Archie Black believes investing to cultivate his community’s next generation of leaders is a win for him, his company and Minnesota.
By Lora Strum
“Winning is fun.”
It’s the first thing Archie Black says when asked about his two decades at the top of SPS Commerce, a provider of on-demand supply chain management solutions, where he’s served as CEO since 2001.
But just how does Black, Bus Ad ’84, stay on top? By looking out for those around him. Winning comes down to “whether you’re accomplishing something … with people you enjoy,” he says.
Black was named EY (Ernst & Young) Entrepreneur of the Year in 2015 and the college’s Distinguished Alumnus of the Year in June. He holds that his successes center on never abandoning his values, which always prioritize people. “I have four constituencies: my employees, customers, investors and community,” Black explains. “You have to be authentic and care about others.”
While Black’s relationship-centric business model is solid today, the path to this win wasn’t always easy. When he became CEO, SPS was losing $6 million a year on $1 million in revenue. Layoffs were the first thing the newly minted CEO had to oversee. That decision was hard, Black says, and he made it his mission to never be in that position again.
Roughly two decades later, however, the pandemic forced SPS, and many businesses like it, into uncharted territory. To avoid layoffs, Black instituted a hiring freeze until the business could determine the pandemic’s impact. “These aren’t people on a spreadsheet,” says Black, who, as a former chief financial officer, doesn’t fault those who pursued layoffs. “We’ve built a culture of trust where employees always come first. It’s how we win.”
As a child, Black dreamed of big wins in the business world as some kids fantasize about becoming an astronaut or actor. Marquette’s Accounting program was a major stepping stone to making that dream a reality but also to making a difference. “You can have a tangible impact on society by being in leadership positions,” he says.
Black believes that quality leaders are made in school and credits his professional success to the same rigor and perseverance needed to get good grades. It’s why, when he discovered that Minnesota’s high school graduation rate for students of color is one of the nation’s worst, he became determined to close the state’s racial education gap.
“Education is the greatest equalizer of people,” he says. “It doesn’t take care of all our societal problems, but lack of access to education is what, historically, stops people from being employed and giving back.”
Black is chair of the education committee of the Minnesota Business Partnership, and also vice chair of the University of St. Thomas’ Student Affairs Committee. Within these appointments, he focuses on literacy to help students of all backgrounds succeed. It’s a cause to which his wife, Jane (McDonald), Bus Ad ’84, whom he met at Marquette, has also dedicated her time.
What motivates Black, his wife and their four sons to uplift and support their communities is a desire to take an active approach to fulfilling the Jesuit mission to be of service. “There’s enough wealth and privilege that needs to be shared,” Black says, but too often “people talk about giving back and don’t do anything.”
To Black, intention without execution feels like a loss. Only when he takes action — improving educational access, building strong relationships, spreading the wealth — does Black feel like he’s netted another win.