The Kings of Kingshighway

The Roberts brothers fight to bring back life to north St. Louis

"Generally, we didn't get Clay's support because we came up through different channels," Mike explains. "There were certain African-American political heads that had control over wards -- Jet Banks and Jordan W. Chambers, which I belonged to. Steve was involved with Leroy Tyus, a very strong political powerhouse. Of course, Clay was one too.

"A lot of these guys, they only wanted someone developed out of their own political backyard," Mike goes on. "That's a narrow-minded approach to creating a level of political empowerment for African Americans."

Mike and Steve Roberts aim to revitalize north St. 
Louis, working from the Roberts Companies' 
headquarters, the old Sears building on North 
Jennifer Silverberg
Mike and Steve Roberts aim to revitalize north St. Louis, working from the Roberts Companies' headquarters, the old Sears building on North Kingshighway.
At the age of 26, Mike Roberts (left) was the city's 
youngest alderman -- until his brother, Steve, was 
sworn into office at age 25.
Courtesy of Mike and Steve Roberts
At the age of 26, Mike Roberts (left) was the city's youngest alderman -- until his brother, Steve, was sworn into office at age 25.

On the first floor of the Victor Roberts Building, an armed security guard stands at a kiosk. A sign above directs patrons to a beauty-supply store, a cell phone outlet, a check-cashing business, a dentist's office and the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Women, Infants and Children program on the second floor.

At a Nation of Islam store, Louis Farrakhan is on television preaching about the "policies of the dragon" in Iraq. Theodore Muhammad says customers stop in to buy newspapers, books and tapes. The smell of fried catfish and hamburgers wafts down the hall from a newly opened grill.

Sue Zambrzuski sits behind a glass display case filled with gold chains and diamond rings at K's Jewelry. She says many of her customers live in the surrounding neighborhoods and walk to this urban mall because they don't have cars. She figures 100 percent of the shoppers are African Americans.

The white people -- architects, politicians, contractors and construction workers -- who visit immediately head for the Robertses' corporate offices on the third floor, a vastly different world from the mall below.

On a recent morning, Mike Roberts opens the glazed glass double doors and strolls into his cavernous office. An intricately carved oak pool table stands in the middle of the room, surrounded by walls draped with original Native American art and exquisite wood carvings of African warriors and women with their babies.

"We're doing pretty good down here in the 'hood," he quips.

The Roberts brothers' businesses started gaining momentum in the late 1980s when the Federal Communications Commission granted their first UHF-TV license. Mike convinced the Home Shopping Network to loan them $3.8 million to build a studio on the third floor of the Victor Roberts Building. Since then they've bought and sold stations throughout the southwest and the south. Last year they ditched the Home Shopping Network for UPN, which targets a young, urban audience with a lineup of new and recycled black sitcoms.

But their greatest triumph came in 2001, when the brothers struck gold in the wireless phone market. Mike convinced Sprint that his company could build a PCS network throughout Missouri and the rural Midwest. Needing $95 million to build the network, they put the entire company on the block as collateral and managed to get a loan from Lucent, a network-equipment manufacturer that wanted to break into the Midwest.

The gamble paid off. In six months of nonstop work, the Robertses built the network, then flipped it to a Sprint affiliate for $400 million in cash and stock.

"In politics, you don't have the reward of seeing the final product," Mike explains. "Being in business is like having my own laboratory. I get more out of being able to create real jobs for people."

Mike reclines on a tan leather chair that faces a gas-burning fireplace. On the mantel above -- just below the flat-screen TV -- sit two replicas of Mike and Steve's private jets, one of which they bought from actor Jim Carrey. They invested in the aircraft as a tax shelter and now rent them to business executives and anyone else who can afford the $3,600 hourly fee.

Mike usually flies out of Lambert rather than using the planes himself. His calendar is booked with speaking engagements around the nation -- celebrity events like the NAACP's Image Awards in Los Angeles and real-estate scouting expeditions throughout the United States and the Bahamas with Steve. He and his wife, Jeanne, also frequently visit Malibu, California, where their four children attend Pepperdine University.

In Steve's equally spacious office, about 50 photos of his wife, Dr. Eva Frazer, and their three children (ages ten, fourteen and sixteen) adorn his walls and ultramodern desk. Before choosing to stay home with the kids, Frazer worked as an internist at Barnes-Jewish Hospital. Nowadays she serves on Saint Louis University's board of directors and tag-teams with Steve on chauffeuring their kids to baseball practices, play rehearsals and parties.

When Mike and Steve are both in the office, they usually scarf lunch from the Saint Louis Bread Co. between constant cell phone calls and a packed schedule of appointments. But they never seem hurried. "I get here at nine o' clock and every day is a sprint to keep up," says Jerry Altman, chief counsel for the Roberts Companies.

Jazz music pours out of the office Victor Roberts, the companies' chief financial officer, shares with his daughter, Lori. Mike gives his dad a wave as he strolls down the hall to the conference room, where a team of architects from the Lawrence Group are sitting around an enormous marble table. Everyone jumps up to shake his hand.

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