Plumbing & Mechanical recently interviewed John Hazen White Jr., president and CEO of Taco Inc., about the work done by The Taco/White Family Foundation. Established in January 2000 as the John and Happy White Foundation, the charitable arm of Taco has provided assistance to more than 300 nonprofit, community-based organizations in Rhode Island over the years. The foundation board meets to consider applications every six weeks.


PM: How does the mission of The Taco/White Family Foundation align with the mission of Taco Inc.?

JW: Through its history, Taco has been a company that has revolved around creative ideas and better products for the industry to make people’s jobs easier. At some point, it occurred to us that there was a way to bring that same thinking into our own community. We could provide resources to help people accomplish the same goals to better the community as we have tried to better the industry.


PM: Why is it important to give something back to your Rhode Island community?

JW: We’ve grown and developed this company in the Rhode Island community since the early 1940s. It’s been a great place for us to grow and prosper. Rhode Island is a community from which we have taken a great deal. As we continue to grow, develop and prosper, it’s worthy of us giving back so that our people and their families can take advantage of some of the things that Rhode Island has to offer.


PM: How did the foundation determine its five areas of focus: Music/Art, Education, Health Care, the Environment and Community Service?

JW: We needed to focus because our resources are limited. We could put $25 in envelopes and put them in the mail with very little impact on anything. So, we’ve chosen to focus on areas where we feel we could make a difference. We thought about our 500 employees and their families, and how we could best provide for them to take advantage of things that matter to them and help enrich their lives.

The music area is largely focused on the Rhode Island Philharmonic. The arts involve some of the outdoors programs in the summer where families can take part. We’re heavily involved in the two major theaters in Rhode Island, the Providence Performing Arts Center and the Trinity Repertory Theater. These are activities that people can enjoy with their families where they may never get the chance to do without Taco being a part.

The health care focus is an important one for us as is higher education. Again, these are areas that are important to our employees and their families. We want to devote some of our resources to helping them continue to grow and prosper.


PM: What lessons did your parents teach you that enabled you to grow the foundation to where it is today?

JW: Any foundation with the right objectives is generated out of generosity for two reasons. One, it’s good to be a part of the community and two, it’s great to be able to give back some of what you have. An awful lot of people don’t. They just want to keep everything in their pocket. My parents, John and Happy White, were extremely generous people on a personal basis, not only to their company and their family but also to the community. We were able to take that and philosophically grow it into what is now, a wonderful foundation.


PM: What is your vision for the foundation’s future?

JW: The success of the foundation in the future revolves around Taco’s success. We have created an endowment, which is growing every year. At some point, we will be able to draw from it and that will allow us to have a bigger resource to divvy out.

The Taco/White Family Foundation is by no means the largest foundation in the state of Rhode Island, but I think I can safely say it is one of the most impactful. To maintain that situation is really what I envision our need to be. It allows us to provide so much to so many people. It is a far-reaching foundation with a big impact.


PM: What example does the Taco/White Family Foundation provide for the plumbing-and-mechanical industry to follow?

JW: I think it sets an example for any company. One of the unique things about the plumbing-and-mechanical industry is that so many of our customers and suppliers are very much like Taco. They’re private, small, independent, and we all have taken from our community, whatever we define that as — our church, family, school, neighborhood — to be able to succeed.

At some point in our development, we need to give back. Instead of talking about it, Taco has gone ahead and done it. As an example for people to follow, I think it really is a great thing.


PM: Of the hundreds of grants that the foundation has made over the years, can you single out any of which you are most proud?

JW: Oh, sure. We’ve been one of the top two or three major donors to the Rhode Island Philharmonic since when it was not as stable as it is now. It has become a real gem here in the state of Rhode Island.

Our role in the Providence Performing Arts Center is another. One of the big banks for years had sponsored the Providence Performing Arts Center’s Broadway Series, which is a wonderful program, and then just walked away from the whole thing last year. That left the Performing Arts Center high and dry, so we picked that up and that’s been tremendous because our employees and their families can take part in this.

