Detroit-based White Construction was founded on July 31, 1989. Under the visionary leadership of W. Bernard White, P.E., founder and president of White Construction, the company has risen to become one of the nation’s largest African American-owned businesses.
According to Black Enterprise magazine’s annual list of the Top 100 largest African American-owned companies in the nation, White Construction ranked No. 87 in 2012 and No. 79 in 2013. In 2012, Crain’s Detroit Business publication ranked White Construction No. 18 on its list of Detroit’s largest Black-owned businesses.
As a leader in pre-construction services, construction management, general contracting, and/or design build services, the company’s more than 80 projects have included Comerica Park, (Home of the Detroit Tigers), Ford Field (Home of the Detroit Lions), Campus Martius, Detroit Riverwalk, the new Mumford High School, Detroit Public Safety Headquarters, Michigan Crime Lab, United States Citizenship Immigration Building, Detroit/Wayne County Port Authority, Coleman A. Young Municipal Center Auditorium, and more…
Additionally, White Construction, one of three construction companies, will partner in the building of the new downtown hockey arena that will be home to the Detroit Red Wings. The company is also a subcontractor to build the 20 stations for the new M-1 Rail Transit System on Woodward Ave.
The Michigan Chronicle sat down with native Detroiter W. Bernard White, P.E. to discuss White Construction, its 25th anniversary, and his 25-year journey as founder/president.
You are celebrating your company’s 25 anniversary, which is a great milestone. What are some of your thoughts about this milestone and what does it mean to you personally and professionally?
Personally, I remember saying when I was working for corporate America that I didn’t want to wake up and be 60 years old and wish that I had started my business. So I thought, let me go and give it a shot; if it works, great…if it doesn’t, I can always go back and get a job because that’s pretty much all I’ve ever had. Professionally, I’m in awe of all the projects that White Construction has had a hand in over the last 25 years. When you look over this city’s landscape, you see so many projects – at least I do – that we’ve had a hand in. We’ve just had a lot of great opportunities in the city of Detroit. So having a great education and working hard have helped a lot. I think the timing of hard work and education meeting the opportunities in the city of Detroit was perfect.
Talk about how your company has prospered for 25 years; that’s a pretty significant length of time…
Well, I definitely can’t say that it is all due to Bernard White. It’s due to a lot of help and hard work by a lot of people. There’s been support from the City of Detroit and its many administrations over the years. I would say that it’s been because of the support from numerous clients. And of course, it’s been because of the hard work of a lot of our employees that we’ve had over the last 25 years. Lastly, there’s been a lot of hard work on my part because I did work very hard. I recall for the first seven years, I never had a Saturday off unless I had a wedding or funeral to attend. So I can effectively count maybe six or seven Saturdays that I took off because of those reasons in the first seven years. I sometimes worked on Sunday. Back then, I typically worked from 7:00 a.m. in the morning until 7 or 8 p.m. at night. So I definitely have worked hard, but I cannot take all the credit, because I had a great support team comprised of so many people that wanted this company to be successful.
Were there times in the first couple of years of White Construction that you had doubts whether or not you could succeed in this business?
I probably was more concerned before I started White Construction. However, after I got started, I hit the ground running and things started happening. I never had a chance to get nervous because I was busy fighting to stay in business. And very candidly, it was a lot of fun for the first 10 to 15 years. I really enjoyed building White Construction. I really enjoyed the opportunities that we were having. I really enjoyed the fact that we were fiscally sound, if you will. We were making money and making things happen in this city. I was excited about the various opportunities. Maybe after 20 years, I got a little wore down and wore out because of the pace that I was maintaining and I began looking for more people to help me out. Construction is a very hard, stressful, risky and taxing business to be in. So, I have come to realize that I’m human and mortal. At some point, I will have to pass the torch. It is best to do that while I am well. So, I’m happy that my oldest son, Donovan White, has just been promoted to Deputy Operations Manager and my nephew, Milton Jennings has been promoted to Deputy Business Development Manager. Donovan has been with White since 2001 and Milton since 1997. They are both graduates in Engineering and have worked on several White Construction Projects. They are at the age I was when I started White Construction. I’m hopeful that they will take the torch over the next 5 to 10 years and keep the company moving forward over the next 25 (or more) years.
