Joan Robinson-Berry is one of South Carolina’s most important people.
She is vice president and general manager of Boeing South Carolina in North Charleston, among the state’s largest private employers with some 7,500 workers producing three versions of the gigantic 787 Dreamliners.
It’s a position that comes front and center this week on Hilton Head Island as Sea Pines hosts the annual RBC Heritage Presented by Boeing.
As a black female, she won’t look like most of the other dignitaries, and she certainly breaks the mold of South Carolina’s old-school business leadership.
Never miss a local story.
Robinson-Berry was on duty as the first 787-10, the largest model yet and the only one made totally in South Carolina, rolled off the line in February, attracting a visit from President Donald Trump. Also that month, workers there rejected unionization.
But I’d rather you hear her life story.
She was a latchkey kid living in the foster care of relatives in gang-infested areas around Los Angeles.
She witnessed a brother get killed by a relative.
She heard first on television that her father, a policeman, had been stabbed to death on Christmas Eve.
“I’m still amazed every day that I’m here,” she told me in her office, its wall of windows overlooking the quiet production of mammoth airplanes three floors down. Model airplanes seem to soar from her desk, and the walls and shelves hold mementos of more than 35 years in the aerospace industry.
She coins her story, “From Tragedy to Victory.”
‘Count a joy’
Robinson-Berry was reared in two worlds.
She was the third of nine children, and home was the blue-collar town of La Puente, a largely Hispanic community outside L.A.
But her mother was often sick, with long stays in the hospital, so her other world was in Watts, Compton or South Central Los Angeles, where she and her siblings stayed with family members.
“I was never a gang member, but I knew all the gang members,” she said. “They were just family. In your ’hood, you’re all part of that environment. We saw dead bodies; we saw gang activities; we saw all of it in our neighborhood. It was kind of just the community.”
She said she was never a bad kid, and she thanks her late sister, Yolanda.
“My oldest sister, even though she was probably 9, was a prayer warrior,” Robinson-Berry recalls. “It was just put in her early on, and we banded together and we prayed together.
“I remember this very dysfunctional, chaotic family situation in Watts, and I remember her saying we just need to get to that church. I remember going up, all of us heading to this church, and we got there super early and we just sat in the back pew. And I remember one of the deaconesses walking in and saying, ‘What are you kids doing in here? You’re dirty and your hair’s not combed. Get out of here and go have your mom clean you up before you come to church.’
“So I remember my sister saying, ‘In God’s house, we’re all invited. We don’t have a mother right now because she’s in the hospital, and we’re going to stay here and we’re going to stand on faith.’
“That strength that Yolanda had, all biblically inspired, gave us all the motivation and courage to just step out and really work through it. It instilled in us that concept that you have to count a joy when you go through very difficult times because it is building us up to do great things.”
Joan was supposed to be John.
Robinson-Berry says that when his third child turned out to be another girl, her father took her on as a buddy and took her to the shooting range and taught her to drive when she was about 11.
“I didn’t play with Barbies,” she said. “I played with marbles and Legos, and put things together.”
She opted for wood shop in school and reluctantly fulfilled her home economics requirement to graduate.
She had a love of dancing, and even danced on the “Soul Train” television show.
“I used to get away from the negative energy, either in the house or the community, with activities,” she said. “I was in the marching band. I played the clarinet and even played in a jazz band. I did track and field. I was in student government. Anything you could do to just be creative and be distracted from the chaos.”
Her father made her memorize all the math tables on her Peechee folders, and she was always considered a math whiz.
In one of her moves to school downtown, school staff treated the kids coming in speaking a little Spanish as special-needs students until they were tested, Robinson-Berry said. She was moved from first-grade math to fourth-grade math.
Later, a classmate told her she could get into engineering.
“I said, ‘OK, is that like a train conductor? Whatever.’ ”
But a school counselor discouraged it. She recalls being told:
“You know, Joan, you are so social. ... You’re into government. ... Forget about that engineering thing because you would be much better at helping your people by getting into the social side of things.”
Not a victim
“The Buzz Man” put a new charge in Robinson-Berry’s life.
That’s what they called a teacher named Mr. Brown in her junior year of high school. He told a few of the students they could get into engineering, but they would have to go to junior college because calculus was not offered in her high school.
So they got on a bus and did that, and it launched studies for Robinson-Berry that resulted in her induction two years ago in the alumni hall of fame at the Cal Poly Pomona College of Engineering.
“It was never encouragement from any of my teachers or any of that to be successful,” she said. “It was peers and that one external man, and the church, where our motto was that we could do all things through Christ who strengthens us.”
She also says that latchkey kids are self-starters.
“I filled out all my college papers, 100 percent,” she said. “There was no parental kind of activity. My dad was working a lot; my mom was sick; we were just latchkey kids.”
She got her first job in aerospace on her 18th birthday and has not looked back.
“But I don’t share this to be seen as a victim,” she said. “It was just the most amazing opportunity a young person could have because I leapfrogged all of the insecurity, all of the mess and courage issues, and I was ready. I was ready for college. I was ready for work. And I was prepared to walk in there with courage, and I didn’t think I had any boundaries.
“A lot of people walked in with the victim mindset on race or gender. I walked in there with, ‘Excuse me ...’”
How to succeed
Once her foot was in the door, how did Robinson-Berry succeed?
▪ “Overdeliver. It’s about driving performance. Overdeliver on the path that you have at hand — what they give you.”
▪ “Have passion about it. Just jump in it; run into the bullet; and just solve that one and move on.”
▪ “It’s also about your image. Who you are. Your character. Your ethical behavior. How you treat people.”
