Jerry West


  • Graduated South Fork High- 1956
  • Graduated Wake Forest College – 1960

Coming to RJR

My association with RJR began in June following graduation from Wake Forest College located in Winston-Salem. It was understood I had a two-year ROTC commitment with the U.S. ARMY beginning April 1961. I was assigned to the Trucking and Storage Department and located in the storage sheds located at Whitaker Park.

Memorable Events at RJR

I had an excellent crew of 12 minority workers,  and we were responsible of receiving daily hogshead from the markets (barrels weighing 300-500 pounds) of tobacco to store for 3 to 5 years and make daily shipments of “specific year and grade of tobacco” to each cigarette factory. My crew taught me a leadership lesson, “if treated properly they would get the job done and at the appropriate time surprise you with an act of their own, e.g. my grandmother died in February 1961 and the crew quietly collected money and sent a wreath with all their names attached. My supervisor said that act was a “first” for him.  As my career progressed with RJR that kind of interaction throughout the company was common.

Meeting with Senior Management

My first exposure to executive management was a gathering at the old R&D facility conference room. Mr. Bowman Gray, CEO, was the speaker. He talked about our Company’s strengths, his vision for making the company better and maintaining our #1 position and treating our associates as we would want to be treated. Even though Mr. Gray had physical disabilities, that he was a man of strength was obvious, and he set the bar high. At the closing, you could hear a pin drop.

A couple of months prior to my discharge from the Army, I had a meeting with Mr. Rodney Austin, Personnel Manager-RJR. During our meeting he acknowledge that Mr. Colin Stokes had been named Chairman of the Board/CEO. His point was that Mr. Stokes would be the last person to progress vertically to the top job(through manufacturing) due to the rising complexities of running a multi-national company.

Employees and Employee Relations

Following my discharge, I was placed in the Personnel Department and assigned to the summer employment staff  that was charged to hire college student to work in the factories to relieve full time hourly employees taking their vacations. The students earned money to help with their education cost and were taught a work ethic, an excellent benefit for employees/parents.

Employee Relations was a passion at RJR, excellent wages, broad benefit programs, profit sharing plan, retirement plan, etc. Late 1964, I was assigned to Archer’s Personnel Section.  Archer’s primary role was to make packaging materials for RJR. The next year the United Steelworker’s Union initiated an effort to organize the hourly employees at Archer, if successful, they would move on to try to organize the employees in the tobacco factories. I received a call asking me to come over to Mr. Stokes’ office. He asked me if we were getting enough resources to prevent the union having any success with their effort, what was the current assessment, and did I understand we could not have a union at Archer that would lead to a divisive work environment. I thanked him for his remarks and support and said the union would not be successful. The USW tried four times and the employees rejected them each time.

Archer and Sam Angotti

In 1966, Mr. Sam Angotti  was hired as Archer’s Vice President & General Manager. He had a strong  managerial foundation and clearly established higher expectations. For example, “behind every excuse is a failure”, must have a high sense of personal accountability, time was a valuable asset and should never be abused, and in a very short time  we learned “promptness builds character” later an addition was made by an associate: “and job security”. THE TRICK WAS TO SET YOUR WATCH FIVE MINUTE FAST TO AVOID BEING LATE!!

As General Manager of The Consumer Division. located in Greeneville TN, I was called in late September 1976 to a meeting with one of the five EXEC-VPs @ RJR along with my boss, Carroll Thompson, President of Archer. We were informed by the EXEC-VP that a decision had been made to sell the Consumer Division by year-end, and I would have a person from Business Development to assist me with this effort. When asked if not completed by year end, then what? Then the EXEC-VP said you will shut the business down at year end. There were 300 employees in this Division located in a very small town in Tennessee.

The Jet Crash

We had an Archer Sales Meeting set for November. We had our sales team and key managers attend, along with three other divisions, to talk through what actions were needed, brainstorm options, etc. After the meeting, nine of us boarded one of the company’s private jets, the flight would drop two of us off in Greeneville, TN and continue on to Winston-Salem. Upon take off the plane sucked a seagull into each engine (2) for a total flameout and crashed landed onto an open field. Nobody was killed; however, everyone was injured. Emergency crews rushed each of us to the local emergency room at the hospital located in Naples. Most of us had severe back injuries.

The next morning, I had a visitor, Mr. Paul Sticht – President of RJR-reporting to Mr. Colin Stokes. He was making the rounds to check on each of us, and before he moved on he said: Jerry, I have a message for you from Colin. He wanted you to know he wanted you to focus on a speedy recovery and you do not need to worry about selling the Division by year end – he added another year! Another example of this fine Company’s passion for employee relations. The Division was sold December 1977.

Leaving RJR

Unfortunately, with the mergers and aligning with Nabisco, and drastic changing market conditions, the Company described by Mr. Bowman Gray back in 1960 became a victim. The moving on of leaders like Colin Stokes, there were many, the tide of change could not be reversed.

After RJR

At my retirement ceremony, my former mentor, Sam Angotti, pulled me aside and said, with his “crooked index finger pointing at my chest” I have two things to say-1) do not accept any offer for your services for 6 months/spend time with Ruby and 2) do not come back here they can run this company without you nosing around!

spent 5 years assisting Lombard Investment Company, located in San Francisco, and served 3 years on their Board. ACTIVE with Wake Forest University’s Deacon Club Board-continue to serve on the board and a Past President/ served two four year terms as a Council Member for the Town of Bermuda Run( located across the Yadkin River in Davie County).

Jerry West had been a star athlete at a rival high school in Forsyth County. He was a year ahead of me, graduating in 1956, and he went to Wake Forest where he was a pitcher on the baseball team. Jerry’s wife, Ruby, was a classmate of mine through our elementary and high school years. Jerry and I met when I was about fourteen, through his aunt who lived in my community, Clemmons. I remember him well because he wanted to play catch. I was not much of an athlete, and a little uneasy with baseball anyway. When we started, I had no idea that he could throw a baseball as hard as he did. I never forgot that experience and a few years later a lot of ACC batters found that out too.

I was working in Delaware for the Dupont Company and on a trip to Winston Salem I met a couple men who had left DuPont and come to work for Archer. Archer needed an analyst, and they recommended me for a job. I got a call one evening and a man said, Archer would like me to come for an interview. I didn’t catch the man’s name, and I was very formal with my answer. Then he laughed and said, “Gene, I don’t think you realize who you’re talking to. This is Jerry West.” I had no idea Jerry work at Reynolds or Archer.

Even though I had lived in the area most of my life, I had never considered working for RJR. But my roots were in North Carolina, and it was very difficult for me to leave the Tarheel State. The decision to come back home is one I’ve never regretted, and I will never forget that Jerry gave me the opportunity. GAH