In 1989, the American economy wasn’t doing so well. Wall Street was cautious. Did it ever occur to you that maybe 1989 was not the right time to start White Construction?
I had a lot of people ask me in 1989, why would I start this business because the economy is down and there’s not a lot going on? ‘But, actually, for White Construction, we were starting off as a small business and a lot of customers were refraining from building new buildings to move into. They were trying to stay put to save money. To stay put, they moved on renovations of their existing spaces. So as they renovated some of their existing spaces, it provided a lot of opportunity for us as a small business to start off in renovation work. So we started doing a lot of renovation work and as the economy began to pick up in the ‘90s, we started progressing into new construction. It worked out perfectly for us.
Were there individuals that thought that you had made a mistake by venturing in the field of construction?
I did have some people advise me that I should keep my day job with the City of Detroit because they thought that I had a great job and I would be able to get a great pension one day if I put my time in. When I went to work for Turner Construction, some people thought that the job would only last for a year or so; but it was a great opportunity for me to learn Construction Management for over eight years. When I started White Construction, the same people thought that I didn’t know what I was doing because the economy was in bad shape. However, I thought I had the opportunity for more growth with the great experience I had gained. Looking back, going into construction and starting White Construction are among the best decisions that I’ve ever made.
Reflect back on 1989, what was White Construction’s first project?
Our first project was building a masonry electrical room for a new Walbridge Aldinger parking deck when they relocated their headquarters to Detroit in 1989. We were the low bidder at $11,000 and I remember getting the job done for about $8,000. I was so excited that I had made $3,000 over the four weeks it took to build the electrical room. It was a very exciting opportunity and time.
You’ve won bids for countless other construction projects over the company’s 25 years in business. Is there one or two projects that stand out for various reasons?
A lot of the projects that we’ve worked on were really great. But probably the project that stands out the most for me was the Detroit Zoo’s Wildlife Interpretive Gallery. This was a project that had a lot of custom construction and had a really tough schedule to meet for a new director (Ron Kagan) that was just coming to his new position. This was his first great vision for the Detroit Zoo. We wanted to do a great job and I was excited to do the job solo. It was a challenging job for all concerned but we got it done. I always have personal pride for the projects we have had a major hand in at the Zoo (e.g. Wildlife Interpretive Gallery, Arctic Ring of Life for the Polar Bears/Seals, Amphibiville, Otter Exhibit, Small Mammal Exhibit, Tiger House, Comfort Stations, etc. ). The City of Detroit was instrumental in affording us these opportunities, which we are very grateful for.
Another project that was very important to me was the Key Bank on Orchard Lake Rd. and 15 Mile Rd. in Bloomfield Hills. The reason that it was so important was because it was a job that we accomplished and the owner had no idea that we were a Black Owned Business. This had no bearing on the award or otherwise. They just selected us on our qualifications and pricing. When they came to the grand opening and met me personally (after everyone was raving about how the bank looked and that we got it done on schedule), I could tell by the look on their faces that they didn’t really know that it was a Black-owned company. That made me feel really good on the inside, that we had that particular opportunity in the suburbs, and we executed it so well.
What are some of the challenges that you faced in general and how did you overcome the challenges?
One of my biggest challenges and something I think about often is how can we move White Construction into a position where we can have more opportunities in the suburbs and mainstream S.E. Michigan. In other words, we get a lot of great opportunities because of the fact that we are African American and/or we are a Detroit-based business. That’s great and we need and appreciate those opportunities. The challenge for us is how we segue our company into having mainstream opportunities, where being a Black-owned company has nothing to do with the opportunity. That continues to be a challenge for us.
Do you feel that you’ve made progress in that particular area?
Not at all, in my opinion. I will say that we need to look at ourselves and figure out what we can do different and better. I would say that 90% of our opportunities has something to do with the fact that we are Black-owned, Detroit-based, or an MBE enterprise. And like I said, we appreciate those opportunities, as we need them. However, we want to grow into getting work because we do great work, and the fact that we are Black-owned or based in Detroit is not a big factor, if at all.
Is it trending that way now?
