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Jim Roberts built a multi-million dollar business by putting people first

Owner of five McDonald franchise locations shares story of success

Caleb Nelson
Jim Roberts built a multi-million dollar business by putting people first
Jim Roberts at a Roslindale McDonald’s that was formerly one of his franchises. PHOTO: Caleb Nelson

Jim Roberts entered the McDonald’s he used to own on American Legion Highway with a gleam in his eye.

“It started here, and it ended here,” he said, glancing past the remodeled dining area, the grinning statue of Ronald sitting on the bench by the door, the automated equipment now taking an order. “But our line used to go out the door.”

His niece Karen added, “That was before they had the other fast food restaurants around here.” Karen managed the franchise accounts the last five years for Roberts’ business, which grew through the 1990s to include five franchise locations: in Dudley, Roslindale, Egleston Square, Codman Square and on Warren Street.

Roberts retired 15 years ago, but he called the manager over like he was about to do a site inspection. Learning that one of his former managers owned that location, he smiled. “I’m not surprised. He always worked so hard.” Sitting at a table in the center of the restaurant, his canvas jacket lifted around his lean shoulders as he placed his forearms on the table, he folded his hands and bent forward vigorously.

“Life has taught me a lot of different things: remember where you came from, and help somebody else along the way too,” Roberts said.

His face lit up with a childhood memory of growing up in his grandmother’s house. “She cooked all this food” for a neighbor in need. “She said, ‘I want you to ring the bell and leave it on the step and come back,’” Roberts said. “I rang the bell, ducked behind the stairs and watched her take the food. Some people sometimes need help. She doesn’t need to know where it came from.”

Family roots

Born in 1936, Roberts grew up mostly in Roxbury with his big family. One of 15 siblings — eight brothers and seven sisters — his extended family is one of the largest in the nation, numbering over 6,000 across the country. Many of them meet yearly in Franklin Park in the summer for a family reunion.

Last summer, Roberts’ brother Charles sat in the center of a sprawling feast spread out under several tents. The family all conversed at various tables set up on a field by the back entrance to the Franklin Park Zoo. Several children batted a piñata celebrating their collective birthdays. Others ran around playing with soccer balls and blowing bubbles.

“My father had a two-and-a-half-ton truck, and he used to go out to all of these Chinese laundries in Metropolitan Boston,” Charles said. “He had all the keys to all these laundries, and he would go in there at night and pick up their laundry and bring it back in the morning clean and wet. The Chinese would press dry it in the back of their stores there.”

The brothers would help stack the laundry up before school. Their classmates used to think they lifted weights, but it was all from doing the laundry. Their biggest clients were police officers, and the work ethic instilled by their father’s work passed onto Roberts and his brothers.

“We enjoy each other because we grew up together, all in the same community,” Charles said. “We are all very close.”

During that summer reunion, State Sen. Nick Collins and 12th Suffolk District Rep. Dan Cullinane presented a citation that recognized Jim Roberts as a Person of the Year in 2019 for his work as a philanthropist, entrepreneur and family man. Cullinane said, “We wanted to pay Jim the credit that he deserves.”

Roberts’ nephew Derrick held up the citation with pride, saying of his uncle, “He’s always working.”

Roberts was away in the Dominican Republic during the celebration, and when he found out about the recognition, he emphasized the importance of building strong relationships. “That’s awesome what they say about me, but to me, I would have done that anyways,” he said. “It just goes back to family, and all of us stayed together through thick and thin, and if someone needs some help, we’d help them.”

Early experience

Roberts attended Boston Technical High School and studied to be a draftsman, but life had other plans. When he was 17, after a love interest went awry, a sergeant major suggested that he go active duty in the U.S. Marines.

Nelson in the Marines. Photo: Courtesy Jim Roberts

Nelson in the Marines. Photo: Courtesy Jim Roberts

“Jumped in a plane, scooted off,” Roberts said. He served 1954-56 active duty and then spent six years in the Reserves working with planes on the Quincy airfield.

“I learned a lot. I became a gunner. Keep learning. Don’t stop learning, because everything changes,” he said. “When I was in the Marine Corps, [it was,] ‘We’re not going after you to start something. We just want peace. Everybody has a life to live, so do it, but don’t tread on anybody else.’”

While taking classes, he worked at a lab at MIT developing the high-speed film used to record the atomic bomb tests. He worked as an engineer for Edgerton, Germeshausen and Grier, Inc. and managed a liquor store part-time at night for a Jewish family on Dudley Street. This part-time job developed into Roberts’ first business opportunity.

Stepping into entrepreneurship

The woman who owned the storefront decided she wanted to sell after a car accident killed her husband on Ballou Avenue in Dorchester. Roberts recalled, “I said that if I had the money, I would buy it. She said, ‘I’ll make it possible.’”

It was the mid-1960s, and he was 30 years old. He found two partners to go into business with, his friends Joe Small and Richie Daniels. They called their business “We Three,” and Roberts walked to the Bank of Boston in Dudley to open their first business account himself.

“It was very difficult to get financing, especially as a black man,” he said. The banker looked skeptical when he sat down at the first desk by the door, he recalled. “You’re who? And you want what? What business are you going in?”

“The liquor store down the street, I’m buying it,” Roberts said. “He looked right at me, ‘Get the hell out of here.’”

Roberts walked back to the liquor store and brought back the owner’s accountant, who vouched for him. So, the banker gave in. “He had no choice,” Roberts said.

Over the next 20 years, We Three expanded business to include six liquor stores. But, Roberts said, he didn’t like his partners’ practice of giving out credit. “If he can’t buy it now, you shouldn’t sell it to him,” he said. “Don’t help him tear himself down. Build him up.”

Formula for success

Roberts always liked seeing others succeed, especially those who worked with him. “One hand helps the other,” he said. “If you give someone the opportunity, and you hold them accountable, nine times out of 10 they’re going to do it. Especially when they can see the results for themselves. They say, ‘I got more money in my pocket, I can do this with my family.’ That makes a big difference.”

Divesting from the liquor business in the 80s soon brought new opportunities. Roberts bought his first McDonald’s franchise on American Legion Highway with help from then-City Councilor Tom Menino in 1988. The business thrived under his guidance.

“One thing leads to another,” he said with a humble shrug. “Family was what made it work.”

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