David Steward Biography
Net Worth: $3.7 Billion
Origin of Wealth: IT Provider
Hometown: Clinton, Missouri
Education: Bachelor of Arts/Science, Central Missouri State University
David Steward was born in Chicago, Illinois in 1951, and shortly thereafter, his family moved from the big city to rural Clinton, Missouri. His mother, Dorothy, had grown up in that small town and convinced her husband, Herold, that their children ought to be raised on a farm. The only reason she originally left was in order to receive a high school diploma, which at the time, due to racist local policies, wasn’t possible for a young scholarly woman of color.
“Her parents wanted her to finish her education, so they moved to Chicago,” reveals David. “My grandfather did factory work in Chicago during World War II, which is when my parents met and married. I was the fifth of their eight children, the last one born in the city. Right after my birth, our family returned to Missouri.”
Herold was a veteran of the United States Navy and had invested years into becoming a trained mechanic, however, when it came to creating the best circumstances for his children’s upbringing, he sacrificed his own future for theirs. The man bought a few acres of land on the outskirts of Clinton and operated a small farm that consisted of a couple of cows, a few chickens, and some hogs – enough to feed his family of ten.
“My jobs included emptying the chamber pots, shaking down the ash in the potbelly stove and then spreading it on the driveway for traction, cleaning the barn, feeding the cows and pigs, milking the cow, and skimming the cream for the butter churn. Our chores seemed endless,” David says. “But it was just the way we grew up, and it was all just a part of our lives.”
Parents’ Work Ethic
Their modest home lacked heating and plumbing, and although the family probably would have qualified for welfare, David’s father was too proud to accept any form of government aid. “He did what he had to do to support his wife and children,” David explained to the Horatio Alger Association. “He was a master mechanic and should have been able to make good money working at the nearby power company, but they weren’t hiring people of color. He and my mother were caring and committed to the next generation. Having two parents who understood their roles and their responsibilities – and then watching them work together to provide for their family – made them the best teachers in the world.”
In addition to tending to the farm, his father worked a number of odd jobs – mechanic, trash collector, janitor, security patrolman, bartender – to ensure his family made ends meet. “My father was the first entrepreneur I ever knew,” says David. “He was an entrepreneur out of necessity.”
Furthermore, it’s a fairly noteworthy observation that another African-American man who has ascended to the heights of global industry points to his own parents’ work ethic when describing the origin of his values. Lowe’s CEO, Marvin Ellison, also grew up in a rural farmhouse that lacked plumbing, and he too watched his dad work the family’s farm, bartend on occasion, and do whatever it’d take to ensure his family didn’t go hungry – this man also refused government assistance due to pride.
Regardless of the racial barriers that made up Ellison’s surroundings, he is sure to make clear that before he left home for college and the greater world which beckoned beyond their impoverished plot of land, his parents instilled within him a boundless creed, “that you couldn’t make excuses; and your ability to go out and take on life’s challenges and prepare yourself for the future would allow you to achieve anything you wanted.”
For historical context, much of Ellison’s upbringing occurred just after the Civil Rights Act of 1968, meanwhile, Steward, who is about 15 years older, was raised in the thick of an American south dominated by abhorrently legal, institutionalized racism. “I vividly remember segregation,” Steward ponders in his book, Doing Business by the Good Book. “Separate schools, sitting in the balcony at the movie theater, being barred from the public swimming pool, the for-whites-only Wiley’s restaurant, and so on.”
Going into the first grade, David was the first person of color to attend Clinton’s newly integrated elementary school. Responding to reports that the Ku Klux Klan was going to do everything they could to stop the schools from desegregating, his dad patrolled the town all night long, keeping an eye out for suspicious activity, making sure his five children would get to class safely.
Then came another hurdle for this little boy, he wanted to be a scout like some of the other kids he knew. “There is no way that your son can be a part of this boy scout group because you’re black,” Steward remembers his mom being told. “My mother and I cried together. There were men of the town that didn’t look like me, that didn’t look like her, that decided what was wrong was wrong and stepped up and did something about it.”