I hope so…I really hope so. If we are going to be the color-blind society that we ascribe to be and we say we don’t need Affirmative Action programs, then we need to work to remove the reasons that they were created in the first place.
Your company has won bids on major projects in the city over the last couple of years, such as the new Red Wings Hockey Arena and the M-1 Rail Stations on Woodward Ave. What will both projects mean to the resurgence of Detroit?
White Construction is very excited about the M-1 Rail that will run on both sides of Woodward Ave. between downtown and midtown. We are also excited about the new Detroit Event Center (one part of which is the New Detroit Red Wings Hockey Arena). We are going to be involved in both projects in major roles. We consider these projects to be two signature projects that will be additional great catalysts continuing to spur Detroit’s great momentum and progress. I’m extremely proud and honored to be involved in these historic and progressive initiatives in the city of Detroit.
Both of those projects will employ Detroiters, right?
Both of those projects will have a lot of participation from Detroit businesses and Detroit residents for the trades. I’m excited about making sure that we provide opportunities for Detroit businesses and Detroit residents on both projects. It’s something that we have done successfully on other projects we have been involved in and we are excited to have a role in helping to make it happens on these projects too.
To make sure, will you be doing any proactive endeavors to talk to community groups about employment opportunities?
On the M-1 Rail, we have already had outreach meetings, and the project is breaking ground on July 28, 2014. I’m sure that we will have more. I am sure we will have outreach meetings for the new hockey arena also. The outreach meetings are designed to invite Detroiters and Detroit businesses so they can learn how they can become involved in the project, with the goal of maximizing their participation.
Detroit has been on a downward spiral over the years. Obviously, the city made history when an emergency manager was appointed in 2013. The city made history again when it subsequently went into bankruptcy. Yet, the city seems as if it’s on the way back. What’s your take on where Detroit is heading?
There’s no doubt that Detroit is on its way up and on its way back fast. I tell people all the time that when Detroit catches fire, it’s going to go ‘poof.’ It’s going to happen fast and people aren’t going to know what happened. My hope and belief is that existing Detroit residents and Detroit businesses will have the opportunity to participate in this growth that’s going to obviously happen over the next 5, 10 and 15 years.
You are one the nation’s largest African American-owned businesses, according to many credible sources, such as Black Enterprise magazine and Crain’s Detroit Business. In 2012, White Construction was ranked 87th and 2013, 79th on BE’s list of the nation’s Top 100 Black companies. What’s the business philosophy that have keep you amongst the nation’s top Black-owned businesses?
I don’t know if I have a philosophy that has kept White Construction amongst the top Black-owned businesses. We just work hard and are very proud of what we do. Our construction business tends to lend itself to large revenues. But everyone should realize that most of those dollars go to the bricks and mortar, not in our bank. We have enjoyed enormous opportunities here in Detroit over the last 25 years. As opportunities continue, I’m sure that we will continue to grow and thrive.
Let’s talk a little about your personal background. You were born and raised in Detroit, correct?
What part of the city did you grow up on, and talk a little about your days as a youth?
We moved around a lot because we were always trying to find a place where we could rent a little bit cheaper and a little better than the last place. But primarily, it was over by Mackenzie High School (although I attended Chadsey High School) where I grew up from 15 until I moved out on my own. I saved for and bought my on house when I was 19. I grew up with two younger sisters and a younger brother. We attended church every Sunday, and sometimes during the week. At 12 years old, I was the janitor for the church, shoveled the snow and opened the doors for services. At the time, we lived two doors away from the church. I think growing up in the church, really kept me out of trouble, kept me out of the streets and had a lot to do with me getting some type of moral barometer. This, for sure, has helped me in my business. I learned at an early age, to do unto others, as you would have them do unto you, which is found in Luke 6.31. I practice paying my subs when we get paid, paying my staff and just adhering to the contracts we enter. Believe me, sometimes it hurts badly.
Do you want to give the name of the church?
Greater Miller Memorial Church of God and Christ. That’s where I had a lot of friends. That’s where I grew up and got my first job. The church had a lot to do with my personal, spiritual, emotional and professional development. No question.
You mentioned that you had three siblings. Talk a little about your parents.
