In the history of the Toledo-Lucas County Port Authority, few board chairmen have had the pedigree of its newest leader, James F. White, Jr.
Grandson of a car dealership pioneer. Star athlete. Ivy League scholar. Managing partner of one of the area's biggest law firms. Businessman. An accomplished civic leader.
But, as the local economy stumbles, the question arises whether Mr. White, 62, who shies away from publicity, can reinvigorate the area's most important economic development agency. Supporters say he has the experience, deal-making ability, and contacts to get the job done. Some port board members worry that he is far too busy to devote the time the port board chairmanship requires.
Mr. White prefers to talk about what he will do as chairman and how he will manage the job.
His top priority, he said, is to maintain adequate funding for the authority and its economic development arm, the Regional Growth Partnership, and to gauge the partnership's performance. Next year the board will consider renewal of its 0.4-mill property tax levy that brings in $2.25 million a year - or perhaps a different levy altogether.
“I think we're going to have to analyze things at the appropriate time, when and if we go to the public,” said Mr. White. “We have to make sure we can measure the result of the Regional Growth Partnership and monitor performance to make sure they are living up to the port board's expectations.”
Meanwhile, development of the Marina District and promotion of Toledo Express Airport also remain key priorities. The $175-million marina project, expected to include a new sports arena, boat marina, restaurants, retail shopping, apartments, and a movie theater on the east bank of the Maumee River, has been slowed by financing concerns.
“We'll continue to provide facilitating services, as we have done in the past. Whatever leadership is necessary,” Mr. White said.
Mr. White said he is pleased with the performance of the airport, which has seen increased business in the wake of Sept. 11 and a widespread advertising campaign by the port authority.
“We want to continue to enhance the passengers' experience through facility maintenance and other core services. We would like to provide more nonstop flights to key hubs, which we have been working on,” he said.
Mr. White said he hopes to keep the port authority focused on its primary tasks of transportation and economic development.
“We can't be all things to all people,” he said. “We need to examine closely how many things we can take an active role in. And the things we do, we want to do them right.”
Mr. White, appointed to the port board in 1998 by former Mayor Carty Finkbeiner and reappointed in 2001, was unanimously named chairman by the board's other 12 members on July 25. He replaced chairman Pat Nicholson, whose board term expired July 31, and who was not reappointed by Mayor Jack Ford. Mr. White will serve out Mr. Nicholson's term as chairman, which ends Dec. 31, and could be re-elected chairman next year.
“I think he'll be a good chairman,” said James Hartung, port authority president. “His business background will be beneficial, and his stature in the community is good for us. He understands the role of the board and its chairman.”
Despite the board's unanimous support, some members have wondered whether Mr. White - who says he gets by on four hours sleep a night because of a hectic schedule - will have the time to handle his new duties.
“That's the only issue; it's a big time commitment,” said David Boston, a port board member and a business associate in several development projects.
“He's involved in numerous business enterprises plus his law practice, but Jim has assured me if it ever got to the point where he didn't have the time, he would step down,” said Jerry Chabler, another board member.
Tom Palmer, a Toledo attorney and board member who calls Mr. White his mentor, said the new chairman will have no problem with time constraints.
“He is very good at defining what needs to be done and then marshalling the resources to get it done,” Mr. Palmer said. “I think he'll invite full participation of all board members, get everyone involved, and invite healthy dialogue. He has an excellent business sense and understands both the policy issues and community issues facing the port authority.”
Mr. White said his hands-off management style will serve him well as board chairman.
Nevertheless, Mr. White could not attend the meeting at which he was elected chairman because of a time conflict. The first meeting he was supposed to chair, scheduled for Aug. 22, was moved to Aug. 15 at his request because of a previous commitment.
Also, a port board airport committee meeting, first scheduled for Aug. 19, was changed twice - first to Aug. 12, then Aug. 13 - to accommodate Mr. White's schedule, according to Paul Toth, the port authority's director of airports.
