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Let the Good Works Roll

How an entrepreneur can master the extreme sport of philanthropy while running a growing company.
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The day in the winter of 1999 that Ruth Jones met John Wheeler, he was dressed as he always is -- in a Harley-Davidson T-shirt, jeans, socks, and sandals, with his hair in a ponytail. Jones, the effusive principal of the Henry Paideia Academy, a dilapidated inner-city public school in Grand Rapids, Mich., perceived Wheeler as being totally without artifice. His unassuming dress gave no clues as to who he was -- the CEO of an award-winning, $120-million construction company -- or to what he would become: the school's biggest philanthropist and the rock on which Ruth Jones would learn to lean. A phone call to Jones for an interview finds her unavailable, caught in the maelstrom of an elementary school principal's busy day. But when she hears that the interviewer wants to talk about Wheeler, she quickly comes to the phone. For this she has time. "Amen," she says. "Hang on a second."

Then Jones spends 30 of her precious minutes telling stories about Wheeler. For instance, the day he walked into her school, she told him that her choir had been selected to sing at a citywide millennium celebration but that the children's parents were too poor to buy tickets to the performance. And anyway, they had no transportation. "I told him my vision for the school," Jones says. "I told him the reason we haven't reaped anything from poor children is because we haven't sowed anything. And we stand on the sidelines and say, 'Isn't that pitiful?' But we don't do anything to give their lives substance." The next day Wheeler bought 1,000 $50 tickets for the families of students at Henry Paideia and paid for transportation on city buses and taxicabs. He made sure that everyone who wanted to could hear the children usher in the year 2000.

Many, if not most, entrepreneurs make a point of doing good works. They write checks, sponsor an event, or give employees a day off to paint a homeless shelter. But few company builders come close to John Wheeler's outsized predilection for charitable causes, most of which combine fun with community service. Wheeler, founder of Rockford Construction, in Belmont, Mich., estimates that he spends a third of his time leading his staff, their families, subcontractors, suppliers, and clients in volunteer efforts. During the past 10 years, the company has spent $3 million on initiatives primarily benefiting children, the hungry, and the homeless. But the cash is just a blip on the screen compared to the time the 46-year-old Wheeler and his 120 employees have spent dreaming up and organizing 60 to 70 projects.

They're not your usual Christmastime set- up-a-box-for-canned-goods food-drive projects, either. Wheeler, proud owner of three custom Harleys, founded an annual Harley Rally for Hunger, at which 1,000 bikers turned up last year -- including Jerry Greenfield of Ben & Jerry's ice-cream fame. The event raised $54,000 for God's Kitchen, a Grand Rapids food pantry. Wheeler built a community center, a dormitory, and a school in Guatemala. As his personal cause he "adopted" the 332 students who attend Henry Paideia. And he's done all that without sacrificing the profitability of his company or time with his wife and four sons. Call Wheeler a master grassroots philanthropist.

Wheeler's activities started casually, almost offhandedly, when he and his wife enrolled one of their sons in a school run by Italian nuns. The school had no playground. "I said, 'What do you do for recess?" Wheeler recalls. "They said, 'We don't go outside. It's a busy road.' I said, 'Whaddaya mean, you don't go outside?"

He pulled together his carpenters, and they spent two months of nights and weekends building a $23,000 playground. "I thought, 'Well, that was kinda fun," he says. "And we started getting calls. God puts it in your path, and you either respond to it or you don't. Around here we decided we're going to respond to it."

In relatively short order Wheeler's activities went from offhand to deliberate as he began noticing, more and more often, ways in which he or his company could make a difference. For example, Rockford Construction had been revitalizing historic buildings in downtown Grand Rapids, in neighborhoods dotted with burned-out lots. "We're down in depressed areas, their schools suck, and suburban schools are awesome," Wheeler recalls. Then he read Jonathan Kozol's book Savage Inequalities. It seemed as if Kozol's stories on the realities of inner-city schools were directed straight at Wheeler. "How those kids are treated, both in and outside of schools, just broke my heart. This is so wrong," Wheeler says. "And so we got as involved as we could in Grand Rapids schools."

Not long ago Rockford Construction purchased two down-at-the-heels schools from Grand Rapids for $1 each and renovated them to the tune of $18 million. The school district paid for one school, and Rockford is leasing the other building back to the city at a low rate. When Wheeler first approached city officials with the idea of fixing up the "100-year-old buildings, snow blowing through the windows," he says, they said it couldn't be done; regulations made the idea of attempting such a fix-up seem all but impossible.

Not for Wheeler. As Jones says: "I speak all over and ask for help. Some of these people make you write a 10-page proposal and have a thousand meetings, and then they give you $1,000. John hates meetings like that. John is a 'Let's get it done, what do we need to do, let's do it' kind of guy." Indeed, Wheeler worked around the city regulations to make his alternative school-financing plan work. When the one school's lease ends, in 20 years, he plans to sell the institution back to the city -- for a buck.