My father worked at General Motors for 37 years and my mother worked at Ford Motor Company for 32 years. They were both dependable and hard workers who showed up for work every day; they were serious about their jobs. They were happy to have jobs. I believe my father never missed a day of work other than when he was on vacation or during plant changeover.
Did you pick up some of your work ethics and work values from your parents’ dedication to their jobs?
I think that I did. Maybe I picked it up genetically, because I’ve always been a hard worker. That’s one of my strongest attributes because I’m not the smartest guy; but I will typically outwork my counterparts.
Was it anything in particular that your parents passed on to you that prepared you for the success that you have achieved in business?
I think just seeing them work hard was passed on to me. Actually, my mother worked two jobs just to make sure that we had a roof over our heads and food in our mouths. I think I realized when I was 15 that if I was going to do anything with my life going forward, I needed to get started on it right then. I started thinking about what I was going to be and do as a man when I was 15. That is when I started saving for a house. My parents basically passed on to me, without saying it, that if it was going to be, it was up to me.
As a teen, what were your career aspirations?
That’s funny, because I wanted to be a secret agent, or join the FBI. I know that sounds different. I think that “Secret Agent Man” on television had something to do with that. I later realized that I probably couldn’t go on many undercover assignments. Therefore, I began to think about something else.
In high school, did you play sports?
I ran cross-country in the fall and ran track in the spring. I was not good enough for basketball as I was much shorter and skinnier than my colleagues. But I was typically working as soon as I got out of school each day.
Did any of your high school experiences and values in sports equate to how you approached running your business today?
I would say yes. To win, you have to train well, eat well and have the major heart, drive, determination and kick to get to the finish line before the competition. It’s funny that both of the sports I participated in were basically individual sports. I have always looked to and relied on myself to make it happen, even in business. I say this, as others do well and better in team atmospheres.
Coming out of high school, connect me to your career path, which included graduating from Lawrence Tech?
When I was in high school, I was working as a draftsman at the Detroit Water and Sewerage Dept. When I graduated from high school, everybody at the Water Department were engineers, up the line, if you will. So I decided to take up construction engineering. At the time Lawrence Tech did not offer civil engineering, plus, I could go to Lawrence Tech and get my degree at night while I worked fulltime during the day. One semester, I took 21 credit hours while working 40 hours a week for the city and ended up with three A’s, a B and a C. I ended up graduating Cum Laude. At that time, I thought that I was going to stay with Detroit Water and Sewerage and make a career there. So that’s why I took construction engineering. But, of course, after I graduated from Lawrence Tech in 1980, a year later I decided to go to a private company in construction. So it kind of happened by happenstance; I can’t say that I planned this career all along. I just sort of switched here and made some adjustments there to get into construction management.
At what point in your life did you decide that construction would be your chosen field?
Probably after working eight years with Turner Construction, a major construction company. It was like getting my doctorate in construction, if you will. I really learned how construction management was performed with a systematic approach. I learned how to write contracts, how to estimate the work, and how to implement the work. I saw that I could do this on a small scale and decided to go out and start my own construction company. Once I started White Construction, I found that I had really learned a wealth of knowledge while working at Turner for the eight years. I also worked for Walbridge Aldinger. Both companies gave me the exposure and opportunity to hit the ground running and keep growing.
Talk a little more about what you learned at your first two construction jobs, following your graduation from Lawrence Tech.
I learned a lot during my eight years with Turner, largely because we were working on many Detroit projects. These opportunities presented themselves because Mayor Coleman Young’s administration wanted to see Detroiters and African Americans on these projects, which afforded me the opportunity to work with these companies. I worked on such projects as Poletown Demolition to make way for the new General Motors Plant and Trapper’s Alley, which was about a $6 million job in 1984 in Greektown. I worked on the first Cobo Hall expansion in 1986. I managed the erection and concrete pad for the Joe Louis fist. So, all of this exposure really provided me with some great education and experiences on how to manage major work and to start White Construction.
When you looked around, did you see a lot of other African American doing what you wanted to do?
