Founder and president W. Bernard White's new book 'White Construction: An American Story, Built in Detroit' chronicles the company's 30-year rise.
Back in 1989, nine years after he graduated from Lawrence Technological University with a degree in construction engineering, W. Bernard White decided to go into business for himself. The Detroit native was 33 years old and gainfully employed at Walbridge, which had secured a contract with the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department, where White worked as a project manager. Prior to this, he had served eight years as an assistant engineer for Turner Construction Company. From White's vantage point, he could have continued working for others – or, for the first time in his career, branch off in his own direction. The choice wasn't difficult: He started White Construction.
"I can't say I had any political reasons," White says. "I give a lot of the credit for a company like mine being able to grow to former Mayor Coleman Young. He had programs where he would try to make sure opportunities in Detroit went to minority contractors in Detroit. That helped in a huge way. I was able to take advantage of that." His new book, White Construction: An American Story, Built in Detroit, serves not only as a memoir of sorts, but also chronicles the company's journey – and rise – as a successful Detroit-based minority contractor through the '90s to the present with a foreword from former Detroit Mayor Dennis Archer.
The full-color coffee book-styled volume isn't a vanity project, White notes; it has a deeper purpose. With all the new construction and changes happening in the city, he wants a document – or as he calls it, a documentary – of the last 15 to 25 years in Detroit from a construction perspective. "Nobody's going have a clue about all these major projects that black contractors had a major influence on," White says. "That was the real purpose of it. It wasn't about me beating my chest. I saw how things were starting to change in Detroit. I needed to make a little bit of history, even though it's a small piece of history, (so) it can be inspiring to some young African-American one day."
But inspiration needs fuel and sometimes funds. So, in order to accomplish this, 100 percent of the book's proceeds will go toward the W. Bernard White Education Foundation, which awards $10,000 to 20 African-American students in the STEM – science, technology, engineering and math – fields. The nonprofit, launched in 2008, is celebrating 10 years. White had a very specific purpose in mind when starting it – he wanted to see results … up close. "I've given a ton of money to various organizations, but what I also found out is that even though I'm giving out large sums of money, I can't really see what that money is doing for the community," White says. "What I decided was I wanted to make sure it gets into the hands of people that can use it. I'm interested in trying to further and create opportunities for African-Americans in STEM programs."
From helping African-American youth succeed in STEM to keeping his company innovating for 29-plus years, White can run off an impressive list of projects central to Detroit's story, from Campus Martius Park to the Detroit Zoo Arctic Ring of Life to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Building – and, more recently, Little Caesars Arena (among other projects). He considers 29 years a good run and will soon turn over operations to his son, who has worked for the company for 10 years and also has a degree in construction engineering from Lawrence Tech.
"I'm not going anywhere," White says, referring to his city of birth – and assures the community that White Construction will continue to hire minorities and black subcontractors. He adds: "We know how to put them to work. I think it's important because it's not just an opportunity for White Construction and black prime contractors, but it's also an opportunity for White Construction to locate, identify and hire those black subcontractors, black businesses and give them opportunities."
"It takes a village to raise a child – but just one person to change a community."
Early in his career, W. Bernard White knew that by choosing entrepreneurship, he would have to step outside of the box and expand his confines in the name of aspiration and ambition in order to achieve his goals. Ford celebrates W. Bernard White and others who embrace challenges to promote personal and community growth.
This August, to continue support of female social entrepreneurs, Ford Motor Company Fund and the Michigan Women's Foundation (MWF) will launch the second cohort of the EmpowerHER program. Ford EmpowerHER offers educational opportunities, technical assistance and financial resources to encourage creative thinkers with plans for business startups that will also make their communities better places to live.
– Pamela Alexander, director of community development for Ford Motor Company