“These meetings are set at the beginning of the year, and they're usually pretty well adhered to. The fact that the [airport committee] meeting has been changed twice is very unusual,” said Mr. Chabler. “That's when I approached him and asked him if he had enough time.”
“My job is to provide oversight and leadership,” Mr. White said of the time issue. “I'm certainly not going to micro-manage the port authority. We have good people [working there].”
As an attorney with Shumaker, Loop & Kendrick, Mr. White focuses on mergers and acquisitions, public and private securities financing, general business, tax and estate planning, and maintains a busy client schedule. He travels five to seven days a month on business.
Additionally, Mr. White is a partner with his two brothers in the White Family Companies, which own numerous car dealerships and other businesses. He is a personal investor or shareholder in numerous other businesses and sits on a number of civic boards.
Despite his successes, Mr. White has faced business problems.
In 1990, when he was the managing partner at Shumaker Loop, Mr. White began representing the fast-food chain Checkers Drive-In Restaurants, Inc., based in Clearwater, Fla., near the law firm's Tampa office. Two years later he turned down an appointment by the port authority to become the chief operating officer of Checkers in January, 1993.
The company had been one of Wall Street's top performers in the late 1980s and early '90s, but, according to Mr. White, the company started losing money after he got there because of stiff competition from other chains - what the Wall Street Journal referred to in 1994 as the “hamburger wars.” He said the company also accumulated significant bank debt.
Mr. White resigned after two years at the helm of the 795-restaurant chain amid two lawsuits filed against him, the company, and several other Checkers officers by two of Checkers' 80 franchisees.
In one of the suits, Mr. White was accused of fraudulent inducement by Robert Gagne, who defaulted on $1 million in franchise fees and notes. Checkers sued Mr. Gagne, and Mr. Gagne countersued in 1995, claiming that Mr. White gave a false impression of the company's well-being, which led Mr. Gagne to buy the franchise.
Mr. Gagne's problems with Checkers began before Mr. White became an executive with the firm over a dispute concerning his franchise agreements in Jacksonville, Fla. In March, 1993, three months after Mr. White signed on with Checkers, a disgruntled Mr. Gagne painted “Checkers Sucks” on the top of a red-and-white-checked car and parked it outside Checkers headquarters.
In Mr. Gagne's lawsuit, a lower court ruled against the company, Mr. White, and Herbert Brown, the former chairman. An appeals court exonerated Mr. Brown, but singled out Mr. White as making statements to Mr. Gagne that were “deceptive and misleading.” The appeals court reduced the judgment against Mr. White from $450,000 to $383,000, which Checkers' attorneys proposed be deducted from the money Mr. Gagne owes the firm, an amount that now totals $1.5 million because of accumulated interest.
Mr. White also was ordered to pay Mr. Gagne's legal fees, which Mr. Gagne said total $700,000. The amount is in dispute between attorneys for Checkers, which will pay the fees, and Mr. Gagne.
Mr. White said the suit came down to one statement he was alleged to have made at a Checkers' franchisee meeting in 1994 related to the company's improving performance. “I never made the statement. It wasn't true, and I had witnesses there saying it wasn't true.”
In a statement sent to The Blade, Mr. White also said: “Although our judicial system is perhaps the best in the world, jurors occasionally make mistakes, and this is one of those cases. Anyone who knows me knows that I would not make the statement attributed to me by Mr. Gagne.”
Litigation is common among franchisees and franchisers, and they typically center around operational decisions, royalties, and advertising fees, and whether a market is being developed well enough, said retailing professor Robert E. Robicheaux, director of the Hess Institute for Retailing at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa.
Generally, franchisers win disputes that make it to court, since contracts are written in their favor, he said.
Late last year Mr. Gagne continued to pursue Mr. White by filing a grievance against him with the Ohio Supreme Court Disciplinary Counsel, an action that could affect his license to practice law in Ohio.
Jonathan Coughlan, the court's disciplinary counsel, said his office does not comment on specific cases but said less than 2 percent of the 3,500 grievances filed with the court each year - after an initial assessment and possible investigation - go forward as a “complaint” to the board of commissioners.