There were not a lot of African American construction companies but there were good role models to see how some things worked and how some things did not work so well. Some of the African American construction companies that come to mind are Glenn Wash and Associates, Eddie Williams and Bill Richardson of Williams & Richardson, Charlie Steward who had a masonry company, and Joe Gough, who had a concrete company. These were the guys that I looked up to, who all were running successful construction businesses. It showed me that if I worked hard, I could possibly have my own construction company. So I hold these trail blazers in high regards, because they were the Black pioneers when I was coming along that I could look up to as an example of what I could achieve. Hopefully, someone is looking up to me who wants to start his or her own construction company. Maybe they can take it to another level.
Were these Black pioneers of construction readily available for advice?
All of these guys were working hard and were running their companies. And yes, I knew and spoke with them often. They were very supportive. They were the kind of people that would reach back and help as much as they could. So, yes, I would look at what they are doing, and sit down and talk with them about how they were doing certain things. These guys were my role models. I was a young man in my 20s and they were in their 40s and 50s, and they had already done what I was contemplating in some way. I was trying to be like them. In fact, when I was working on Tiger Stadium renovations, where we were putting a blue masonry wall around it, Charlie Steward was the masonry contractor for this work. I recall writing him a letter and telling him that he was my role model in construction as he was doing a great job (schedule and quality). I also congratulated him for the work he had done. I told him that one day I would like to own a construction company and be as successful as he was. When I see him now, he tells me that he remembers the letter and how special it was. I wrote the letter from my heart, because he was someone who I really looked up to and I was happy to see him do major construction projects in the city of Detroit.
Let me talk about some other mentors (if I may): There was Bennie Benjamin, Director of Detroit Water & Sewerage Dept.; he’s deceased now. Clyde Hopkins, who was the Director at City Engineering. Charlie Williams who was also a director with the DWSD. These were Black professionals who embraced supporting Black-owned companies such as White Construction to make sure we had opportunities. These guys made sure that when opportunities presented themselves, I had an opportunity to bid on them. That support was huge and none of them ever made me feel like they were looking for anything in return. They were just happy to see me do a good job.
You talked about people who were mentors in your industry. Were there individuals who served as mentors that were not in the construction field?
My grandmother, Rosa Smith, was a great mentor to me. She got up every morning when I was in high school and made me a full breakfast. She would sit down at the kitchen table while I was eating and tell me about her life as a little girl in South Carolina. I really enjoyed these history lessons. She always encouraged me to study hard and get the best education that I could, and when I become a man, I could be anything that I wanted to be. I trusted my grandmother for her integrity and her intelligence. She had a college degree from Clinton College, which was a Black college in South Carolina. I listened to her and I’m so glad that I did. She made me feel like I was very, very special. She referred to me as her “Favoright”. I had to try to live up to that.
You’ve been in business under numerous mayors; do you want to talk about the impact that each has had on your company?
I would say that Mayor Coleman Young had the biggest initial impact with the implementation of Detroit’s Sheltered Market Program, Ordinance 559 H. This was to make sure that Detroit African American-owned businesses got opportunities on projects that the City funded in whole or in part. I will also say that Mayor Dennis Archer maintained and held this ordinance up during his administration until it was voted out by Michigan voters with Proposal 2 in 2006. Mayor Dennis Archer was gracious to mention me and White Construction, publicly, at a lot of major city functions. If I was in the audience, he would acknowledge me. He would always come to my company Christmas parties. The support of both mayors for Black companies like White Construction was enormous and deeply appreciated. I think Mayor Bing supported White Construction also with his endeavors, although the City was struggling financially when he was in office. However, we did do the Detroit Public Safety Headquarters under his administration and that was a huge opportunity during a tough time in Detroit. I can’t thank them and their administrations enough for all the great opportunities over the last 25 years!
What is your formula for success?
My formula for success is getting a great education first so you can be considered, working hard, finding out where the opportunities are, and going out to meet them as best as possible. I feel that my engineering education at Lawrence Technology University was what got me started because I would not have been able to work at Turner Construction without that education. Trying to sell myself to a lot of business people, they needed to know that I’m a professional engineer, registered in the State of Michigan, and a registered licensed builder in the state of Michigan, I graduated Cum Laude in Construction Engineering from LTU. They also needed to know that I had great experience at major construction companies. Hopefully, they will look at me and say, maybe this person knows what he’s doing and give me an opportunity. You don’t want people to just think, you are doing well because you are Black in Detroit. It is important that they know you are more than qualified too.
