Bricks, Sweat & Tears

Detroit Free Press
March 14, 2000
By Daniel G. Fricker

 W. Bernard White's successful construction company, built on years of hard work, is working on some of the Detroit area's most recognizable structures

 W. Bernard White stretches his long legs across a leather chair and ottoman in his 4,600 - square foot Franklin home.

 The home's white walls, high ceilings and cream-colored carpeting serve as a neutral backdrop for a large collection of African art. A satellite is beaming the Discovery Channel onto a large-screen television housed in a wall-sized entertainment center.

 This isn't where you would expect a construction worker to live.

 His White Construction Co. of Detroit, is playing a supporting role in almost every project that holds promise in revitalizing southeastern Michigan:

 Comerica Park baseball stadium, Ford Field football stadium, Campus Martius' Premier Garage, Detroit Metro Airport's midfield passenger terminal, Detroit Zoo's Arctic Ring of Life and National Amphibian Conservation Center; and the rebuilding of a Bing Group warehouse destroyed by fire.

 "It makes me feel excited, of course,? White, 44 and the company's president, said recently. "I am involved in a supportive role in a lot of large projects. But we are looking for some opportunities on a stand-alone basis so we can continue to grow our firm, especially considering that our revenues dropped last year.?

 Since founding White Construction in 1989, White has quietly built a general contracting and construction management company of 33 employees, with annual revenues in recent years approaching $15 million. Last year, revenues slipped below $10 million. The numbers don't include revenues from projects with other contractors.

 White's revenues are small compared with the area's big contractors, whose annual business from local project alone is close to $1 billion each. But White's performance is light-years beyond his initial goals of paying his mortgage and car loan and buying groceries.

 "I would rank Bernard in terms of overall contracting in the top 10, not for minorities but for overall contractors" in southeastern Michigan said Teska Dillard, business development engineer with Turner Construction Co. Turner, a New York contractor, has partnered with White on tree Detroit area projects. Turner boasted national revenues of $5 billion in 1999.

 White Construction is poised to break through to $50 million in annual business, following the lead of firms such as Turner and becoming the main contractor on big projects, said Charles Beckham, executive director of Detroit's African-American Association of Business and Contractors.

 "Clearly Bernard is one of those who has done extremely well in a short period of time," Beckham said. "He started 10 or 11 years ago and has grown his business steadily into one of the premier contracting firms in the area, certainly on the premier minority contracting firms.."

Mom worked two jobs

 In contrast to the company's rising profile, White is a homebody who avoids the limelight.

 "He's not into the superficial wanna-be-in-the-limelight kind of thing," said Bob Kohut, White Construction operation manager, who has known White for 25 years. " He's content running the business and accomplishing things."

 Growing up on the west side of Detroit, White lived in a two-family flat with his mom ? Muriel White, who worked two jobs ? and two sisters and a brother.

 Each morning during high school, his grandmother, Rosa Smith, now 92, prepared him bacon, eggs, grits, toast and coffee, and preached to him the importance of staying in school and getting an education.

 He took her advice. After graduating from Chadsey High School in 1973, he started taking engineering classes three nights a week at Lawrence Technological University in Southfield while working days at the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department.

 Initially, White flunked class after class because, he said, high school had not prepared him for Lawrence.

 But he refused to quit, paid his tuition despite the F's and continued studying after classes that ended at 10:30 p.m. and on weekends. By his third year, White had begun earning A's, and seven years after he started college, he graduated with an engineering degree.

 "It felt like an eternity. To me, it felt like being in prison," he said "But it was time that I knew I had to serve."

 In 1981 White began applying for engineering jobs. He learned that he got more interviews when he dropped his first name, Willie, and used his middle name, Bernard. 

 "It helped me get into doors with and English proper name,'' he said.

 Hoping to live in a warmer climate, White applied to Turner's Houston office. But the company offered him a job in Detroit, where he spent the next eight years learning the construction business. He worked on Turner jobs at Cobo Hall, Tiger Stadium and Detroit Receiving Hospital.

 Following a brief stint at Walbridge Aldinger, a Detroit contractor, White launched his company July 31, 1989, from an 8 by 11 foot office in Detroit's New Center.

