The following content is featured in the Michigan & Northwest Ohio Spring 2016 edition of The Who’s Who in Building & Construction.
Detroit Native Leaves His Mark On His Beloved City
The founder and CEO of White Construction—one of the largest African-American-owned construction companies in the nation—is known for his work ethic and his customer and community-minded focus. W. Bernard White is an exceptional role model for young people in and around Detroit, the state and the country.
Yet, when asked about his success, White doesn’t talk about himself or his accomplishments. Instead, he talks about his grandmother.
“She was very smart and told me that I could do anything if I went to school,” recalls White. “She was right!”
LISTENING AND LEARNING
At his grandmother’s insistence, a young Bernard focused on learning as much as he could about a range of topics, always searching for a passion. In high school, Bernard found a particular aptitude for drafting. Upon graduation, he was hired as a draftsman at the Detroit Water and Sewerage Dept. Still channeling his grandmother’s wisdom, he realized quickly that the most successful people in the department were those with civil engineering degrees. So, he started taking night classes at Lawrence Technological University, the school closest to where he lived and worked.
He continues, “The closest thing to civil engineering that the university offered was construction engineering—so that’s what I chose as my major.”
The classes were difficult, and White laughingly recalls failing at least one class (first year trigonometry). But, true to the lessons learned from the maternal figures in his life, he persevered until he graduated Cum Laude with a Bachelor of Science degree in Construction Engineering in 1980. In 1981, he passed the State of Michigan Professional Engineers licensing examination, the first step to achieving his dream of owning his own company.
White worked for two major construction firms over the course of eight years, learning everything he could about construction management. On July 31, 1989, at the age of 33, he took all of his savings and founded White Construction. He worked out of a small rented office with just a computer, a desk, a phone— and a lot of energy. He gave himself six months to make enough money to support his young family, and far exceeded those expectations in a mere three months.
Ironically, his former employer gave him his first job, asking him to complete some masonry renovations around existing utility closets in a parking garage. White teamed up with a local masonry subcontractor, and a month later had earned his first profit of $3,000.
Since those early days, White Construction has grown considerably in revenue, size and visibility. The firm’s revenue is about $28 million a year with a staff of about 24. It’s also become a family affair. White’s son Donovan, a 15-year company veteran, is the deputy operations manager; his brother Steve is the manager of information systems; and his nephew, Milton Jennings, is the deputy business development manager. White and his team have worked on a wide range of projects in the Detroit metropolitan area in many markets including public/municipal, education, industrial, health care, religious and residential.
Today, White Construction is an integral part of the Detroit building community. It has contributed to nearly every major project in the last decade, including Campus Martius, Detroit RiverWalk, Detroit Public Safety headquarters, Eastern Market, Comerica Park, Ford Field, the new Mumford High School, Michigan Crime Lab, United States Citizenship Immigration Building, Detroit Wayne County Port Authority, and the Coleman A. Young Municipal Center Auditorium.
He recalls one particular project in 1996 that really helped him establish his business in the Detroit community. “We were asked to complete the almost $9 million renovation of the Wildlife Interpretive Gallery at the Detroit Zoo. The job was challenging artistically and needed to be completed on a tight schedule,” says White.
The Gallery features a 38,000-square-foot Butterfly Garden, a 90-seat theater, Science On a Sphere® (a 2,500-gallon, suspended salt water aquarium), interactive exhibits, and the Detroit Zoological Society’s permanent art collection. Today, the Wildlife Interpretive Gallery is one of the city’s most popular locations for meetings and weddings.
White says, “We did that job as the prime contractor. I was personally involved throughout and am really proud of the results. I like knowing that the community continues to enjoy its beauty.”
Currently, White’s firm, along with its partners Barton Malow and Hunt Construction Group, is in the midst of working on the $450 million, 20,000-seat Detroit Red Wings sports complex, which is on track for completion by the start of the 2017 NHL season. White Construction is also the construction manager for 20 of the proposed railway stations that will connect the $137 million Woodward Avenue Streetcar Project, also known as the M-1 Rail Line, developed by M-1 RAIL. Construction on this endeavor began in September 2015, and involves laying down 3.3 miles of fixed streetcar rail along Woodward Ave. in Detroit.
White Construction has also been selected as the construction manager for the Kemeny Recreation Center in the Delray neighborhood, a village located on the southwest side of Detroit, which will include the abatement and demolition of the existing recreation facility and new construction of a 33,000-square-foot, one-story facility. Work on the project is expected to begin in 2016.
White also has one dream project on his bucket list that hasn’t yet materialized. His goal is to build a 20-story-or-higher high-rise in Detroit.
“LEARN, EARN AND GIVE BACK”
Along with involvement in a range of other community activities and programs, White recently established the W. Bernard White Education Foundation, which provides scholarships and grants to underprivileged African-American students in high school or college who are interested in science, technology and engineering.
White says, “I believe there are three phases in your life: learn, earn and give back. I’m transitioning into the phase where I’d like to give back to people who need opportunities. I started the foundation so I can help those African-American kids who are working hard, who need a hand up and not a hand out. I think it’s important for people who have come through public schools to see that you can make money with hard work.”
And like his mother and grandmother reinforced to him and his siblings, education is the foundation for most people’s success. Now he’s working to make sure young people get the same message and have the support needed to make their dreams Possible.
As of March 2016, the foundation is funded. White and his team will be reviewing applicants and offering scholarships this summer. For more information about the W. Bernard White Education Foundation, visit www.wbweducationfoundation.com.