“The degradation African-Americans endured in those days seemed to occur in a different lifetime compared to when I launched my company three decades later,” he continues. “When I was a small boy, my mother warned me against becoming bitter and resentful. ‘David, those feelings are self-destructive and a waste of time,’ she cautioned me, always citing scripture to support her comment.”
Steward initiated further progress in his hometown during the Civil Rights Movement when in 1967, he and a group of high school students integrated Clinton’s public pool for the first time. “A group of us decided one day we were going to go swimming. Nothing happened. No resistance. We just went and jumped in,” he says. “I was the only African American male in my high school class. My experiences with forced integration taught me at a young age how to get along with and work well with people from other experiences and perspectives.”
Having grown to a lengthy 6 feet and 5 inches tall as a teenager, he managed to make quite the name for himself on Clinton High School’s basketball court. Steward stayed focused in the classroom as well and after graduating, got accepted to Central Missouri State University. His first year there, he didn’t make the school’s basketball team, but through hard work and perseverance, he earned a walk-on roster spot the following season and a scholarship thereafter.
“In the summer months, I would come to St. Louis, stay with my older brother, and work in the railyards as a trackman – haulin’ tires, diggin’ out the track, haulin’ rail – it was hard, tough labor,” recalls Steward, who simultaneously found the lack of African-American businessmen running big businesses in the city shocking – as stated in an interview with The History Makers. “I was shocked that there weren’t more resources, that we weren’t more organized, that there were economic opportunities we hadn’t broken through into. The people from the city, their perception of what was possible was very limited from what I could see.”
He was sometimes treated as an outcast by a select few urban peers of color due to his country upbringing, and on a number of occasions, he was called an Uncle Tom. Growing up on a farm in a predominantly white town shielded David from even the slightest notion that a sort of prejudice could exist within his very own African-American community. Now that he had moved away, this is also about when he began to get a grip on just how financially poor his family really was.
“We weren’t a part of the caste structure that was set up in the cities for most persons of color. You had doctors and lawyers, very few business and professional people who were teachers in St. Louis, and then everybody cascading under that,” he explains. “I didn’t realize there were certain neighborhoods where people were doing well and people weren’t doing well…all of a sudden I get the opportunity to see, for the first time, a wide range of people of color from the city that I’d never been exposed to before.”
Steward graduated from Central Missouri State University in 1973 with a bachelor’s degree in business management. “It was a tremendous experience getting to know people and developing relationships – many of those relationships are solid relationships I’ve had for a lifetime,” he concludes.
The United States was in the midst of a recession when Steward left college, making it difficult for him to find employment; continued widespread racism in America probably hurt his chances at getting a job as well. Additionally, his family was in no position to help him out with money, therefore, making something out of nothing, he approached a local banker and managed to borrow $300.
With all of his possessions in a knapsack, Steward hitchhiked to St. Louis, moved in with his sister, and worked part-time as a substitute teacher until he landed his full-time position as an executive with the Boy Scouts of America. He soon after got hired by Wagner Electric Corp. in 1974 but was laid off in 1975 as the company was in the process of going out of business.
Missouri Pacific Railroad Company
Throughout his first few years following college, no matter his job, he wasn’t making very much, so he continued to apply for positions at other companies, sending out some 400 résumés before connecting at the Missouri Pacific Railroad in 1976 – his “dream job,” he says – it was the first time that the Railroad had employed a person of color to sell rail services.
During a 2020 interview with the Economic’s Club of New York, he mentions that this role afforded him the opportunity to live in New Orleans, Milwaukee, Houston, and Los Angeles, while also connecting him with a wonderful client base in the industry.
Then Federal Express came calling in 1979, and he took the job. Just two years later, the company crowned Steward Salesman of the Year; his career’s efforts also eventually earned him enshrinement in the Federal Express Sales Hall of Fame.
