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BLACK HISTORY MONTH: Roberts rose from humble beginnings

Researched by SANDRA SEALEY

BLACK HISTORY MONTH: Roberts rose from humble beginnings

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Today the DAILY NATION continues its Black History Month series on the lives of people of colour who have made their mark on the local, regional and global stage with a look at the life of Clifton Roberts.

ROBERTS MANUFACTURING has grown to become a very successful company from very humble origins.

The story has been told of its beginnings in the backyard of its namesake James Clifford (JC) Roberts’ Government Hill home, but very little is known of the contribution of one black or mixed-race man to the company’s development.

Clifton Roberts was the third son of James, a white Barbadian born to a Scottish mother and his black wife Hilda, whose surname was also Roberts. Just before the senior Roberts, who had experimented with many pursuits, including wine-making and running a cinema, formulated his first product in 1937, which was a dishwashing soap, he sent for son Clifton to help him run his business.

Clifton, who was a civil servant at the time, gave up his Government job to join his father’s company, helping to develop it from scratch, making a valuable contribution and remaining as manager until his retirement.

It may be useful here to set Clifton’s contribution to the business against the backdrop of black business at the time. His mother, though dark-skinned, was from a wealthy family. Her father was headmaster at the Moravian School in Roebuck Street and also organist at the Moravian Church, a job which she took over after he retired.

Being a very religious man, he had insisted, with a little help from his gun, that J.C. Roberts (who owned a wine shop in Roebuck Street), after showing interest in his daughter, make an honest woman of her. After three children, however, James’ wayward ways led to separation but he continued to take care of his children financially.

Clifton went on to marry Erin Blackman whose father was a shopkeeper operating from the corner of Sobers Lane in Baxters Road, The City.

Clifton raised his family of six from the property on Roebuck Street given by his father, which now houses the Barbados Labour Party headquarters.

The efforts and entrepreneurial spirit of the elder Roberts attracted the attention of Sir Kenneth R. Hunte of K.R. Hunte Co. who approached him with the idea of forming a company; and on March 24, 1944, Roberts Manufacturing Co. Ltd was formed.

Sir Kenneth was appointed as managing director – a position he held until his retirement in September, 1983. In 1949, Glow Spread and Mello Kreem were launched and quickly gained recognition locally and regionally.

A new facility to house the expanding plant was built on Bay Street, St Michael, and in 1969, the shortening and margarine plant was relocated to one central location at Government Hill, St Michael.

When the company’s operations began to outgrow its facilities, the Lower Estate, St Michael site was purchased and the new computerised feed plant began operations under Pinnacle Feeds Ltd from its new home in 1988, followed by the administrative offices and the Roberts Farm Pet Mart in 1989. The shortening and margarine plant was relocated to Lower Estate in 1991. In 1993, there was further expansion with the commissioning of the soybean extraction plant.

Manufacturing’s 21-acre complex at Lower Estate produces shortening, margarine, spread and cooking oil products sold in 15 countries and counting across the Caribbean.

Employing 160 people, it is a private limited liability company owned by Barbados Shipping Trading, a member of the Neal Massy Group, and Ansa McAl Trading Ltd. The company is currently headed by managing director Jason Sambrano.

Although Clifton played his part and did well in the company, reaching managerial status, it was Sir Kenneth who became partner; and some believe that had he been white, he probably would have played an even greater role and the name of Sir Kenneth might not have been so prominent in Roberts Manufacturing.