We’ve made sure that we can provide dress rehearsal tickets for them. It’s something people may never get the chance to take part in without our involvement.

One of the things that I am personally most proud of is that we have been a very active participant in the growth and development of Johnson & Wales University, which is one of the leading culinary and hospitality schools in the world today. I’ve been personally involved and incredibly proud of what we’ve done there.

Butler Hospital is an institution in Providence for psychological treatment. It began a program a few years ago to analyze one of the key elements of Alzheimer’s and we were the people who gave seed money for that program. This gave Butler leverage to gain some significant grants that allowed it to make some major discoveries in the area of Alzheimer’s disease.


PM: What was your goal when you professionalized the foundation with legal counsel, bylaws and a president?

JW: When we put in a president of the foundation, he was able to sort out what we were really doing, where our money was going and how it was being spent. So, the small organizations we are involved in every day, such as food pantries, consume about 30% of our outgoing funds. Our big organization donations are now about 70% of our total giving.

We are aiming to change that to 60/40 or even 50/50 because we want to make an impact on the smaller organizations around Rhode Island that do a tremendous job and certainly need help. But we had to professionalize it.

There are legal aspects to what we do with the foundation. I’m only one vote on a board of 11 people. The professionalism of the foundation has become so critical, and being only one vote I can’t administer this thing. It’s been wonderful to have a president who is totally focused on this. Our president visits every single major request to establish the viability and the benefits to the foundation and the requesting organization.


PM: What role do Taco employees who sit on the board play in the foundation?

JW: A number of Taco employees sit on the board for a one- or two-year term, and then they rotate off and someone else will come on. They’re chosen with some consideration of who might make some contributions. As a company, we’re very close and we know who is capable of what. Bringing people on from different parts of the company with different interests in the community allows us to get a different perspective of what we’re going to do.

We’ve never, for instance, been particularly interested in supporting sports because there is so much support for sports already. But we have a member of the foundation who has a background in soccer. As a result, we have contributed to an after-school soccer program in Rhode Island in the inner city, one that combines after-school studies with soccer, and this has had dramatic impact on saving kids from dropping out of school and continuing on with their education.

We never would have had that perspective without bringing in someone like that on the foundation board.

The other rationale for rotating board members is that it is important to find a way to disseminate information into the company as to what this foundation is doing. These are company dollars being spent in the community. For these people to leave the board meeting and go back to their respective areas and explain to their peers what is happening is a very valuable thing.


PM: How do Taco employees who do not sit on the board get involved in the foundation’s work?

JW: We have been very conscious of the fact that there are needs within the company beyond what we know. We have provided an avenue for our employees to come forward with their own requests to ask us to do something that they are a part of. They have to fulfill certain criteria, such as the amount of time they personally are involved in an activity, so it’s not just an activity that is out in left field and no one knows what it’s all about.

One of our five areas of focus is community service. Next door to us is the Cranston, R.I., Senior Center. Periodically, we have activities that allow our employees to go there and take part in what they’re doing. One example is the Meals on Wheels program. We have encouraged our people to give back to where we have taken from. I feel very strongly about that. They all can’t give money to organizations that they love and want to be a part of, but they can go and take part in food pantries, churches or whatever.


PM: What advice would you give to plumbing-and-mechanical contractors about getting more involved in their community?

JW: Think through what you really want to do and how you want to take part. We get so consumed in running our everyday business and protecting our gains, because it is a daunting task if you’re in that position. But there is something to be gained from giving back.

You have to be able to figure out a way to do it that is affordable — you just can’t start giving away everything — and impactful. It takes some forethought. We didn’t get to where we are in the last 12 months. This has taken 14 years. There are a lot of people who are needy of something. To be able to participate in providing that something is what we all have.

I view a company like Taco as not just a manufacturer of plumbing and heating equipment; there are a lot of those. I view us as also having a social responsibility, and that’s go give back to the community from which we take. We are a main part of this community. Thinking through how we can help uplift and stabilize our community is a basic, underlying thought of what we do every day.