 His first job was erecting cinder blocks for a parking garage Wallbridge Aldinger was building across from its downtown headquarters. White walked away with $3,000 profit.

 Driven by a fear of failure, he worked 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. weekdays and returned to the office Saturdays to do paperwork. In his first eight years as head of White construction, he said he missed only five Saturdays at work.

 At the end of 1991, White looked at his company bank statement. He was so surprised by the $200,000 in the checking account that he called his brother.

 "It scared me, " White said. "It was the first time that I though this might really work."

 In 1994-95, the company served as construction manager of the Detroit Zoo's Wildlife Interpretative Gallery ? a challenging job because it required juggling such custom materials as terrazzo floors, a design that included a butterfly garden, skylight, theater and saltwater aquarium, a tight construction schedule and a limited budget.

 "It just had all the challenges that any job could have," White said.

 The project won White Construction the 1996 Design and Construction Award from the Engineering Society of Detroit.

 Jobs followed as construction manager for the zoo's bird building in 1997 and a small mammal building in 1999.

 A zoo official called White thoroughly professional. "I would say a couple of the projects may have fallen short of the time schedule, but overall we were happy with his work," Detroit Zoo Deputy Director Darrl McFadden said.

Praise from Dave Bing

 As a black man in a business dominated by white men, White said he spent years trying to fit in by wearing wing tips and button-sown collars and shaving his mustache.

 "But I found that it did me no good. At the end of the day, I still had this black head sticking out of the top of my shirt," he said, smiling." And no matter what I did, it just wasn't going to work. I finally said, "Hey, I'm black. I'm just going to be myself."

 Still, White said he faces expectations that his company is no more than a single pickup-truck operation and suspicions that he succeeded only because of contracts set aside for minorities.

 "They think you just walk up and say, "I'm black. Give me a job," White said. "But you've got to know what you're doing. There's a lot more to it than being black."

 Dave Bing, chairman of Bing Group and a former Detroit Pistons star, called Whit a true contractor who ? unlike a few other local minority builders ? never sold out by merely lending his company's name to a project.

 "He's a man of principle and he's never done that to my knowledge," Bing said. "I admire him, quite frankly , because that's so easy to do with so many opportunities out here. He's the real deal."

 Besides rebuilding Bing's warehouse, White is the sole contractor or a partner in erecting a training center, offices and manufacturing plant at the Detroit auto parts supplier.

 White Construction also was a partner with two other contractors in the $68-million construction and remodeling of a downtown Internal Revenue Service building into MGM Grand Detroit casino.

 "They did an absolutely wonderful job," said Ben Mammina, senior vice president of construction for MGM Grand Inc. in Las Vegas. "Bernard himself had a lot of experience with local subcontractors, and he brought a lot of good subcontractors to the table for us."

Up early for workout

 Outside work, White, 6 feet 23/4 inches tall and 205 pounds, rises at 4:20 each morning for a 90-minute workout on the Nordic Track, weight machines and other equipment that fills a small gym in the basement of his home.

 To relax, he plays a collection of conga drums, bongos, timbales and other percussion instruments three or four night a week.

 "I come home sometimes and, as soon as I come in I tear off my suit jacket and loosen my tie and turn on some music and start playing.  Sometimes I play for two hours before I eat dinner. It's a real nice way for me to unwind," he said.

 He enjoys flying a kite while sipping merlot, and decorating his New Center office and 3-year old brick home with African art.

 "I look at the art and I see a lot of beauty in it, and it shows that I have a very rich heritage, and I'm very proud of my African ancestry," White said of the sculptures, painting and masks he has collected during his travels in Kenya, Togo, Benin and Ghana.

 In the last four years, he has given his construction manager command of daily operations while he dreams of White Construction growing to tackle major projects on its own.

W. Bernard White

Job: President White Construction Co., Detroit

Age: 44

Education: Engineering degree from Lawrence Technological University, Southfield, 1980

Favorite pastime: Playing his percussion instruments and his baby grand piano, listening to the music of Stevie Wonder, collecting African art, working out in his home gym, watching the Discovery Channel.

In his briefcase: A Franklin planner with his daily appointments and things to do: Pistons and Lions tickets for his customers; cell phone; bills that need to be paid; key to his grandmother's house and sometimes a banana and an apple.

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