Retiring after four decades at J M Smith, CEO Bill Cobb saw the beginning of the tech boom and helped mold Spartanburg into a modern city
After 41 years with Spartanburg-based J M Smith Corp., 19 of those as chairman and CEO, William R. “Bill” Cobb will retire Feb. 28.
Under Cobb’s leadership, J M Smith has become the third-largest privately held company in South Carolina, providing jobs for hundreds in Spartanburg and beyond across its five divisions — Smith Drug Co., QS/1, Integral Solutions Group, RxMedic, and Integra.
Employees were recently informed of their leader’s departure. The company expects to announce Cobb’s replacement soon.
“This has been in the works for some time,” Cobb said. “When I began my career here, I never dreamed that I’d be retiring as chairman some 40 years later. I have been guided by a set of principles instilled in me by the Smith family — ‘We need to remember the basics: Be a good supplier to our customers, be a good customer to our suppliers, be a good investment for our shareholders, be a good employer to our employees, and be a good citizen in our community.’ I like to think that is as true today as it was then.”
Cobb, 70, was born and raised in Spartanburg. He was a member of the first class that graduated from Paul M. Dorman High School and played trumpet in the school’s band.
He briefly attended the University of South Carolina before joining the U.S. Army. After completing basic training at Fort Jackson in 1967, Cobb secured a place on the West Point Band, the army’s oldest active duty band.
While he was playing in the band, Cobb was accepted into an introductory computer class at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.
After he married his wife Linda in 1968, Cobb continued to learn about computers. Contemplating a career in the army or a career outside it, he took a job as a third-shift computer operator at IBM. Cobb continued taking programming classes and was eventually hired to work full-time at IBM.
In 1971, he earned an associate degree from Dutchess Community College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y. He and his wife decided to move to Spartanburg. Cobb found a job working as a computer operator at Spartanburg-based Milliken & Co., where he earned $106 per week.
The following year, he took a programmer position at Smith Data Processing, a division that grew out of the wholesale drug distribution company founded by James M. Smith in 1943. When he joined the company, Cobb was one of five programmers.
In 1974, he earned his bachelor’s degree from the University of South Carolina-Spartanburg, now University of South Carolina Upstate.
Cobb left Smith in 1975, but came back the following year.
In 1977, he helped launch the company’s new QS/1 pharmacy system. The program was created to bring automation to American pharmacies.
QS/1 became the third division of J M Smith Corp. in 1990 and Cobb was named president. Eight years later, he was named CEO and chairman of J M Smith.
“I liked what I was doing,” Cobb said. “I have deep roots in Spartanburg County. I had a job that I liked in a community that I liked living in. Granted, there are probably other places that are more exciting than Spartanburg, but this is a great place to raise a family.”
Remolding downtown Spartanburg
Cobb said it was the late Roger Milliken who helped spark his interest in the environment and community beautification.
In 2003, the company helped change the face of downtown by building the new corporate headquarters for QS/1 in a largely unused parking lot at the intersection of Daniel Morgan Avenue and St. John Street.
The following year, Smith Drug Co. moved from its facility off College Street on the city’s north side to a new center off Fairforest Road. The older facility was renovated and is now the headquarters for Integral Solutions Group.
J M Smith’s corporate headquarters is at 101 W St. John St., in a building the company purchased in 1998. On most days, groups of QS/1 employees can be seen walking around downtown.
Next to J M Smith’s building, the company is creating a public park near its floral clock at the intersection of St. John and Church streets.
‘A success at retirement’
Cobb is the founder of the Spartanburg Jazz Ensemble and regularly plays in the Spartanburg Community Band.
He has served on the board of Wofford College, the Spartanburg Commission for Higher Education, the S.C. ETV Foundation, and the Arts Partnership of Spartanburg.
USC Upstate recognized Cobb as its Distinguished Alumnus of 2002.
In 2009, he was awarded the Neville Holcombe citizenship award by the Spartanburg Area Chamber of Commerce.
After he retires, Cobb said he plans to continue to playing trumpet and being active in the community. He has several trips planned, including a tour of the Mt. Rushmore National Memorial in South Dakota, a visit to Italy, and a cruise to the Galápagos Islands.
Cobb said he plans to continue supporting local cultural, arts, and education programs.
He is a member of a hiking club and plans to continue pursuing his passion for woodworking, as well as spending time with his wife and grandchildren.
“I plan on being a success at retirement,” he said. “I don’t think there’s anything remarkable about my life story. I hate to chalk it up to luck, but I feel like I was very lucky. When you get an opportunity, you make the most of it. That’s what I did. I showed up every day. I worked hard and I was always prepared.”
Points of Pride
In addition to J M Smith’s numerous innovations, Cobb said he is very proud of its commitment to its employees reflected in its retirement and health care plans.
But Cobb said he is also proud of paths the company has opened for its employees to better themselves through education.
In 2010, Cobb and 16 of the company’s upper- and mid-level managers earned their Master of Business Administration degrees from USC. He said the group took classes two nights per week and one Saturday per month, followed by a class in Europe.
“I couldn’t quit because all of my people were in the class; they couldn’t quit because I was in the class,” he said.
Cobb said it was Roger Milliken who helped spark his interest in the environment and community beautification. Some of his other influencers include his high school chemistry teacher Bob McDaniels and band director Earl Mays.
Within the J M Smith organization, he said leaders like Jim Smith Jr., Henry Dale Smith, and Beverly Moss Smith set an example of “impeccable quality, integrity, and genuine concern for the people around them and who worked for them.”
His fellow programmer Walter Kay also influenced him, Cobb said.
Outside of the office, Cobb said he always had great respect for other business leaders, including George Dean Johnson Jr. and Bill Barnet.
“They set the gold standard for being good businessmen and caring for the community,” he said. “They put their money where their mouths were.”
Spartanburg leaders expressed their appreciation for Cobb and his leadership of J M Smith.
Bill Barnet, chairman of Northside Development Group
“The Smith organization is a major part of our community. It’s a big company with a big reach. They have been investors in the community, whether it’s the arts or the [S.C.] School for the Deaf and Blind, and many other projects. … Their CEO is a very large player in our world. … Bill loves music and beautification. In his own quiet way, he has had an enormous impact on the evolution of Spartanburg.”
Junie White, mayor of Spartanburg
“Without Bill and his companies, Spartanburg wouldn’t be what it is today. We are fortunate to have a man of his stature in the community. We will miss him. He had his own ways, but always had the community on his mind. We wish him all the best.”