Through trials, tribulations and success, David Roberts has discovered what really matters in life
Photography by Marie Constantin
2017 Baton Rouge Business Awards and Hall of Fame
BUSINESSPERSON OF THE YEAR • DAVID ROBERTS
Excel Group CEO David Roberts sits on the edge of a drafting chair at the tall conference table in the center of his third-floor United Plaza Boulevard office. He is dressed in a suit, sans tie, with a large silver watch on his left wrist. His wavy dark brown hair—thinner at the top with very few wispy grays—is swept to the side.
Across from him, a large flat screen TV mounted to the wall is tuned into FOX News. The sound is muted, but every few minutes Roberts glances at the screen and the scrolling news ticker. A G. Harvey painting, “Drifting Through the Oil Patch,” hangs on one wall. The painting meshes country living with modern industry as three cowboys ride horseback through a field of oil derricks. And an Andy Thomas painting, “Grand Ol’ Gang”—which features a group of notable Republican presidents laughing and playing poker—hangs at the entrance to his office.
On first impression, Roberts’ office décor matches his personality. He’s a wealthy, successful Republican from humble country beginnings who owns his own jet, loves FOX News and is a solid supporter of President Donald Trump. Roberts met him last year when he flew to Trump Tower and “bounced business ideas” off him during a lunch.
Roberts is also a guarded and private businessman who—through a lot of hard work, many sacrifices and a tenacity that only comes from knowing what it’s like to grow up poor—owns and operates a company that posted revenues of $405 million in 2015, a 35% increase over the year previous. That moved Excel Group up four spots to No. 12 on Business Report’s 2016 Top 100 private companies list. And with revenues of $450 million last year, that ranking could very well rise again when this year’s list is released later this year.
Offering a wide range of services from pipe manufacturing and engineering to industrial construction and maintenance, Excel Group now has roughly 3,500 employees working from offices across the country and in St. Croix.
“He is guarded to a certain degree, and he can be a little timid or shy,” says Lauren Champagne, vice president of human resources for Excel, who began working with Roberts in 2002. “But once you get to know him, it’s game on and he opens up. And he is very giving and honest, and his family is his number one accomplishment and priority.”
This openness and honesty emerges when you ask Roberts about two other items in his office: A 2016 Christmas card propped up against a tall, deep blue glass vase that sits on a table beneath the “Grand Ol’ Gang” painting.
The Christmas card is double-sided. On the front is Roberts and his two grandchildren—Ayva, 9, and Braden, 6—posing with his horse at his Brookhaven, Mississippi, farm. On the back is his whole family: Roberts and son Brad are standing with Brad’s wife Dennon and their children, along with Roberts’ daughter Lauren and her husband Brandon, who were expecting a baby girl in February.
The card is a reminder of who matters, and the vase is a reminder of what matters.
Roberts received the vase—the Julia Woods Dickinson Heart & Soul Award—two years ago for his generosity and commitment to the American Cancer Society. He was the first to receive the award honoring the memory of philanthropist Dickinson, who died suddenly at age 50. It’s a charity he has very personal ties to because his mom died from breast cancer when she was just 52.
“After I started the company and made money, I was successful, but I lost my mom and my marriage was in shambles, and I just looked at my life, and I said, ‘You’re chasing the wrong things,’” says Roberts, 58. “During the first half of my life, I didn’t know my priorities. I thought family would always be there. You can be happy and poor. And you can be wealthy and unhappy, and it took a major life event for me to realize that nothing is forever.”
Roberts was born in Paducah, a small city in the southwest corner of Kentucky where the Tennessee and Ohio rivers converge. He loved hunting and the outdoors and grew up as the oldest of three half-brothers. His father was a contractor who moved the family to Destrehan for work when Roberts was 13, and his family lived there for four years.
After graduating from Destrehan High School, his family moved to Baton Rouge. Roberts worked with his father for a few years, attended trade school and then began the grind of industrial work. He worked at several firms, including MMR Group, and rose through the ranks, from superintendent to construction manager to vice president.
“I started at the very bottom,” Roberts says. “And every chance I had to learn, to work, to take chances, I took them.”
When he had an idea for a company but no money, he found an investor and three partners to launch Excel. It earned $18 million in sales during its first year in business. In the ’90s, he bought them out and became owner.
“His philosophy is that you’re only as good as the people you surround yourself with,” says Champagne. “And he hires and invests in the top of the top.”
He now owns parts and pieces of 27 different companies, including real estate ventures, a woman’s clothing boutique on Highland Road called Lukka, and Woodlake Addiction Recovery Center of Louisiana in Ethel, among others.
“He came from a very humble beginning and he has been so successful,” says son Brad, who works with his father. “He is so good in partnerships and has this great ability to bring accountability to a situation and see things through, from start to finish.”
Roberts defines his life in two parts. Act one spanned through his 30s, when his mom passed and his marriage ended. The second act of his life is more prioritized, he says. And he seems to have found his sweet spot.
He now stops working to spend time with his family, and realizes vacations are important. His Country Club of Louisiana home is filled with the most joy when it’s full of people he loves. He thanks God for his blessings and is generous with his fortune.
“If you’re as blessed as I am in life, there’s an obligation to give back,” he says. “It’s something you should do.”
He’s a fantastic example of humility and humanity, friends say.
“He is very giving and does not want to take a lot of praise or recognition,” says Champagne. “He would be fine with it being anonymous or unknown, but he is always the first one to jump and be very generous of himself, either monetarily or with his wisdom and knowledge.”
He faithfully donates to the American Cancer Society and nine years ago he started On River Time, a nonprofit that hosts week-long fly fishing excursions for abused children. He pays travel expenses for friends of friends with sick family members, some of whom he has never met. He lends his jet to sick friends so they can fly with their family members to receive cancer treatments from the best facilities in the country.
He’s also a member of the Tiger Athletic Foundation Executive Committee and has donated $1 million to LSU for a weight room. Last year, he helped 100 Excel employees who lost their homes in the August floods, including his son and daughter-in-law. He provided meals and hotel rooms, and organized task forces to gut soggy homes. And every year, he funds a weekend beach trip for the women in his office, says executive assistant and close friend Chris DeMarco.
“Even after being with him for 10 years, I’m still blown away by his generosity,” says DeMarco. “He knows what it’s like to struggle and he doesn’t want that for anyone else, and for those who he reaches out to, they are so grateful.”
And Roberts seems fulfilled. His smile is infectious and his blue eyes light up when he talks about his “pre-bucket list” (saying he’s not old enough to have bucket list yet), a compilation of personal goals that includes learning to fly and traveling more, specifically to Bora Bora.
If he could say one thing to the poor kid he once was in the Paducah countryside, he says it would be this: “Work hard, stay focused and always put your family first.”