By MATT KOESTERS
“Economics is simply the interaction between human beings,” James W. Robinson once said. “We handle it primarily with money. So, if you don’t understand the basics of how to deal with finances, you’re in a world of hurt as far as approaching a successful life.”
To say that Robinson understood those principles would be a massive understatement. A successful businessman, entrepreneur, mentor and philanthropist, Robinson’s contributions to the region's business community will endure for years to come.
Robinson, 79, died Thursday in his Lanesville home.
“Jim was always there, a phone call away, to guide, assist, counsel — any way that he could help, he was always willing and quick to respond,” said David Wunderlin, president of StemWood, a New Albany-based hardwood veneer and lumber mill. Robinson was a co-owner of StemWood, which he and Wunderlin purchased from Richard Stem in 1989.
Born in Clay City in 1934, Robinson became a student of business at a very young age. When most boys were out playing with their friends or listening to radio shows with their families, Robinson and his brother Sam were already partners in the family business, Robinson Machine Works. From the family garage, Robinson helped grow the business into a juggernaut.
The company eventually became Robinson Nugent in 1965 when Robinson Machine Works and Nugent Electronics were combined by the Robinson family, which had purchased Byron Nugent’s shares from his estate.
Robinson Nugent, a maker of transistors, connectors, circuit boards and cable connectors, went public in 1978 and eventually employed more than 800 workers across three continents. Robinson retired in 1987, and the company was eventually sold to 3M Company in 2001.
“He treated business, and expected folks that he worked with in business, to treat the business just as you would another individual, to take care of the business, to be honest, to work with integrity, to instill that in your people, to not take advantage of, as he would say, the ‘Goose that Laid the Golden Egg,’” said Bernie Fineman, a former banker that partnered with Robinson to purchase Caldwell Tanks in Louisville in 1989.
“He asked me to join him in business, and that became a 27-1/2-year story together, in business together,” Fineman said. “I couldn’t ask for a better partner, a better individual — just a joy to work with, both personally and professionally for all those years.”
Though Robinson’s life was business, his business was the betterment of the community. His life was one of service — serving on the boards of Cedar Lake Foundation and the New Albany-Floyd County School Corp. He was a Kentucky Colonel, an Indiana University Southeast Medallion recipient and a Rotarian Paul Harris Fellow.
Robinson believed in giving back to the business community and mentoring the new generations of up-and-coming entrepreneurs. He was a counselor with SCORE, helping to guide less-experienced business owners get their startups off the ground. But Robinson will likely best be remembered for his contributions to Kentuckiana Junior Achievement.
Robinson was a founding member of the Southern Indiana JA chapter, and served on the board of Kentuckiana JA for decades. Robinson’s financial contributions led to the opening of the James W. Robinson Junior Achievement Center for Freedom of Enterprise, which has served more than 55,000 students since the building’s opening in 2004. Robinson loved mentoring young people, and personally imparted his knowledge of the business world to more than 25,000 youths. He and his father were both inducted into JA's Hall of Fame.
“He firmly believed in young people and the young generation, Junior Achievement, and giving young folks a chance,” Fineman said.
“Jim had the vision to bring JA to our region, and being a Hoosier and living in Southern Indiana, he made it a point to ensure that young people in the Southern Indiana counties close to Louisville benefited from JA’s programs in work-readiness, financial literacy and entrepreneurship,” said Debra Hoffer, president of JA Kentuckiana. “He served on our board for decades, and he’s been with us as we have transformed ourselves to meet the needs of kids in each decade. He has been a visionary. Obviously, he believed very deeply in the value of free enterprise, and he has supported JA with his energy and his dollars.”
Robinson’s passion for education didn’t stop there. Though he was a proud graduate of New Albany High School, Robinson’s contributions to Our Lady of Providence Junior-Senior High School were such that the school’s alumni voted to make him an honorary Providence grad, said Joan Hurley, Providence’s president.
“Jim’s devotion to education and to continued learning is his greatest contribution, I think, to education in our area,” Hurley said. “If you think back to what Jim did when he had his company, he instituted for his employees the ability for his company to contribute to their learning, their going back to school.”
Robinson has been involved with numerous businesses, boards, and philanthropic organizations, but all of his activities served the same ultimate purpose.
“When we came here in 1989, I said to him, ‘What is your goal?’ He said, ‘My goal is to make a difference,’” Wunderlin said. “And I think that is the legacy, that he affected people’s lives in a way that helped them grow and helped them, whether they accomplished anything or not, they grew through the experience of a relationship with him.”
Visitation will be from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday at Newcomer Funeral Home, and between 10 and 11 a.m. Tuesday at Concordia Lutheran Church, Louisville, where his funeral service will be held at 11. He will be buried in St. Mary’s Catholic Cemetery, New Albany.