“On the day of the ceremony [Salesman of the Year], I was given a silver ice bucket with my initials engraved on it. I was enjoying my job; I liked the company, but when I looked inside that bucket, I saw that it was empty. That vision sort of hit me then that there was an emptiness and a confinement to working for someone else,” he reflects. “I asked myself, is this what I wanted out of life? A pat on the back, and an ‘Atta boy, get back out there and get’em again!'”
Shortly after the celebration, his manager’s increased his sales quota – from 100 to 150 percent, “putting the carrot out there a little further,” as he’d say. “I thought, I don’t want to wake up when I’m seventy or eighty and wonder why I didn’t do more.”
Transportation Business Specialists
Steward had gotten to know this man in Kansas City who owned a consulting firm and was about ready to retire; the firm did auditing and reviewing of freight bill charges. In a leveraged buyout, that cost him, out of pocket, nothing but $2,000 borrowed dollars from his father, he purchased the business in1984 with plans to capitalize on his extensive professional network in the railroad industry. The company was renamed Transportation Business Specialists.
“At the time, my wife and I had two small children, a mortgage, and a small bank account. We were living paycheck to paycheck with all the trappings of success that keep you locked into a job,” he explains. “So I left my $65,000 a year job with its car allowance, expense account, and excellent package of fringe benefits. I was on my own – removed from the security blanket that comes with being a Fortune 500 company employee. Needless to say, it was a dramatic change.”
Transportation Business Specialists went on to uncover overcharges in shipping for companies such as Ford, Pfizer, and Campbell’s Soup. In other words, they were responsible for seeking refunds for customers who were charged too much.
Transport Administrative Services
Steward had plenty of competitors doing the same thing he was doing, and upon taking a step back and thinking outside the box a bit, he wondered if he could get paid to discover undercharges for the shipping as well – cases where the railroads should have actually been getting paid more for their services. Nobody was doing this at the time, nobody had done this. He brought it up to some executives at Union Pacific Railroad (which had recently merged with Missouri Pacific Railroad Company) and they loved the idea.
In 1987, Transport Administrative Services was born and worked out a deal with Union Pacific Railroad to audit three years’ worth of freight bills for undercharges, which meant managing $15 billion of rate information for a single client.
“The only way to handle that amount of information was through a local area network to link all of their operations, so we built what was at the time the biggest network in St. Louis,” Steward says. “To keep ahead of the competition, we committed ourselves to make continual improvements so we could maintain a lead over anyone trying to copy us.”
Having established a technological advantage by integrating computers into his practice, Transport Administrative Service was eventually handling undercharge audits for four out of the seven major railroad companies in the United States.
World Wide Technology
It’s 1990 when a man named Jim Kavanaugh, along with his boss, approach Steward about starting their own electronics distribution business. Steward had known Kavanaugh’s boss for a while by then and was so thrilled about the idea, he not only joined in with them but also put up nearly all of the necessary start-up money with a $250,000 investment – which, notably, was also nearly all of the hard-earned money he had to his name at the time. Thus, that year, World Wide Technology was created, a reseller of printers, computers, and telephonic equipment.
“WWT wasn’t exactly an ‘overnight success.’ We had our peaks and valleys, and although I never missed a single payroll, many weeks I didn’t receive my own paycheck. Employees always came first,” says Steward. “At one point in 1993, things were so tight, a collections company repossessed my car right from our parking lot. Fortunately, I ran after the car and was able to stop it so I could retrieve my briefcase from the trunk.”
As heating and trash bills went unpaid, their third partner, Kavanaugh’s former boss, also left the venture; around then is also when the men fell behind on their payments for a $1 million line of credit. Still, they persevered, sealing deals with major corporations like AT&T and Southwestern Bell. Kavanaugh went so far as to personally fulfill one of WWT’s first orders by renting a truck and driving 500 PCs to Omaha, Nebraska. Although he put up no money in the beginning, in 1995, he was given a 15% cut of the business for his unwavering work ethic, commitment, and dedication.