On your website you have, now that White Construction has passed through the adolescence to the adult stage, it is positioned to go on to a great company. Explain?
We are not a great company yet; at least not in my opinion. We’ve done very well, but we are definitely not a great company. We will have to have opportunities over the next 25 years, like we did over the last 25 years, in order to possibly grow to a great company. In addition, we will have to keep working hard and smart. If you compare us to the larger construction companies in this market, our volume is about 4% of their volume. So we have a long ways to go before we can consider ourselves a “great” company.
You’ve done many things in the community, yet people are not aware of your contributions to the community to help empower others. Talk a little about your contributions to empower and strengthen youth.
One of the things that I really like doing in going to Detroit Public Schools and talking to our youth, especially our young Black males. I usually will ask them to stand up and tell me what they want to be when they grow up. I would say that 90% of them want to play basketball, football, or become a rap artist. I usually will ask them, if you go to the grocery store and you want to get out fast, what line do you get in? Hands go up and they will tell me that they would get in the express line or the shortest line. I tell them absolutely. When you get in the basketball line or rap artist line, that’s the longest line because everyone is in those lines. So they begin to think about it and later will say that they want to be a dentist, undertaker, or attorney. It is nice to see their lights come on and for me to present myself as an example/alternative of something else to ascribe to.
I also like to encourage Black people that we have to begin working with each other. It’s nice for us to ask the mainstream community to provide opportunities for us, as they should, but we need to work with each other. So I use a Black-owned bank for my business, and another Black-owned bank for my personal accounts. I bought a new car on my 57th birthday from a Black-owned car dealer. I buy my eyeglasses from a Black-owned optical company. Of course, in my own business, I make sure that I work with Black subcontractors and hire Black employees where possible. My contribution to the community, in my own way, is giving back to the community by working with Black-owned businesses and encouraging others to do the same to uplift ourselves in our own way.
Are there any organizations that you work with?
Over the last 25 years, I’ve served on many boards, including New Center Community Mental Health Services, where I was the Advisory Board Chair. They’ve done a lot of great work to help people in the community with mental health challenges. Roberta Sanders, who was the Executive Director there when I went in business, utilized White Construction for most all of her construction projects. She was a great client during her tenure there. I’ve served on Lawrence Technological Alumni Advisory Board, and the African American Association of Business and Contractors, which was head by Charlie Beckham back in the 1990s. He was huge and successful in advocating for African American Businesses in the 1990s. I’m also on Midtown Detroit Board. I try to stay active.
You’ve received numerous awards and honors since the inception of White Construction. Is there one award and honor that you are most proud of?
There’s a long list of awards and honors that I’ve received over the last 25 years; they are all important. I am proud of all the things that we’ve done as a company to be honored.
Talk about the M-1 Rail.
That’s going to be very exciting. We will be doing the 20 pre-cast platform stations for the project. They will be the shelters for people to wait for the rail cars to come that will be transporting people up and down Woodward Ave.
What are some of White Construction’s goal for the next 25 years?
We want to grow with Detroit, because I’m extremely convinced that the city will grow very well and really fast. Our big and long term goal is to build a 20-story solo project by the year 2020. We established this goal in 2006 as a long term BHAG (Big Hairy Audacious Goal). This will be something for people to look up to, like a skyscraper.
Talk about the family you have now. Are you married? Do you have any children?
I’m single. I have three children: One of my sons, Donovan, is working in the business with me. He’s been here for 13 years. He attended Lawrence Technological University, just as I did. My other son Paul is a world’s traveler; he’s was in New Zealand for six months; now he is in Australia for six months. He’s enjoying himself; I envy the life that he’s living. My daughter Kaylin is attending Spellman College in Atlanta. I also have two grandchildren Jayden and Deja.
Is there anything else that you would like to say as you observe your company’s 25th anniversary?
I want to sincerely thank the City of Detroit, its citizens, the many mayoral administrations, my hard working staff over the last 25 years, as well as the many, many clients that have entrusted us with so many opportunities, all of which have guided our path so far.