A titan of Fort Worth business, civic and educational institutions has left the stage.
John V. Roach, 83, who led RadioShack though its most profitable and influential era, helped bring Warren Buffett to Fort Worth and led TCU to new heights, died on Sunday, March 20.
Though he had slowed down in recent years, his influence was still felt. On Feb. 7, Roach passed the gavel for the Fort Worth Executive Roundtable, an influential group of local CEOs and business leaders, to Mike Berry, president of Hillwood, and Dee J. Kelly Jr., a partner at the Kelly Hart & Hallman law firm.
“I don’t think anyone really in our history has had more impact on the growth and evolution of business and innovation in our city,” Berry said at the meeting when Roach stepped down.
Berry is likely right. Roach likely belongs up there on that mythical Mount Rushmore of Fort Worth leaders who have created immense change in the city —think Ben E. Keith, Dee Kelly Sr., Sid Richardson, the Bass family and Jim Wright.
Moreover, Roach was as friendly and approachable as anyone who wields great power can be. Certainly for a journalist like me. He always had a quote, a quip or a story I could use. He knew what we scribes needed, and he wanted to provide it.
Sometimes, he had more. I was asked to interview Roach for a technology group several years ago, and I lept at the chance. I had covered RadioShack’s parent company, Tandy Corp., when Roach was a leader there, for several computer publications.
While at the time — the mid-to-late 1980s – I was primarily focused on the up-and-coming Dell Computer and Houston powerhouse Compaq, I relished the opportunity to speak with someone from my Fort Worth hometown who spoke with a drawl.
Though technologically-savvy, Roach was less concerned about bits and bytes than more technology-focused leaders like Michael Dell and Compaq’s Rod Canion. But you shouldn’t let Roach’s drawl and polite manners fool you; he was as sharp a businessman as they come.
It is probably hard to believe now, but Fort Worth – via Tandy and Roach – was a technology powerhouse back in the day when computers were primarily sitting on one’s desktop and not in the palm of the hand.
Roach was born in Stamford, Texas, but his family relocated to Fort Worth when he was 4. He worked at his father’s store growing up and graduated from TCU, joining RadioShack as a data processing manager in 1967. In the late ‘70s, Roach had pushed RadioShack’s then-leader – Charles Tandy, another Fort Worth legend – to enter the then small-but-growing computer business.
The ever-practical Tandy had agreed, saying that if the computers didn’t sell, RadioShack could use them in their stores to tally sales and inventory. The Fort Worth retailer, which had about 8,000 retail locations at the time, debuted its computer in 1977 in New York. That was back when, if you wanted national press for something, you went to New York.
It didn’t look much like the computer we think of today. The $600 TRS-80 (the TRS was for Tandy RadioShack) included a monochrome monitor, a keyboard and a cassette player that loaded and stored data. No matter its wonky look and lack of performance, the company was overwhelmed with orders, Roach recalled at the time.
During my conversation with Roach, he also mentioned working with a young entrepreneur named Bill Gates, who licensed the software needed to run the computer to Tandy.
Roach wanted to buy the software from Gates and his company, but Gates, then in his early 20s, wanted to license the product. It was a strategy he would use with other computer manufacturers and one that would make him, eventually, one of the wealthiest people in the world.
Tandy’s interactions with Gates and Microsoft continued for many years. There’s a great blast-from-the-past ad featuring Bill Gates advertising Tandy computers from a 1983 RadioShack catalog.
Also in 1983, RadioShack launched one of the first commercial laptops, working with Microsoft on the machine which had a built-in keyboard and a small, eight-line display.
As a journalist at the time, I remember those, too. We cursed them and those small, hard-to-read displays that are a far cry from the high-powered, sharp displays we have today. But we had to have them, traveling the world to cover the very industry that provided them.
Tandy rode high in the late 1980s on the heels of its personal computer sales and made a tidy profit to boot. But eventually, time and technology ended Tandy’s reign as a computing giant. The by-then ubiquitous personal computers – most running Microsoft operating systems – left Tandy with few advantages. By the early 1990s, other manufacturers were competing on price and service, and RadioShack opted to sell their machines in their stores as well.
Roach was already taking a high-profile role in Fort Worth civic affairs as CEO of Tandy. In 1990, he took one in education after being elected chairman of TCU’s Board of Trustees. He made an impact there as well, with the school’s endowment more than doubling to more than $1 billion during his tenure.
“His leadership of the Board of Trustees and University during a time of unprecedented change and growth has made TCU the top national university it is today,” said TCU Chancellor Victor J. Boschini, Jr. in a statement.
Roach didn’t leave the executive ranks for long, taking the reins from another Fort Worth legend, John Justin Jr., at Justin Industries.
Roach came in and led a restructuring that turned around the business in a little over a year and then received a phone call that changed the company and, eventually, Fort Worth.
He took a call from Warren Buffett, leader of Berkshire Hathaway, who eventually agreed to acquire the company for $600 million. It was the first Fort Worth-area acquisition for Buffett, but not the last. The Omaha-based company would eventually add TTI, BNSF, Mouser Electronics and Acme Brick, which was part of the Justin Industries acquisition.
I saw Roach several times over the years at official functions and recently at a small restaurant having lunch with longtime friend, former TCU Chancellor Bill Tucker. I spoke with him in February after he handed over the gavel to the Executive Roundtable group that he had co-founded in the late ‘90s when he and many other local business leaders were retiring.
As always, he was ready with a story about the founding of the group.
“Pier 1 was changing, TCU was changing,” Roach said. “The goal was to keep the people retiring involved with others in the community and bringing the new leadership up to day with the public and private partnerships that have served our city well. That was a big goal of the organization.”
“We wanted to be sure that everybody knew everybody basically. It’s perpetuated itself for 20 years or so.”
I’ll miss hearing that familiar drawl when he answers the phone, but he left quite a legacy that we’ll be hearing about for a long time to come.
Bob Francis is business editor for the Fort Worth Report. Contact him at email@example.com. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.