This Tech Billionaire Believes in Biblical PrinciplesBy
Jazz lover and father of ‘Manchester by the Sea’ producer
World Wide Technology has revenue of more than $9 billion
David Steward, one of the honorees at a Jazz at Lincoln Center gala in April, made a request that may have thrown organizers for a bit of a loop. He wanted the pastor of the Methodist church he attends in St. Louis to begin the event with a prayer.
Benedictions not being the norm at these affairs, the Reverend Terri Swan recalled that “it took a bit of encouragement.” She offered a brief blessing, and it all went swimmingly, with Steward and his wife Thelma receiving the Ed Bradley Award for Leadership in Jazz.
Sticking to his guns, and his faith, seems to have served Steward well. Over 27 years, his company, World Wide Technology Inc., has grown from an office of seven employees to a multinational with revenue of $9.4 billion in 2016. Now the chairman is one of the richest black businessmen in the country, with a net worth of $3.9 billion, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index. Steward, 66, declined to comment for this story.
World Wide Technology sells hardware and software-system packages for customers ranging from Panera Bread Co. to the U.S. military. WWT has topped Black Enterprise Magazine’s list of the largest majority black-owned businesses in the country for seven years and is No. 30 on the Forbes ranking of America’s largest private companies.
Early on, climbing that high didn’t seem likely. Within three years of its founding in 1990, WWT had amassed a mountain of debt. Things got so bad at one point that Chief Executive Officer Jim Kavanaugh had to take $15,000 from his savings to get a product to a customer on time. Steward watched as his Lincoln was repossessed from the parking lot. He raced out to grab his briefcase from the trunk, he recounted in 2004’s “Doing Business by the Good Book: Fifty-Two Lessons on Success Straight from the Bible.”
That’s when Steward offered Kavanaugh 15 percent of the business if he helped erase the red ink. The CEO’s share is now valued at $641 million, according to the Bloomberg index.
The turnaround came after a partnership with Cisco Systems Inc. in 1994 gave WWT a way to meet growing demand for security solutions. Then it won business with the federal government, taking advantage of the company’s status as a minority contractor, and with companies including Papa John’s International Inc. WWT now sells bundles of products made by Dell Inc., Intel Corp. and more than a dozen others. Revenue is up more than 180 percent since 2010, according to the corporate website.
Steward credits hard work and Biblical principles. “When God is on your side, miracles happen,” he wrote in the semi-autobiographical book, which he co-authored with Robert Shook.
Born in 1951, Steward grew up in Clinton, Missouri, one of eight children. His father was a mechanic and farmer. His mother fed 10 on a shoestring and gave extras away to to hobos who stopped by the house, just off the railroad tracks, for meals. The schools were segregated, and so was the swimming pool, the movie theater, Wiley’s Restaurant -- everything in town.
The institutional racism “had a profound effect on the man I am today,” Steward wrote. “The adversities I encountered during my youth served as my training ground for hard times I eventually faced as a struggling entrepreneur.”
Steward, who earned a degree in business administration from Central Missouri State University, founded his first company, Transportation Business Specialists, at age 32. When Union Pacific Railroad in 1987 hired him to conduct an audit of it systems, he realized the only way to pull it off was to use a local area network, or LAN. So he built one, the biggest in St. Louis at the time, Steward told Black Enterprise in 1999.
Now he and his wife are fixtures in the city they adopted, where their son David runs the digital-comic book publisher Lion Forge Comics. Their daughter Kimberly was a producer of the Oscar-winning “Manchester by the Sea.” The Steward Family Foundation gave about $5.9 million to 121 organizations in 2015, most of them local, according to tax statements for that year, the latest available.
A life-long jazz lover, Steward helped create the Harold and Dorothy Steward Center for Jazz, named after his parents. The venue was inaugurated in 2014 with a performance by trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, who did the same honors at the Lincoln Center event that celebrated the legacy of Ella Fitzgerald.