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Businessman jumps over gap. Overcoming obstacles business concept

From time to time, companies ask me to interview their corporate thought leaders and additional experts to construct a story on a topic their clients will find useful. I love these projects, as I learn so much in the process.

In 2019, I had the opportunity to ghostwrite a few sponsored stories for my primary client Crain Content Studio. Take a gander:

Using environmental practices to cultivate business growth

Content sponsored by Bank of America, written by me, and originally posted on Minneapolis/St. Paul Business Journal

 

There is no shortage of research proving companies that pay attention to their environmental, social and governance (ESG) practices are likely to benefit their bottom line.

Simply put, ESG is good business.

But while most companies recognize these practices as critical to the success and longevity of their core industries, some find difficulty with practical implementation — especially when related to the “E,” or environmental factors.

Here, we learn from three companies that are putting a focus on that “E” factor to boost employee and consumer satisfaction, create opportunities and change the world for the better.

What are your core businesses?

Cindy Brown, president, Chippewa Valley Bean Co. Inc.: Chippewa Valley Bean is one arm of the family’s agri-business, which my parents started in 1973. We work with about 100 farmers and handle a large percentage of the world’s kidney beans, exporting about 70 percent of them. While we also have pulse, a dry bean similar to a lentil or chickpea, our main crop is kidney beans, as it is much more sustainable as a plant-based protein that can help feed the world. We know we will have to rely on plant-based protein in the future.

Emilio Tenuta, vice president of global sustainability, Ecolab Inc.:Ecolab is a global leader in water, hygiene and energy services and technologies with nearly 50,000 associates working in 170 countries alongside customers in 40 different industries. Our purpose is to make the world cleaner, safer and healthier – helping businesses succeed while protecting people and vital resources. We touch a wide range of industries, from universities to tech to manufacturing to hotels.

Clay Norrbom, managing director, Juhl Clean Energy Assets Inc.:Juhl goes back about 30 years as a clean-energy company. We developed the first wind farm in Minnesota. Over the years, we diversified to work with all clean energy technologies — wind; solar; natural gas combined heat and power; and hydroelectric, combined heat and power — in an efficient way. Our customer base is selling direct to large companies, like industrial businesses, universities and small utilities (municipal and small co-op utilities) that have not generated electricity but would buy renewable energy directly.

What are some of the critical changes, disruptions or risks that you’re seeing in your industries?

Norrbom: When the grid was coal and nuclear, you needed a small number of very large plants owned by a small number of players. Companies bought (their energy) from those large utilities. Technology has advanced and the costs of renewable energy are coming down. For wind, solar and even engine-based projects, equipment is becoming much more efficient and cheaper.

Now, for the first time in decades, they can buy their own generation of electricity. Our competition now is the grid. We find our customers are interested in cleaner, cheaper, and more reliable energy. Companies that had a backup generator now want something reliable and clean.

Brown: The biggest risk right now is from climate change and longer periods of dry weather. Then, when it does start to rain, the storms are so much more intense. I’ve watched areas in southern Minnesota that just can’t get rid of all the water that comes down. Also, higher evening temperatures affect the growing of some crops.

Tenuta: Water scarcity or water stress is an increasing concern for industries. And our global water quality and quantity is changing: The United Nations expects a 40% fresh water gap by 2030. Industries are starting to see the real effects of not having enough fresh water to do business. This has the potential to dramatically disrupt business operations.

How do you manage those risks and disruptions?

Tom Kwak, CFO, Chippewa Valley: We’re looking at every way we can practice better efficiencies, which can also come with reduced costs. We are converting irrigation systems on the farm and putting in controls to use …a computer-driven system so water is only applied when absolutely needed. We’re looking at installing lighting that’s LED and solar-powered in our warehouses and distribution centers and looking at climate control. We are installing plug-in access for electric cars to encourage employees and converting a lot of our carbon-based activities to be more electric driven as opposed to propane.

If the (electrical) grid goes down, it could take weeks to come back up. We had to look at how we can operate with back-up generation of electricity. Each year, we’re checking off another box to ensure that we’ve got the correct financial means in place to survive a climate situation.