▪ “And then there’s your exposure. Because every one of us is standing on people’s shoulders. I have been blessed, so blessed to have amazing, not only mentors, but sponsors.
Robinson-Berry explained the difference:
“Mentors are going to give you some coaching on how to be a better employee, a better leader. But a sponsor is one who is at the table when they’re making decisions. They’re going to be your personal advocate. ‘I think you should consider Joan for that opportunity. She may not have this kind of experience that you are looking for, but I tell you, you won’t be disappointed. She will figure it out quickly and take it to the next level. My bet’s on Joan.’
“That’s a sponsor. Trust me, I’m standing on the shoulders of those individuals, and they’ve been all genders and ethnicities and everything in between in terms of helping me.
“That’s what Boeing does. We have a great process for focusing on those things: performance and overdelivering, and you will be connected with great jobs.”
Advice to children
Robinson-Berry is disappointed in a recent report showing South Carolina’s education as 50th in the nation.
She says she does not see that in the approximately 70 percent of her labor force that comes from South Carolina.
This is what she tells young people to succeed:
▪ “Start with delivering on what you’re supposed to do. If it’s your homework, if it’s your project, be the best you can be and overdeliver. Add some value.”
▪ “It’s not about you. It’s about how you contribute to others.”
▪ “Help someone else achieve it. If you’re done with your homework, say, ‘Hey, can I help you?’”
▪ “It’s just your whole energy.”
▪ “And I tell young folks all the time: ‘Don’t run with negative folks. Run with very positive folks you can connect with. Learn. And when you find a super winner, jump on their back and ride with them.’ That’s what I say.”
Robinson-Berry hopes to whack at her share of golf balls during the pro-am festivities at the Heritage, a PGA Tour event to be played for the 49th time Thursday through Sunday at the Harbour Town Golf Links.
Last June, she replaced Beverly Wyse, who replaced Jack Jones, a familiar sight at the Heritage who enthusiastically expressed his company’s support for the tournament.
She says she loves Charleston.
“I have had more hugs in my nine months here than I have had in my career (of living in five states with Boeing),” she said.
On her office wall is a framed photograph of her with eight other women business leaders that was taken at the “A Night in the Valley Wine Dinner and Auction” in January that raised $500,000 for the Trident Technical College Foundation.
Her bookcase has a signed copy of U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn’s book, “Blessed Experiences.”
Her husband is retired, but they’re not empty nesters.
Over the years, they have opened their home to dozens of family members and others they have informally adopted or served as foster parents.
“We are blessed to be a blessing,” she said.
That includes the children of her sister, Yolanda, the young “prayer warrior” of inner city Los Angeles.
“She suffered from major illnesses all of her life, but she was a servant for the Lord,” Robinson-Berry said. “She was like our Mother Teresa. But she died. My best friend and my sister dies. See, all of this is just tragedy, but it’s all victorious.”
Boeing began operations at what is today the Boeing South Carolina site in North Charleston adjacent Charleston International Airport in June 2008 when it acquired the minority share of Global Aeronautica, a supplier to the 787 Dreamliner production.
By the end of 2009, Boeing had acquired the entire operation as well as the adjacent Vought operations, and announced it would build a 1.2 million square-foot final assembly facility to complement the final assembly plant in Everett, Washington. All aft-bodies and mid-bodies of the 787-8 and 787-9 are assembled in South Carolina, with final assembly taking place either in North Charleston or in Everett. The new 787-10 is produced totally in South Carolina.
In 2011, Boeing became the presenting sponsor of the RBC Heritage Presented by Boeing PGA Tour event played in Sea Pines on Hilton Head Island.
The first airplane rolled out of final assembly on April 27, 2012, took its first flight on May 23, 2012, and was delivered to Air India on Oct. 5, 2012.
The 787 is a long-haul, twin-engine commercial jet airliner seating 240 to 330 passengers, designed to be 20 percent more fuel-efficient than the Boeing 767.
Incentives to attract Boeing to South Carolina: Independent sources, including McClatchy, estimate the value of incentives from state and local governments to be at least $1 billion. It includes property, infrastructure, tax cuts and employee training in a series of packages tied to benchmarks of Boeing’s financial investment and job creation.
Total Boeing investment in South Carolina: More than $2 billion
Total building space: 4 million square feet
Dreamliners delivered: 521 through February, including planes finished in Everett, Washington. Last year, the 100th plane finished in South Carolina rolled off the line. In February, the first 787-10 was completed with President Donald Trump attending the ceremony.
Dreamliners ordered: 1,207 through February.
Patents: 480 in 2016, as well as 662 patent invention disclosures.
Work in addition to 787 production: Boeing Research & Technology, where scientists, engineers and technicians work on innovations to improve manufacturing across the company; Information Technology, focusing on data analytics; Propulsion Systems, where nacelles for the 737 MAX program are designed and built in a 225,000-square-foot facility; Interiors Responsibility Center, where workers produce all interior elements for the planes, including crew and attendant rest stations, ceiling panels, class dividers, stow bins, closets and partitions; and a decorative paint hangar was added in 2016.
The environment: Boeing SC uses 100 percent renewable energy. Up to 20 percent of that energy is supplied by more than 18,000 thin-film solar panels (approximately 10 acres) installed on the roof of the 787 final assembly building. The solar panels generate up to 2.6 megawatts of energy to power the entire plant as well as the giant autoclaves used to produce the 787 fuselage.
Boeing SC achieved “Zero Waste to Landfill” status in 2011. No waste generated at the site goes to a landfill.
Claim to fame: Boeing SC is the only site in the world that contains the full cycle of Dreamliner production — from raw composite materials to flight.
Source: Boeing South Carolina