‘Love Is My Skill Set,’ Reveals VIP Lecturer John Hazen White, Jr.

“It’s not every day you get to meet the man your college is named after,” a student whispers before the start of the Johnson & Wales University Visiting Industry Professional (VIP) lecture.

While the audience takes in the long white hair and cowboy boots of John Hazen White Jr. ’96 Hon., White’s blue eyes are twinkling at his tow-headed little granddaughters, who chase each other with joyful squeals.

That’s no wonder, JWU Providence Campus President Marie Bernardo-Sousa, LP.D., '92 remarks; White had mentioned that of all the titles he’s held, his favorite is “Pop.”

It’s October 30, 2023, and the JWU community is gathered to hear from the benefactor whose name they encounter every day on both our Providence and Charlotte Campuses — the man behind the John Hazen White College of Arts & Sciences.

A respected business leader and philanthropist, White has overseen Taco Comfort Solutions, a world-class manufacturer of heating and cooling equipment, since the early 1990s. Today, he gathers for a fireside chat with moderator Bernardo-Sousa.

A Moment for Wildcat Pride

First, Dean of the John Hazen White College of Arts & Sciences Michael Fein announces that Criminal Justice major Sofia Tamayo '25, student ambassador to visiting dignitaries and goalie on JWU’s women’s ice hockey team, had applied to an internship at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security as a step toward her future Master’s in Public Administration.

JWU junior Sofia Tamayo stands up to acknowledge applause during a VIP lecture
Sofia Tamayo '25 stands to acknowledge applause from her JWU community.

Fein shares that Sofia has been selected for the opportunity, eliciting proud applause for the JWU junior.

How White Feels Being on Campus as a Supporter

White has been involved with JWU for decades. “I love what JWU stands for, what it does and who’s a part of it — faculty, staff and always the students,” he states.

“To be here is a privilege. JWU is a great place. And as people rotate, the substance of the school, its mission and its leadership has always been strong and steady.”

He credits JWU for continuing to sustain and perpetuate under Chancellor Mim Runey, LP.D. and other leaders.

What Traits White Sees in Wildcats

“There’s a certain warmth,” White articulates. “When I’m on campus, or out in the world where a JWU person recognizes my family name, the sincerity, openness and desire to learn has driven the White family to remain supportive and involved with JWU.”

"Reason and purpose not just for oneself but those in your community: that’s what I see here.”
- John Hazen White, Jr. '96 Hon. on Johnson & Wales University

He continues, “JWU isn’t a place for going through the motions, but for coming to learn. Look at Sofia, how she’s going to live the dream she set out to — reason and purpose not just for oneself but those in your community. That’s what I see here.”

Taco’s Family Legacy

White is proud to work for a business that his grandfather started in 1920 with an idea for a product, and proud that Taco Comfort Solutions has never really had a layoff in its 103-year history.

When he took over on April 1, 1991, White had been general foreman for several years but had never run a business. As a college student, he’d wanted to be a writer, English teacher or minister, but found a different path. “The people sucked me in,” he reveals. He may not have felt that he had the head for business, but White says he had one helpful skill — love — and an amazing team.

VIP speaker John Hazen White, Jr. smiles while speaking with moderator Bernardo-Sousa
John Hazen White Jr. '96 Hon. glows when speaking of love for fellow humans, particularly his team at Taco.

White notes that Taco grew from a maybe $50 million company in 1991 to a $500 million company today — and he expects to reach $1 billion if his people keep doing what they’re doing, because they know more about what they do than anyone. He’s confident that his colleagues can fix any problem. “I believe in people,” he says.

“One thing I’ve always enjoyed, my greatest blessing, has been the chance to share time with other people,” White responds. “It doesn’t matter who … Everybody has a story. And the truth is, 99.99% of the time those stories are more interesting than mine. To listen and share someone else’s story is the most valuable thing I’d take away from this life.”

Perpetuating Taco for Future Generations

“Most important is running a company not focused on money but people,” states White. He points to his family and colleagues supporting him from the front row. “I’ve always believed that if we had a place where safe and happy families could grow and prosper, all the rest happens — because people will support customers and families.”

White does find a constantly changing world a challenge. But he’s also seen his family’s small Rhode Island company go global, with acquisitions in Switzerland, the Czech Republic and Italy to acquire technology and increase Taco’s European market presence.

“Globalization is an engine exposing people to grow and develop in terms of what’s happening in the world" - John Hazen White, Jr. '96 Hon.

Taco also acquired a foundry in Vietnam, allowing White to discover how warm and positive the Vietnamese people are, in contrast to how they were perceived in his childhood due to the Vietnam War. He appreciates experiencing an unbiased reality. “Globalization is an engine exposing people to grow and develop in terms of what’s happening in the world,” he says.

How Taco Maintains Its Mission

White acknowledges that despite being “fuzzy and warm,” Taco needed to become more professional during its growth from 500 to 2,000 employees. He credits CEO Cheryl Merchant for her excellent management, while he considers his own job to “hover, watch and care for the people.” He advises never losing focus and love — for the company, its people and the things you care most deeply about.

Women in the Workplace

Bernardo-Sousa reports that for every 100 men promoted to manager level, only 72 women were promoted. In response, White praises all of the women in upper management at Taco, from Merchant to Vice President of Global Supply Chain Leslie Taito to Senior Vice President of Global Human Resources Victoria McCoy. His own approach to staffing, managing and performing at any level is “anything but checking a box.”

a photo of Marie Bernardo-Sousa smiling while on stage for a VIP lecture
Moderator Marie-Bernardo-Sousa smiles while listening to VIP speaker John Hazen White, Jr.'s response to her question.