Norrbom: There are a lot of companies interested in building renewable energy or having it be part of their electrical supply, but when push comes to shove they look at whether they are going to invest in renewable energy or in their businesses. We can break down the barriers.

We tell the customers we work with, if they want to own renewable energy or clean energy, we’ll do the engineering. But if you don’t want to own it and want to use your capital in other ways, we’re willing to build and own it ourselves and sell you the energy.

Tenuta: For many of our customers, productivity and quality are crucial. Water is a dependency for many businesses, whether that’s using water to paint automobiles or clean and wash dishes in a hotel.

Connected devices and technologies allow us to use data to understand the variability of water supply in our customer operations and gain insights into any risk factors they face with the way they manage water and energy. Smart water management solutions exist today to help reduce the risk of operational disruption.

Why are effective environmental strategies important?

Norrbom: Businesses see it as an opportunity to engage their customers and employees and there’s interest from shareholders looking at companies that are doing something to address their long-term electricity and energy consumption.

A company like a large manufacturer can achieve its environmental goals, whether that’s a major reduction in carbon or a major increase in renewable energy, while at the same time saving some money.

Tenuta: When you implement a smart water management strategy in your operations, there’s a positive impact to your bottom line. Environmental changes don’t have to be at odds with your business objectives. Companies want to do business with companies that are delivering the benefits of product design but with a smaller environmental footprint.

Not only do environmental strategies help your business address potential risk, they are also incredibly valuable for engaging employees. Sustainability is integral in everything we do. That is part of the discussion millennials want in a place of work. They want to be able to work for a company that is growing and doing good in the world.

Brown: There aren’t a lot of financial benefits at the start because you’re investing in change, but there are an awful lot of community benefits. When we come back to the ability to feed people, and tackle hunger, we want to take care that we can still produce enough food and still take care of our environment.

We worked with the United Nations on sustainable development goals and looked at how they can affect our business and how we can help them. We use food and our donation dollars to World Food Programme, NGOs and food banks to help children get food and an education and got our U.S. growers involved as well.

It’s very beneficial to everyone to see that what we are using we are using appropriately.

Likeminded people see opportunities and appreciate how we are doing business. When we are doing the correct things from how we grow our crops, manage, minimizing footprint. customers believe in that and like that.

A message from Katie Simpson, Minnesota market leader, Bank of America Merrill Lynch

Today there are a wide array of challenges simultaneously competing for our attention across the globe, but one of the greatest challenges we face is climate change and its impact on the global economy.

At Bank of America, we are focused on responsible growth. We know that in helping to accelerate the transition to a sustainable, low-carbon economy, we are also helping to drive economic prosperity for our communities.

Through our third environmental business commitment, we are deploying an additional $300 billion in sustainable finance by 2030 through lending, investing, capital raising, and developing financial solutions for clients in Minnesota and around the world. This goal brings Bank of America’s total commitment to more than $445 billion (2007-2030). We are mobilizing capital to scale the solutions needed to address climate change and demands on natural resources while creating business opportunities for our company. In Minnesota alone, we’ve deployed $424 million in capital towards environmental business since 2013.

But Bank of America’s capital deployment is doing something else: it is also helping to create broader economic opportunities. That includes supporting new, well-paying jobs, increasing economic output, and growing GDP as we scale investments to develop the critical solutions needed to build the sustainable economy of the future.

Our firmly held belief is that tackling climate change is not just an environmental imperative, but it is also an economic opportunity and that all of us must band together to build a more sustainable local and global economy.

Sharing the health care burden

Insurance agents support business leaders’ efforts to up their benefits

SPONSORED BY MICHIGAN ASSOCIATION OF HEALTH PLANS

By Leslie D. Green

After a health insurance carrier pre-approved one woman for a lap-band procedure to help with weight loss, but before she could undergo the surgery, her employer transitioned to a new carrier.

The new carrier didn’t cover the procedure. Seeking advice, the employee called the insurance agent who represented her employer.

“At one point, the employee kind of said, ‘Forget it, I’m not going to get (the procedure). It’s okay. I’ll just deal with it,’” recalled that agent, Dave Sokol, president of Troy-based insurance agency Wilshire Benefits Group.