“We get grievances and we investigate them if we think they are warranted,” he said. “A fair number of them are dismissed.”
In the other suit, filed against the company in 1995 by Gail Greenfelder, a Checkers franchisee, Ms. Greenfelder alleged, among other things, that she was misled about the company's vitality, that she was deprived by Mr. White of an opportunity to buy additional franchises, and that Mr. White “pulled her close to him” as they posed for a photograph at a Checkers convention in 1994.
Mr. White said he did nothing wrong. “[That picture was] taken on stage in front of my wife, my son, and my daughter,” said Mr. White. “That's how trumped up the thing is. She was trying to embarrass me in order to settle the case.”
Mr. White said any promises made to Ms. Greenfelder by Checkers officials occurred before he joined the company. Ms. Greenfelder declined to comment when contacted by The Blade.
Part of her lawsuit has been dismissed, but Kevin Graham, Mr. White's lawyer, said last week that several of Ms. Greenfelder's claims still are pending.
Ms. Greenfelder and her husband, Glenn, also testified in support of Mr. Gagne in his lawsuit against Mr. White.
Mr. Gagne operated five Checkers restaurants before his lawsuit. He has none today. Ms. Greenfelder had five before her suits and still operates four.
Within a week of leaving Checkers on Dec. 31, 1995, Mr. White returned to Toledo and to his former law firm - Shumaker Loop - though he did not retain his managing partner status. He quickly resumed a busy schedule, juggling clients, managing personal and family investments, and rejoining many of his previous civic activities.
The Whites, first known for their car dealerships, long have been one of the city's most influential and prosperous families. Mr. White's grandfather, Hugh White, opened a Chevrolet dealership in 1914 in Zanesville, Ohio, where James White, Jr., was born. His father, James White, Sr., opened a Chevy dealership in Toledo in 1940.
Mr. White, Jr., was a star quarterback for four years at Ottawa Hills High School. He graduated from Princeton University and earned law degrees from Ohio State and New York University. He joined Shumaker Loop in 1967, rising to partner in 1972 and managing partner in the mid-1980s.
Mr. White's older brother, Dave White, took over the family business, which has grown to 13 auto dealerships in Toledo, Dayton, Columbus, and Casper, Wyo. Dave White, Jim White, and a third brother, Tim White of Dayton, are the principals in The White Family Companies, which, in addition to owning the car dealerships, oversee numerous business enterprises.
Independent of the family businesses, Mr. White has been an investor in a wide range of ventures, including Solar Cells, Inc., a manufacturer of solar panels; Spectra Group Limited, Inc., a developer of video and medical imaging; Toledo Trans-Kit, Inc., an automotive transmission kits distributor, and Stonebridge Industries, Inc., a venture capital concern. Presently, he's a shareholder in Tomahawk Development Co., developer of Arrowhead Park; a member of the V/Gladieux Enterprises, Inc., board; a minority partner in the Toledo Storm, and the principal investor in the Panera Bread franchises in northwest Ohio and southeast Michigan.
Mr. White has had a varied civic career, serving on numerous boards, such as the Toledo Cultural Arts Center, Inc., the Public Broadcasting Foundation of Northwestern Ohio, the Toledo Symphony, the Toledo chapter of the Make-A-Wish Foundation, and St. John's Jesuit High School.
In May, 1996, shortly after he returned from Florida, Mr. White was named co-chairman of the successful fund-raising campaign for the new Valentine Theatre.
“He was instrumental in raising a lot of the money we needed to raise,” said Rey Boezi, the Valentine's project manager. “It would not have happened without him, in terms of the private fund-raising side.”
Mr. White has been high on the list of donors to many charitable campaign fund-raising drives.
“He has always been generous, and his family has always been generous,” Mr. Boezi said of Mr. White, who lives with his wife, Susan, in a converted stable in what was the former Hasty Farms estate in Ottawa Hills. The Whites have two grown children.
“He's a very competent, good, well-respected lawyer,” said Opie Rollison, former chief legal counsel at Toledo Hospital and a port board member.