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Updated: March 15, 2021

Business Leader of the Year: White has built a career on relationships

Photo/Christopher Navin David White

For David White, family is about more than blood.

R.H. White Construction in Auburn has a policy that might surprise many other employers: Workers can borrow any of the company’s equipment as long as they’re qualified to use it. Need a truck to cart your kids’ belongings to college? Just gas it up before you bring it back. Digging a new septic system? As long as you’re qualified, use a backhoe. 

David White, who led the company as CEO for 30 years and now continues to work full-time as chairman and treasurer, said this is just part of what it means to him to run a family business grounded in relationships.

“The most fun I have is when a customer calls up,” White said. “I love fixing customers’ problems, I love the relationships I’ve had over the years and the ones that I still have. Some employees that retired are still great friends.”

Customers clearly notice the personal touch. Thomas Wesley, senior director of workplace solutions at Waters Corp. in Milford, recalls when he first got his job seven years ago, the man he was replacing insisted on telling him about White.

“About the only conversation we had of any note about the passdown is ‘I just want you to have lunch with this guy and meet him so you can preserve the relationship at all costs,’” Wesley said.

Donald Ware, chief operating officer of Pennichuck Corp. in New Hampshire echoed that sentiment, noting he’s worked with White since 1995.

“When you have an issue, when you have a challenge, they’re there to work with you,” he said.

White’s grandfather, Ralph, started the company in 1923, digging trenches using horses with coworkers who were his friends. When White’s father, Leonard, came on in the 1940s, he modernized the firm, including buying a backhoe to replace the literally horse-powered equipment. The elder White was not on board, but his son kept pushing.

“Every time my grandfather was away, he’d buy another backhoe,” David White said.

Over the years, the company has branched out into different fields. It now builds everything from natural gas projects to water treatment plants to laboratory spaces. But, even as it expanded, the company kept its family orientation. As a young child, White spent plenty of time at the company headquarters.

“My sandbox was the backyard here in Auburn,” he said.

He started working for the company at 11, mowing lawns, and then going out on crews. After graduating from Worcester Polytechnic Institute, he became a project engineer.

“I’ve never worked anywhere else,” he said.

White’s father worked until he was 92, two years before his death. Even into his last years, he went out to job sites. White said workers would take hold of his arm because otherwise he’d start climbing ladders. But, even in his 90s, he was still asking insightful questions.

“They always walked away having learned something,” White said.

Three of White’s four children now work at the company. (The fourth child is a special education teacher.) White said he loves having his kids working with him, and he’s happy to see how they’ve earned the respect of their coworkers. But, he said, the significance of family at the company goes beyond his own relations. The workforce, which typically fluxuates between 500 and 600 people, includes several third- and fourth-generation families.

“We’ve got sons and fathers, and we’ve got mothers and daughters, working together here,” he said.

In an industry where companies don’t expect employees to stay long, let alone pass their loyalty down to the next generation, R.H. White thinks about its workers in the long-term. It has its own training center, with its whole basement set up for hands-on lessons. It offers reimbursement for continuing education.

“We grow our own talent,” White said.

White said it wasn’t any easy decision to step down as CEO, a job he held from 1989 to 2019. But, he said, as technologies and the culture of the business world change, leadership must change too. He’s thrilled with the job his successor, James McCarthy, is doing. Still, White continues working full-time and has no plans to give that up soon.

“It’s been a great ride, my life here at R.H. White,” he said.

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