Sokol and his team couldn’t let the employee give up that easily. They fought on her behalf for the carrier to fund the surgery. They were successful. During the procedure, doctors found a cancerous tumor in the woman’s stomach.

She probably would have died had she not been able to go through with the procedure, Sokol said. The story illustrates the significant role an agent has as a company’s strategic partner. Agents are more than consultants who stop by during open enrollment season and pitch a package of benefits. They are extensions of a company’s HR team; they are trusted advisors; they are, in many cases, therapists.

“Insurance agents work for their clients. They don’t work for the carriers,” said Cathy Cooper, legislative director for Lansing-based Michigan Association of Health Underwriters. The organization advocates on behalf of agents to make health insurance more affordable and accessible.

Lansing-based Michigan Association of Health Plans, with the help of MAHU, partnered with Crain’s Content Studio, the marketing storytelling arm of Crain’s Detroit Business, to gather leaders from seven Michigan-based benefits groups to discuss the role of an agent today’s business climate. MAHP works to improve access to health insurance for consumers and to improve value, choice, affordability and competition in the health insurance market.

The group shared the benefits and best practices of insurance agents and dispelled myths about the agent’s role.

“Rising healthcare costs have put health insurance in the top three expenses at most businesses,” said Jeff Romback, MAHP deputy director. “It affects employee retention, attraction and health. Your agent or broker is the gatekeeper for this expense who marries your interests to the changing landscape. Agents can be strategic partners; reviewing their performance against your goals should be at the front of a CFO’s mind.”

Agents know what keeps C-suite execs up at night

Leading organizations is challenging enough without having to worry about the rapidly increasing cost of health benefits, choosing the right plans and educating potential and existing employees — as well as unions — on the value of those benefits.

Because insurance agents understand these concerns, they work to relieve some of the burden of their clients’ executive team.

“Employers are not wanting to be in the health insurance business,” said Kareim Cade, president and CEO of Southfield-based Great Lakes Benefit Group LLC. “They don’t have the (time) to gather all the facts they need to be able to get through the health insurance process right.”

Stacey LaFay, president of Franklin Benefits Solutions in Grand Blanc, said insurance agents strive to offer clients the best coverage options available.

“We look at self-funding. We look at what can we do with prescription costs,” said LaFay. “We look at reference-based pricing (provider reimbursement based on a percentage of what Medicare would typically pay).”

At the same time, they look beyond mainstream insurance carriers, such as Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan and Blue Care Network, to find clients the most beneficial and cost-effective coverage, explained Jeff Romback, deputy director of MAHP.

“Smart shopping for health insurance means looking at all the options,” Romback said. “Knowing what’s available at different carriers with different structures makes for a full picture.”

The insurance agent’s job is to make sure they are exposing clients to all the benefits, health or otherwise, that will help them attract and retain top talent, said Michele Bolser, director of benefits for VTC Insurance Group.

There are 7.3 million job openings, which is about 1 million more jobs than there are workers to fill them, according to a June report from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. HRDive.com suggests employers offer benefits, such as flexible work schedules, remote work options and paid family leave, that are in high-demand among employees and job seekers.

“Is it a student loan payoff benefit? Is it a college tuition benefit? Is it pay-on-demand?” Bolser asked. “Even if we don’t think it’s necessarily something that substantial, (that new benefit) could be the difference.”

Agents also know that explaining health benefit changes to unions just adds to the complexity of negotiations between the administration and union leaders.

Great Lakes Benefit Group, which works with public sector organizations, strives to lessen tension in those conversations. “We sit between the union and the administration and say, ‘Hey, we all want to get to the same place,’” Cade said.

“We’re saying, ‘If you go to the least expensive facility, we’re going to give you a $100 gift certificate,’” said Stacey LaFay, President of Franklin Benefits Solutions. Photo by Sarah Barthlow.

“We’re saying, ‘If you go to the least expensive facility, we’re going to give you a $100 gift certificate,’” said Stacey LaFay, President of Franklin Benefits Solutions. Photo by Sarah Barthlow.

Agents support the HR team

Human resources professionals do a lot.

