2011 Horatio Alger Award Winner
"Be yourself. Being natural and straight forward engenders trust, and trust is the foundation of leadership."
Joe Robles, the eldest of nine children, was born in Rio Piedras, Puerto Rico, in 1946. His father was working as a waiter when he was approached by a group of Americans who were recruiting for steel mills in the United States. “World War II had just ended and America was trying to reindustrialize,” says Joe. “They needed a labor force and my father saw this as a great opportunity. He left our family and went to work for U.S. Steel in Lorain, Ohio. Eighteen months later, when I was three, he had saved enough money to send for our family.
“I remember coming here as a big adventure, flying through the clouds as we were about to land in New York City. That’s where my dad met my mom, my younger brother and me, and then drove us to Ohio. Our house was six blocks from the steel mill, where my father worked for the next 35 years. There was always ash in the air. We lived in a very diverse neighborhood in what was probably a rather ugly house because it was covered in brown asbestos shingles. It got a little better looking after my dad painted those shingles white, and I thought it was wonderful.”
Joe’s father, whom he describes as hard working and disciplined, was forced to quit school in the fourth grade to help support his family. “He was old school,” says Joe. “He had a values system that encouraged working from morning to night. He was our family’s authority figure, and I knew he cared about us.” In addition to his job at the steel mill, Joe’s father also worked part time as a carpenter and plumber to supplement his income.
Joe’s mother went to school through the ninth grade. Although she never worked outside their home, he remembers her always taking care of others. “My parents taught me to be an honorable, upright person,” he says. “They wanted me to get as much education as possible because they felt there was no way to advance without it.”
Joe enjoyed school from the beginning. His first and second grade teachers saw his potential and encouraged him to excel. “Mrs. Wooster and Mrs. Thomas, my first and second grade teachers, taught me one of the most important lessons I ever learned,” he says, “and that was to read everything I could get my hands on. I still do that today. It’s the only way to keep up with this quickly changing world.”
At the age of 11, Joe began working as a stock boy in the local grocery store. Eventually, he became a cashier. As a teenager, he did yard work in the summers, and helped his father on plumbing and construction jobs. He assumed that when he was an adult he would work in the steel mill, but not as an unskilled laborer. He planned on working as a pipe fitter or an electrician. “I knew I wanted enough education so that I could have choices,” he says. “I worked in the mill one summer and I learned very quickly what a hot, dirty, dangerous place it is. I wore an asbestos suit and shoveled slag. Hot doesn’t describe that job. It made me want to go to school and get a good education so that I wouldn’t have to work there. I have always admired my father for doing it for so many years.”
While in high school, Joe applied for and was awarded a medical school scholarship sponsored by the local medical society. They would pay for his education if he agreed to come back and practice medicine in his home town. But first, he had to earn an undergraduate degree and be accepted to medical school on his own.
Joe graduated from high school in 1964, and he worked that summer painting a house. The job paid enough to cover his first year of tuition at Lorain County Community College. Joe married that year and went to work full time at a NASA nuclear plant. His job was to make sure the reactor wasn’t producing too much radiation for the atmosphere. Within two years, his long hours forced him to drop a few classes, changing his student status to part time. “When you did that in 1966,” he says, “Uncle Sam quickly came calling, and I was drafted into the Army.”
Joe never intended to make the Army a career. He still wanted to be a doctor and thought that with the benefits he would receive as a veteran, he could make that dream a reality. But over time, he found that life in the Army fulfilled his desire to serve others and his country.
Joe completed his basic training at Fort Jackson in South Carolina. While there, his high test scores earned him a recommendation for Officer Candidate School. Once commissioned as a second lieutenant, Joe was sent to Korea in 1967, and then he did a tour in Vietnam. During this time, he commanded two units and learned a great deal about leadership and the importance of teamwork.
When Joe returned to the United States, the Army sent him to Kent State University where he earned his degree in accounting. “By then I had changed my mind about becoming a doctor,” he says. “In exchange for my education, I owed the military four more years of service. At that time, the military was looking for people with a business background to help run the Department of Defense. I hadn’t set out to make the military my career, but I moved quickly through the system and was a brigadier general by the time I was 42. The Army treated me well.”
In addition to an undergraduate degree, Joe earned his MBA from Indiana State University. His Army career placed him in a variety of command and staff positions, including active duty posts in Operations Desert Shield/Desert Storm in the Middle East. He served as the director of the Army budget and as commanding general of the 1st Infantry Division – the legendary “Big Red One.” Ultimately, Joe achieved the rank of major general.
Joe had to move his family many times during his Army career. He has a son who is autistic, and each move meant adjustments to new schools, teachers, and therapists. Joe decided it was time to retire from the Army so that his family would have a more stable life. “My son, who is now 23, changed my life,” he says. “He opened my eyes to people with special needs. He brings out the best in me and is the blessing of my life.”
In 1994, Joe retired from the Army and joined USAA, a financial services company that serves the military community. He began his career at USAA as special assistant to the chairman and was quickly named chief financial officer. He was appointed president and chief executive officer in 2007.
As CEO of USAA, Joe has aligned the company around its mission of serving those who serve, led the association to its best-ever performance, and fostered a culture of innovation. In addition, he and the USAA board opened membership to anyone who has ever honorably served the U.S. military, as well as their family members. Joe’s leadership style, which reflects the values he learned in the military, has kept USAA moving forward through the recent economic crisis.
When Joe joined USAA, it was an up-and-coming financial services company that served military officers. Today USAA serves more than 9 million members and ranks No. 132 in the FORTUNE 500.
A patriot to his core, Joe says, “Leading USAA has enabled me to continue my service to our nation and the U.S. military. We live in a country where people can speak out and worship freely. For that, we should thank our men and women in uniform.”
Honored by his Horatio Alger Award, Joe says, “I feel strongly about the ideals perpetuated by the Horatio Alger Association. Because of organizations like this, disadvantaged youth have more options available to them to seek higher education.
“Whenever I address young people, I urge them to get as much education as possible. I also encourage our youth to give back to their country, either through military service or the nonprofit sector. The values and leadership of those who serve others keep America strong.”
For Joe, success means making a difference. “I want to know that while I was on this earth, I made an impact on the things that really count—people and our country. It isn’t about money or status. America has bestowed so much on me I feel it is important to give back.”
Joe and his wife, Patty, have long had a philosophy of giving back, and they set an example that others follow. The causes closest to their hearts lean toward those that benefit children and ensure the best possible education for all, including those with physical and developmental disabilities, like their son Christopher. Joe and Patty’s other two children are committed to service, like their father. Andrew is pursuing a career in biomedical research, and Melissa is a police officer.
In 2010, Joe led San Antonio’s most successful United Way campaign, helping to ensure that community services can continue to meet growing needs. As CEO of USAA, Joe’s leadership has affirmed that USAA’s long history of community service continues to be a priority.
During his military career, Joe was recognized numerous times for service and honor. He received the Distinguished Service Medal with Oak Leaf Cluster, the Legion of Merit with two Oak Leaf Clusters, the Bronze Star with Oak Leaf Cluster, and the Meritorious Service Medal with Oak Leaf Cluster.
In 2009, The Christian Science Monitor named General Robles the No. 1 Veteran in Business and American Banker named him Innovator of the Year.
Joe currently serves on the American Red Cross Board of Governors and on the boards of directors of The Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas San Antonio Branch, DTE Energy, the CHRISTUS Santa Rosa Health System, the CHRISTUS Santa Rosa Children’s Hospital Foundation, and the P16Plus Council of Greater Bexar County Foundation.