danner would accept the settlement on certain conditions. He soon learned that he would have to resign as CEO to secure the deal.

“Long story short, I accepted the condition,” he said. He was hired as RadioShack’s president in 1993 and led a turnaround there as CEO before retiring in 2005. Danner died in 2008.

Danner eventually paid half of the settlement, which came after a federal judge certified the case as a class action, according to Steve Watkins, a Virginia-based author who wrote a book about the case titled The Black O. He characterized Roberts as “a good guy” who was horrified by the racist practices he found at Shoney’s and worked hard to resolve the thorny case against “an entrenched business culture.”

Despite extensive research on the book, he said he had never before heard the story of Roberts’ confrontational visit to Danner’s house.

Now 67, Roberts serves as a director at JC Penney, Rent-A-Center and Texas Health Resources. He told the Fort Worth gathering they may see the Shoney’s story on TV as HBO has expressed interest in making a film.

He called his work with North Texas LEAD “redemption” after what he experienced at Shoney’s.

Whole Foods to open Oct. 12

The opening of the first Whole Foods Market in Fort Worth is set for Oct. 12 in the new Waterside development in west Fort Worth.

Dennis Berryman, the store’s team leader, said in a statement on Friday that the store will provide shoppers an “experience unlike anywhere else.” Whole Foods is a leading natural and organic food retailer with stores in Arlington and Colleyville.

“We look forward to bringing the high quality standards and pleasurable shopping experience our customers expect to the thriving Fort Worth community,” Berryman said.

The 45,000-square-foot store will be at 3720 Vision Drive in Waterside, a development of Fort Worth-based Trademark Property Co. It will be Whole Foods’ 13th store in the Dallas-Fort Worth area and employ 120 workers, the company said.

Whole Foods is taking applications for cashiers, prepared food cooks, fishmongers, butchers and other positions. Individuals can learn more and submit their applications at wholefoodsmarket.com/careers.

“Our location in the Waterside development couldn’t be better,” said spokeswoman Steffany Steichen. “We’ve really enjoyed exploring our new neighborhood and knowing our shoppers will have great access to outdoor recreational spots like Trinity Trail and The Grove. We’re also grateful for the warm welcome we’ve already received from so many local partners and businesses.”

Waterside is being developed by Trademark and Sarofim Realty Advisors in Dallas. It’s located on 63 acres along the Trinity River at Bryant Irvin Road and Arborlawn Drive, part of the old Lockheed Martin Recreation Center.

Andrea Ahles: 817-390-7631, @Sky_Talk

Max B. Baker: 817-390-7714, @MaxbakerBB

Steve Kaskovich: 817-390-7773, @stevekasko

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