On a smaller, more personal scale, Rockford Construction raises $20,000 yearly, mostly from its employees, and buys gifts for every child at Henry Paideia. The company has bought truckloads of boots and clothes for the children and given cash to Jones for the children's families. "Sometimes I would visit a family," says Jones, "and the heat would be turned off, and they'd be sitting around an electric stove with the oven door open. I told John that, and he said, 'That will never happen again.' He gives me an envelope with $5,000. Anyone's lights are turned off, I turn them back on. Anyone's heat is turned off, I turn that back on."

How does an entrepreneur do that while running a company? Wheeler manages by devoting two of his employees almost full-time to the philanthropic cause; by enlisting everyone who's willing to donate time, materials, or money; and by combining his hobbies (motorcycles, fishing, and music) with philanthropy.

Indulging in his love for music, Wheeler started an annual 12-week, not-for-profit folk-concert series. And then there's his passion for salmon fishing. When his 34-foot boat, No Limits, hit the waters of Lake Michigan a few summers ago, he donated a day on the boat to a church auction. Bids for more than $900 came in, and Wheeler got the idea to turn such junkets into philanthropic events. Today he and his sons run about 30 charters a summer, at around $800 a day, with all the proceeds going to charity. And he claims that the approach actually did wonders for the fishing, too. "I think whenever you actually fish for charity, you catch more fish," says Wheeler, laughing. "We caught 190 fish this summer. We got a halo over our boat."

His assistant, Brenda Wallin, insists that the employees love the charitable work. But it wouldn't be hard to ask too much -- a line that Wheeler walks daily. He recently relieved project manager Bill Meconis of his for-profit duties and now pays him to build houses full-time for the Inner City Christian Federation, a nonprofit housing corporation that Wheeler describes as a local Habitat for Humanity. Wheeler says he tells other Rockford Construction employees: "'You tell us if you're too busy. Don't sacrifice your family time, your personal time.' We don't force them, ever. I tell them, 'You're not going to get a raise for doing nonprofit work.' " But then his tone becomes stern and his passion for his causes shows through. "But, hey -- we need help."

Wheeler isn't shy about using both carrot and stick to get what he wants. In 2002, to get the materials and labor he needed to build a $350,000 house that was sold to benefit God's Kitchen's "Hammer Out Hunger" project, he held a dinner for subcontractors, suppliers, and clients. "When you're getting people to spend money, you have to do something for them," says Wallin, who organizes the details. "We had a nice dinner, opened up the bar for them, and then said, 'OK, open up your wallets."

Wheeler sells his vision to employees just as deliberately. A devoted tai chi practitioner and student of Tao, Wheeler holds monthly meditation and guided-imagery sessions for employees. He's not above using those sessions to remind his staff of their good fortune. "'Just 20 minutes from here there are people who won't have supper and probably not lunch," he'll say. "And then we're off to the races."

So if it's this easy -- and this much fun -- why don't more CEOs devote themselves to nonprofit causes? Wheeler modestly assumes they do. "I just think that some companies aren't as vocal about it," he says. He pauses. "I would hope that everybody's doing something. If they're not, oh, man, are they missing the boat."

Rebecca Dorr contributed to the reporting for this story.


Rules for Giving


Charity in volume takes time -- and organization. Before John Wheeler and his assistant, Brenda Wallin, refined their systems, the work was overwhelming. Says Wheeler: "Brenda said to me, 'This is nuts. You keep saying yes to everything. Why don't you let me run through all the requests?" So Wheeler put Wallin in charge, and together they came up with a handful of rules for taming the chaos.

1. Choose a cause that everyone cares about.
Otherwise, deciding which charitable requests to fulfill is tough. How do you choose a cause that your employees can get behind? One of Rockford Construction's pet causes is juvenile diabetes because an employee has the disease. Wallin says, "When you have more than 100 employees, you're likely to run into a cause that affects a person's life."

2. Appoint managers and pay them for their nonprofit efforts.
Wallin spends about 10 hours of her 40-hour week sifting through the 470 charitable requests that Rockford gets, on average, each year. She organizes the events, from Henry Paideia Academy's Christmas party, to donor dinners, to the flight schedules for contractors and carpenters who traveled back and forth to Guatemala last year. Bill Meconis's 40-hour job is devoted entirely to volunteer work; he's the project manager for the Inner City Christian Federation homes.

3. Know whom to call for help.
Wheeler does almost nothing alone. Depending on the needs of the project, he persuades employees, subcontractors, suppliers, and customers to join him. To build a $350,000 house last year, Wheeler and five of his development partners donated a $75,000 piece of land. Then he asked Rockford's subcontractors to do some of the work but reached out to specialists -- electricians and even a mural painter -- for extra labor. He turned to clients and Rockford employees for cash.

4. Meet the press.
"We're not looking for recognition," says Wallin. "But we're looking for a little bit of public awareness for certain situations, like the Henry Paideia school. If we can do something, we think other people can do something."

5. Sell your vision to your employees.
Wheeler and Wallin E-mail employees information about projects, invite them to fish fries, and ask them to wrap presents for the Henry Paideia students. Wheeler also appoints a charitable board of six employees who help determine which requests to fulfill. "We're able to select [projects] and give to people who are in such need. It's a wonderful feeling," says Wallin.


Please E-mail your comments to editors@inc.com.

Last updated: Feb 1, 2003




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