They interview, recruit, hire and onboard staff. They work with executives on strategic plans for attracting and retaining talent. They address employment-related issues, such as harassment allegations or other complaints, along with developing and administering health and safety programs.

At the same time, they juggle employee training, payroll and benefits administration.

Navigating the health care system takes time and resources away from those other responsibilities; and high costs, changing regulations, and the plethora of choices can overwhelm even the savviest of professionals.

Simultaneously, though, offering the right benefits is crucial to a company’s bottom line and often a key to attracting and retaining top talent.

“Eight or nine years ago, the economy took a dive in Michigan, and companies cut back substantially on support staff for HR departments. We have HR managers and directors out there doing a lot more than before,” Sokol said.

Insurance agents can help fill the gaps on a company’s HR team in terms of educating employees during open enrollment season and servicing employee benefits plans all year long.

They can answer employees’ questions about their benefits, help solve insurance-related problems and be the “voice of knowledge, experience and reason in a confusing area,” Sokol said.

Agents also operate with a sense of flexibility, always ready to respond to their clients’ HR needs.

When Tyrone Jordan II, vice president of Adrian-based Kapnick Insurance Group, visited one of his large clients during open enrollment a couple of years ago, he witnessed a staff member answering the phone every two minutes.

Afterward, Kapnick built a client call center so employees could ask agents questions about their benefits.

“That’s really been huge for staff to free up time to do other things they really want to do,” Jordan said.

Agents help employers – and staff – understand the value of benefits

An agent’s job isn’t done after identifying the best benefits for a business. They also help that organization’s HR team communicate the significant worth of those benefits to employees and illustrate how they stack up to what the competition offers.

“The national unemployment rate is at 3.6 percent. Those who are unemployed are not employable. So, you’re only going to get good people by stealing them from competitors,” said Greg Liposky, president of Troy-based Creative Benefit Solutions. “Benefits help illustrate the compensation package better. So, their paycheck might be x, but the percentage of the benefits the employer is funding or subsidizing could be 25 percent to 40 percent of their W2.

“We help the HR team disseminate that information in an effective way.”

Although organizations pay nearly $15,000 a year per employee for health insurance, employers often say their staff complain the insurance is junk.

Before, during and after open enrollment, insurance agents can help combat misconceptions by educating employees about how the plans might affect them, said Micah Widder, president of Security First Benefits Corp. in Flint.

“We take a very difficult topic and explain how it works,” Widder said. “We help them understand what is the deductible, what is coinsurance, what is a copay.”

DEBUNKING MYTHS ABOUT INSURANCE AGENTS

Agents don’t:

  • Work for insurance carriers.
  • Charge employees a fee for their services.

Agents do:

  • Act as a free resource for employees.
  • Sell value and educate clients.
  • Undergo compliance training to learn codes, ethics and other nuances of the industry.
  • Provide services for independent contractors, freelancers and those otherwise self-employed.

Beyond open enrollment season, agents can research viable cost-effective alternatives to a company’s current plan and even directly float the possibilities of different plans to the employees to get feedback on whether their providers would be in the new network.

“By the time we get in front of them to do the enrollment meeting, they understand the benefits of the plan,” Sokol said.

Wilshire Benefits holds a pre-enrollment education session on how high-deductible health plans and health savings accounts work for some of its clients. Liposky has seen the benefits of this education. His organization found that pre-education meetings increased employee participation in HSA plans by 20 percent to 25 percent.

Jordan said education is also crucial to union negotiations. When Kapnick held separate meetings with unions and administration for a school district client, messages weren’t being spread across the entire district, he said. “So, I started hand-picking people to work within the group. I said, we need one custodian, we need a secretary, we need people that are going to be talking to each other,” Jordan said.

“Negotiations became easier … It took away a lot of the fears of change because they understood the differences between the networks, between the plans, deductibles and coinsurance options, and they were telling the rest of their members. By the time it came to a vote, it was very quick and easy because people understood it at a level they never had before.”

Jeff Romback, photo by Sarah Barthlow

“Rising healthcare costs have put health insurance in the top three expenses at most businesses,” said Jeff Romback, MAHP deputy director. “It affects employee retention, attraction and health. Your agent or broker is the gatekeeper for this expense who marries your interests to the changing landscape. Agents can be strategic partners; reviewing their performance against your goals should be at the front of a CFO’s mind.”

