Being Constructive

Crains Detroit Business
August 5, 1996

SURVIVOR: Being quality-oriented has helped W. Bernard White build a successful construction company.

Small Projects Jump Start firm

 W. Bernard White had it all figured out:  After sinking $20,000 into his start-up construction company in 1989, he'd jump-start with a $2 million bank-renovation contract.

 "It didn't happen that way," said White, 40, president of White Construction Co., Inc. in Detroit.  After months of planning, the job was postponed.  Worse, just as White was planning his company, construction projects in Detroit slowed to a near standstill.  Undaunted, White set up shop smack-dab in the middle of the standstill, next to a loading dock in Detroit's New Center area.  "My colleagues and I always wanted to start our own business, and I was just crazy enough to try it," said White, sitting in his 1120 W. Baltimore office, decorated with African masks and sculptures.  "I didn't want to wake up one morning at 60 years old and wish I started my own business."  After staking his claim in Detroit he endured endless questions from colleagues about working in a competitive climate.

 "I knew if I could survive in that climate, I could survive anytime," said White, chuckling.  "I knew it was enough work out there.

 Seven years later, White's gamble has paid off.  He has expanded his company into a successful general contractor and construction-management company with 1995 revenue of $14 million.

 White started out as a drafting co-op aide at the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department in 1972, and later became a draftsman.  In 1978, he transferred to Detroit's wastewater-treatment plant as a junior assistant engineer, monitoring pollution-control construction projects.

 Later, he joined Turner Construction Co., where he learned the nuts and bolts of construction.  He was an assistant and project engineer for renovations at Trapper's Alley Marketplace, Cobo Hall and Tiger Stadium.

 "From the very start, he was quality-oriented," said Cliff Kazmierczak, deputy operations manager for Turner Construction and White's boss.  "Anything he did, he always wanted to do the best he possibly could."

 A four-month stint at Walbridge Aldinger Co. as project manager of a $110 million pumping station at a Detroit wastewater-treatment plant followed.

 But after losing what he thought would be the landmark $2 million project for the bank, White changed direction-fast.  Instead of focusing on large projects, he turned his attention to smaller renovations.

 An $11,000 masonry parking structure for Walbridge Aldinger was his first.  Next came renovations for the Detroit Building Authority, Wayne State University and NBD.

 Unknowingly, White developed a niche for renovations.  Six months into business, White posted sales of $300,000.  By 1991, sales skyrocketed to $2.1 million, supported by a $500,000 Wayne State renovation project.  Revenue reached $6 million in 1993.

 White has landed several multi-million dollar construction projects, including a $6.2 million construction-management project for the Detroit Zoological Park's Wildlife Interpretive Gallery.  His formula for growth: Do quality work with selective projects.  "Your reputation is all you have in this industry," he said.  "If people find you do poor work, it's hard to get more work."

 One of White construction's clients is New Center Community Mental Health Services in Detroit.  White has rehabilitated the company's four clinics.

 "White Construction is very people-oriented," said Roberta Sanders, CEO.  "Nobody's eyes rolled up to the top of their heads (if) I say, "This door is not in right."

 The company is working with Sanders on a $3.1 million rehabilitation project.

 On tap for this year is the proposed Tiger Stadium project.  White construction, working with Walbridge Aldinger and Perini Building Co., is expected to manage 10 percent of the $245 million project.

 Yet stumbling blocks remain.  Landing contracts outside Detroit is a challenge.

 "As a minority contractor, it's harder to market to some large companies because, unfortunately, they view you as a minority contractor first (instead) of as a contractor in general," White said.  "If they don't have any minority-procurement needs, they may not be interested in working with you.

 Still, White has snagged several suburban contracts, such as a $3 million gym for the U.S. Job Corps in Flint and a $2.1 million Michigan National Bank project in Farmington Hills.

 "A lot of doors are starting to open, "White said.  We're starting to see some opportunities because we do a quality job and not because of the fact that we're a minority.  That encourages me."

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