White will only hire the best and adds, “Anyone who hires a man versus a woman because it’s a man is missing out on some really great opportunities.”

He also praises his Taco team for their mutually respectful management and forward-thinking conversations.

Vision for Sustainability

Taco drives to sustain and protect the environment in everything from product development to investment to plant and equipment. Taco acquired an Italian company because its technology and potential for sustainability was greater than anything available locally.

Taco manufactures products that control the flow of water for heating and air conditioning. “The efficiencies of these products are vital,” White notes. “45% of the world’s energy is consumed by pumps with motors, so it’s nice to have a role in keeping that sustainable.”

a photo of JWU students in an audience listening to a VIP lecture
JWU students listen carefully, some taking notes, as John Hazen White, Jr. speaks of his foundation's work.

When asked how he’ll stay ahead of the curve in the coming decades, White speaks of benefits from automation, robotics, machine learning, artificial intelligence (AI) and 3D printers. He’s proud that Taco has never replaced a person with a machine, and while the future of AI remains to be seen, his focus is on retaining jobs and livelihoods.

Impact of the White Family Foundation

For more than 20 years, the White Family Foundation has financially supported organizations ranging from medical to education to arts, including the nearby Providence Performing Arts Center (PPAC).

“We’re not the biggest foundation in Rhode Island by any means,” White acknowledges, “But I like to think we’re one of the most impactful in the state, because we recognize really good things and provide a chance for people to enjoy the arts.”

"We're obligated to give back to our community" - Taco Executive Chairman John Hazen White, Jr.

White has never paused the foundation even during hard times because he considers Rhode Island as Taco’s extended community. “We’re obligated to give back to our community,” he states.

Bernardo-Sousa recognizes White’s exposure of the broader community to the arts, eliciting applause. "Giving can be harder than earning, with the challenge of having only so much to give to so many worthy recipients," White responds, "but I love giving with an open heart.”

What’s White’s Advice for JWU Students?

The VIP speaker has a simple answer to a complicated question: “Be nice.” He adds, “I learned being nice from my mentor, and it’s the greatest gift. Just be nice to each other.”

When SEEM major Emma Smith asks how one can be nice when company culture is often competitive, White invites Smith and any other JWU community members to tour his factory with him and see niceness in action. “The joke is, if you want a quick tour, don’t go with me,” White laughs.

JWU senior Emma Smith '24 asks a question from the audience at JWU's 2023 VIP lecture
JWU senior Emma Smith '23 was one of several students and faculty posing questions of VIP speaker John Hazen White, Jr.

For 30 years, Taco’s learning center has educated employees and their families not only in work skills but for GEDs, citizenship, associate degrees, kids’ summer camps and adult skills such as painting, cooking and gardening. “Taco is a family,” White states. “That’s how we’re nice to our people.”

A long-running “World of Taco Day” encourages employees from Southeast Asia, Africa, South America, Europe and other geographies to bring in music, art and food representative of their homelands, cultivating a company-wide appreciation for others.

Does White Regret Not Becoming a Minister?

“Maybe there’s a bit of a minister in me that goes with me every day and everything I do,” White responds to a question from the Charlotte Campus. He does regret not becoming a writer, but lately he has fixed that by writing more, including an occasional column for Go Local Providence.

“I’ve loved what I’ve done — this company, the time I have — so I don’t regret anything,” he summarizes.

Escaping One’s Comfort Zone

White reveals that he’s dyslexic, so he’s never quite been IN a comfort zone. He has to do things slowly and states that “they’re not done less, it just takes longer.”

But he discovered something magical in being vulnerable about his learning disorder: people want to help. “That’s the greatest thing that comes from being out of your comfort zone,” he says. “Let them know, and they’ll come to our aid.”

Adds White, “99% of people in this world wake up every day to do good. So let them! They’re here to help us. It’s part of what we all do for one another.”

Does White Advise a Career in Manufacturing?

"It's a great incubator, and it’s important work.” - John Hazen White, Jr. on manufacturing

“YES” is White’s answer to Dean of the College of Business Mary Meixell’s question. When he was young, parents wanted their kids to become lawyers and doctors. But over time, manufacturing has proven to be an engine driving the country. “Manufacturing is the greatest creator of wealth and sustainability in the history of mankind,” White asserts. “It’s a great incubator, and it’s important work.”

When asked if manufacturing is more difficult for women than men, White’s answer is no. “Man or woman, Black or white, all have equal chance to perform and participate — that’s a promise,” he responds. “Our company is diversified because of who’s there and what they’ve done. Our star performers are mainly women.”

four people pause to smile for the camera on stage: Sofia Tamayo, John Hazen White, Jr., Marie Bernardo-Sousa and Michael Fein
Sofia Tamayo, John Hazen White, Jr., Marie Bernardo-Sousa and Michael Fein pause for a photo while White is being awarded for his dedication to JWU.

More Industry Expertise from White

White appeared on JWU’s “This Week at JWU” podcast in early November, discussing why we shouldn’t fear failure. You can stream the episode online


JWU’s Visiting Industry Professional (VIP) speaker series launched in 2019 to highlight a more interdisciplinary approach to invited guests on campus. Prior speakers included Bigelow Tea CEO Cindi Bigelow ’19 Hon., Color Magazine’s Director of Diversity Programs Kamila A’Vant and CEO of Union Square Hospitality Group Chip Wade ’83, ’06 Hon. The next VIP event will be held in 2024.

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