Agents help employers encourage cost-effective insurance use

Education and transparency are also vital to lowering health-related expenses.

A single person earning a $50,000 salary who receives an employer-sponsored health plan generally spends 11 percent, or $5,250, out of pocket on health care, according to Kaiser Family Foundation. Insurance agents participate with nonprofits, such as MAHU, to help lower those costs.

MAHU, an advocacy group for insurance underwriters, takes the concerns of insurance agents and agents’ clients to Lansing and Washington, D.C. The agency also endeavors to acquire data about coverage costs — for pharmaceuticals, emergency room procedures and out-of-network care and more — for companies of all sizes.

Agents armed with information from MAHU can provide employers with a clear and thorough understanding of tools and benefits available through their selected coverage. Employers then can help employees comprehend cost and care implications.

Employees need to understand that the doctors they see or places they go for tests and procedures may not be the most cost effective or of the highest quality, said Cade, of Great Lakes Benefit.

Transparency allows them to inform employers and employees when there is a different location that provides high-quality care at a lower cost.

Franklin Benefits Solutions’ LaFay said a limited number of insurance carriers have transparency tools, such as cost estimators. Still, agents often work with organizations to incentivize wise choices that keep costs down.

For instance, LaFay said Franklin Benefits is incentivizing participants in some of its self-funded groups. “We’re saying, ‘If you go to the least expensive facility, we’re going to give you a $100 gift certificate,’” she said.

ADVICE FOR BUSINESS LEADERS
  • If you’re not seeing a variety of health insurance options for your employees, change agents.
  • Find an agent you trust as you would a lawyer or accountant.
  • Provide your agent the information necessary to do a solid market analysis for your organization. If you don’t trust that person with that information, change agents.
  • Keep an open mind when agents bring new concepts to the table. Those new ideas might differentiate you from your competitor and make it easier to attract and retain talent.
  • Include your insurance agent when you create your company’s three-to-five-year growth strategy.
Agents help complete the package

From one-on-one insurance consulting to high-level strategic planning, business leaders should consider the insurance agent a vital human resources partner all year long. Health benefits shouldn’t be something an organization discusses just before renewal periods.

“Health care agents should be part of any strategy for a company that is looking at growth,” Cade said. “As business leaders look at moving forward, health care should be a part of a three-to-five-year strategic vision. Organizations that are progressive are taking that type of approach.”

Your agent is relied upon to deliver high value for one of the largest expenses for your business and, more importantly, for your employees and their families. Taking time to review your agent’s performance and the services and advice they offer is worth review like any other operation.

 

United Way and Ford, serving the community

Through innovation and commitment,
Ford enables United Way to reach families in need

 

DETROIT — In 1949, the United Way and Ford Motor Company launched a collaboration that transformed the way companies donate and charitable organizations receive donations.

Ford’s partnership with the United Way for Southeastern Michigan began 70 years ago when the automaker helped organize the nonprofit’s first Detroit fundraising campaign. In addition to giving as a corporation, Ford President and CEO Henry Ford II and UAW President Walter Reuther encouraged employees to invest in their communities and in people in need. To facilitate their vision, the pair came up with an innovative idea: payroll deduction.

Now, it’s commonplace for businesses to use employee payroll deduction to make charitable donations to the United Way and other nonprofits. The method increases giving and reduces administrative costs.

In Southeast Michigan alone, United Way partners with more than 600 companies through employee campaigns, sponsorships, corporate gifts or volunteer activities, said Chris Perry, chief development and marketing officer for United Way for Southeastern Michigan.

In the 1950s, William Clay Ford Sr. became the first member of the Alexis de Tocqueville Society, a United Way’s affinity group that requires members to donate a minimum of $10,000.

More recently Executive Chairman Bill Ford and his wife, Lisa, chaired the group. They have grown it to more than 550 members from 300, putting the United Way for Southeastern Michigan in the top 10 among United Way Alexis de Tocqueville Society donors.

“Ford has been there since day one,” said Vickie Winn, regional United Way director of public relations. “They represent our mantra: Give, Advocate and Volunteer.”