It wasn’t until World Wide Technology won government contracts as a minority-owned small business – coupled with the world’s rapidly advancing relationship with computing and the internet – that momentum began to pick up. Federal organizations including the United States Departments of Defense, Transportation, and Agriculture hired the company to supply their IT equipment needs, meanwhile, other private sector companies began knocking on their door as well.
Because WWT is a privately held company, one of the largest ones in America for that matter, it’s difficult to access dependable financial information on them. According to Forbes, the company’s revenue climbed from $8 million in 1992 to $135 million in 1997 to $924 million in 2001, when the company became too large to qualify for its special government status any longer.
Nowadays, major corporations approach WWT when they’re trying to get a grip on IT solutions. Because WWT is simply a re-seller, some might even describe them as a sort of tech consultant, they are able to determine which program/equipment – be it Microsoft, Cisco, Red Hat, etc. – will function best for their business; in some cases, they’ll even use parts from a bunch of suppliers and create a tech solution totally unique to their buyer’s needs.
“It’s similar to how a car manufacturer will take a bunch of different car parts and turn them into a car,” says Lawrence Walsh, CEO and chief analyst of the 2112 Group, a technology research firm. In other words, customers come to a dealership to buy a car that will take them from Point A to Point B. They are not equipped to assemble the components themselves.
Based in Maryland Heights, Missouri, United States, WWT is now doing over $12 billion in annual revenue and is Cisco’s largest and most strategic global partner with more than $5.4 billion in Cisco sales. WWT counts 70 Fortune 100 companies as customers and within the federal space, WWT holds several major federal purchasing contracts including ITES-3H and SEWP, and is on the GSA Schedule. They employ more than 8,600 people and operate more than 4 million square feet of warehousing, distribution, and integration space around the world – with strategic integration labs in the U.S., Europe, and the Asia Pacific and sales offices and distribution centers worldwide.
Based on their equity stakes in World Wide Technology, both Steward and Kavanaugh are self-made multi-billionaires; Steward with an estimated personal net worth of $3.7 billion, and Kavanaugh coming in at a personal net worth of $2.3 billion. These days, Steward isn’t so much involved in the day to day business operations, although he does serve as the company’s Chairman of the Board.
On the other hand, Jim Kavanaugh is currently the CEO of World Wide Technology. He has plans to usher the business into a new era of software services, while also maintaining its foothold in the reselling industry.
A Final Note
There is no way this story would be complete without mentioning Mr. Steward’s amazing wife, Thelma Steward, who stood by his side through the thick and thin of it all; together, they have two children. More than anything, Mr. Steward attributes all of his personal fortunes to his faith in God as he is a deeply religious man. His favorite bible verse is Mathew 6:33, “Seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you.”
In addition, he’s also thankful to live in the United States of America. “The breadth and depth of opportunities we have here, coupled with a culture that allows you to be all you can be, makes it possible for anyone to be successful,” he believes. “We have a competitive edge over other countries, and it is important for us to preserve that. It’s great that my story is only one of millions in America. I feel blessed to live in this great country.”
President George H. W. Bush once said of Steward: “His story of success epitomizes the American dream, and his example is an inspiration to us all.”
Below is a powerful motivational excerpt from Mr. Steward’s book, Doing Business by the Good Book (which you should totally purchase if you’re in the mood for an invaluable combination of business and spiritual wisdom):
When you dare to have ambitions, people tend to ridicule you; they become vocal about why you cannot and even should not pursue your dream. Some well-meaning friends and family members are trying to protect you, while others may be jealous that you might succeed. Few have the same belief in you that you have in yourself. There will always be someone who wants to rain on your parade, but an entrepreneur can’t be swayed by other people’s standards. Don’t let them put you into a box. If you buy into what’s expected of you, you’ll be restricted by others’ limitations. Better you should be guided by God’s unlimited promise.