Meeting needs

United Way for Southeastern Michigan funds and partners with a coalition of charitable organizations to support initiatives that help people meet basic needs, increase their economic mobility and support children’s education. The organization also works in partnership with communities, universities and government entities to help identify challenges impacting the lives of those in underserviced communities throughout Macomb, Oakland and Wayne counties.

Chris Perry headshot

Chris Perry

Right now, 1.7 million, or 44%, of households in Southeast Michigan cannot afford food, health care, transportation, child care, and technology, according to the Asset Limited Income Constrained Employed (ALICE ) report commissioned by Michigan Association of United Ways.

Those numbers increased over the last six years as low wages, reduced work hours, deteriorated savings and a significant increase in cost of living made stability in Michigan households more precarious, Perry said.

In the past seven decades, Ford employees and the Ford Motor Company Fund have donated more than $550 million and hundreds of hours in volunteer service to the organization.

“Think about the impact of that money. We are working to put programs in place, equip people with the skills for a better life and ensure that children are ready and prepared to succeed at school,” Perry said.

With investments from Ford and Ford Fund, United Way piloted a school breakfast program that now serves more than 3,500 students; developed Meet up and Eat up summer meals program, which provides about 1.5 million meals to kids during the summer when school is out; and supported development of the organization’s 211 call center, which receives more than 250,000 calls annually from residents seeking housing and utility assistance, mental health referrals, child care and more.

“If they are calling us, they are in crisis mode. They are trying to decide whether to pay their utility bill or put food on the table. United Way connects individuals to services nearest them to help them meet their needs,” Perry said.

Collaborative leadership

One of the United Way’s fundraising approaches is through Campaign Cabinets, where about 34 senior executives collaborate to develop strategies in giving and volunteer opportunities.

Joe Hinrichs, president, Automotive at Ford, began chairing the Campaign Cabinet and overall campaign in 2018.

Perry stressed that the chairman’s role is not a figurehead position, as the cabinet meets about eight times a year. Between those meetings, Hinrichs leads the regional United Way on strategies and approaches.

“One societal challenge is income disparity and what happens to people when they don’t have appropriate resources to care for themselves and their families. But that is something Ford and its employees can help with,” Hinrichs said Oct. 3 at the United Way Campaign Kickoff. “We’re here to celebrate our campaign and to recognize the needs of our community and the honor it is to be able to help make it better, one dollar, one volunteer hour, one idea at a time.”

Under Hinrichs’ leadership, United Way began setting annual volunteer goals in addition to financial goals for its annual Community Giving Campaign. In the 2018-2019 campaign, United Way exceeded its goal by raising more than $47 million locally and securing 36,000 volunteer hours. Fundraising included $2.5 million from auctioning a Ford GT Gulf Vin #001..

“He recognized that putting people in the community also helps meet needs. We need money and we need time,” Perry said.

To learn more about United Way for Southeastern Michigan, visit https://unitedwaysem.org.

Flying High with Low Brass

Images captured during production of the Early Light Media documentary film about Richard Antoine White R.A.W. directed by Darren Durlach and David Larson. Image by John Waire.

By Leslie D. Green

The Ford Motor Company Fund recognizes that creativity and artistic expression enrich lives and inspire innovation and that communities which support and provide access to the arts are stronger for it. In this collection of stories, we share how and why music affects us at all ages and stages of our lives.

Clothing and a safe place to sleep once were just dreams to Richard White. His earliest memories include being homeless , scrounging for food and running barefoot on the streets of Baltimore, Maryland.

“I would knock on a door and (people) would give me a sandwich,” said White, 46, now a professional musician. “They knew my mom was an alcoholic and that I was the snot-nosed kid running around with no shoes.”

During a snowstorm one winter when he was 4, White recalls crawling into an entryway to stay warm and then waking up with blankets and cup of hot tea. Strangers had found him. The authorities eventually found his mother’s adoptive parents, Richard and Vivian McClain, who took him into their care.

Yet, White wasn’t comfortable in his new surroundings. He didn’t trust the people he thought took him from his mother.

White would eat half a sandwich and put the other half in his pocket, just in case food would be scarce later. And he wouldn’t talk with the McClains, except to mutter a few polite remarks, like “Hello and goodbye,” as necessary.

Little did his foster parents know when they gave 9-year-old White a trumpet, that they also were giving him access to a healthier, happier future.

“I believe that magic is real in the imagination,” White said. “I had to imagine a warm blanket and full tummy. But without music, I don’t have my magic wand. Music gave me the ability to change my own life.”

Today, White is also a principal tubist for the Santa Fe Symphony Orchestra and Chorus in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Early Light Media is making White’s life story into a documentary film called “R.A.W. Tuba.”

It’s a turn-around story worth knowing. And telling.

As a young student, White decided there were too many trumpet players at school, and he wanted to stand out. So, he picked up the sousaphone, an instrument in the tuba family. His teacher, Mr. Burns, rewrote songs for him to play and Mr. Burns gave him rides home from school on Fridays — so he could practice with the school sousaphone over the weekend. On Monday mornings, Mr. Burns would pick up White, and the bulky and heavy brass instrument, for the ride to school.

At the time, White thought his hope for the future would be a career as a carpenter or football player. But kids in his neighborhood saw a different future for him.

“I tried to hang out on the basketball court with the drug dealers, but they would say, ‘Shorty, go home and play the bugle,'” White said. “Even they were cognizant enough to know I might have a future.”

Then, White, who was going to vocational tech school, broke his hip on the football field and doctors said he might not be able to play the sport anymore. With crutches in hand and a sousaphone wrapped around him, White headed to the Baltimore School for the Arts.

“I literally just showed up at the school and said, ‘Yo, I’m here to audition.’ But Chris Dr. Ford (the current director at the BSFA), told me, ‘Auditions were yesterday.'”

Impressed by White’s hunger to learn, Chris admitted him.

“I would leave my house at 6 a.m. and practice every day before school,” White said. “I thought somebody’s going to pay me to do this.” And White began talking to his family.

He worked even harder in college at Peabody Conservatory of Music at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, where he studied with David Fedderly, then principal tubist for the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra.

“I didn’t see anybody that looked like me there,” White said. “The dean saw that I was having trouble and started having meetings with me. He took diversity seriously.”

The McClains sent him $200 a month, religiously.

“It was a sacrifice,” White said. “They were proud. I was the first in the family to go to college.” White added he also worked a job while going to the Peabody Conservatory.

School was incredibly difficult, White said. He still used poor grammar, didn’t have a typewriter or a computer to write papers and didn’t understand, at first, how students knew the music before going to class.

“The teacher said I was missing so much, but he knew I could do it,” White said. “He knew I could take it. After every lesson, I would walk down the steps and cry.”

Under the pressures of school and work, White decided to quit his job and just focus on his music. He shared his plan with his professor.

“He told me he would fail me if I quit,” White said. “He told me to figure it out and learn to be disciplined.”

White endured and graduated from the Peabody Conservatory of Music. From there, he attended Indiana University Jacob School of Music and eventually became the first African American to earn a Doctor of Music in Tuba Performance, then taught at New Mexico School for the Arts. Today, in addition to performing globally, White is associate professor of Tuba/Euphonium and associate Marching Band director at the University of New Mexico and the Albuquerque Youth Orchestra Programs ( and low brass specialist with the Albuquerque Youth Orchestra Programs).

However, learning tuba didn’t just provide White with professional skills and opportunities. Music introduced him to someone he never thought he’d meet.

During a concert one afternoon, a man stood up and began thanking everyone who taught White how to play tuba. The man was White’s birth father, and it was the first time White had seen him.

“I ran off the stage and hugged him and had to go back to play,” White said.

White said his story is an example of why the arts matter. “Music gave me the ability to change my own life,” he said. “Now, I change other people’s lives.”

The Ford Motor Company Fund supports a range of music-rich programming, including the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, the Mosaic Youth Theatre of Detroit, the Sphinx Organization, The Ark in Ann Arbor, Michigan, the League of American Orchestras in Washington, D.C., the GRAMMY Museum’s GRAMMY in the Schools program and Latin GRAMMY Cultural Foundation’s Latin GRAMMY in The Schools program.

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