John H. Howard used to always try to say “yes” to Black entrepreneurs. This month, many business and community leaders are saying “thank you” to Howard.
Howard, a respected banker and entrepreneur who created the Black Business Investment Corp. and helped many Black and minority-owned businesses obtain bank loans to open or expand, died of heart failure on July 11 in West Palm Beach. He was 83.
“That man left such a legacy, we all should be standing up singing in praise for all he’s done,” said Frank Hayden, director of the Office of Small and Minority-owned Businesses for the city of West Palm Beach. “There should be a monument laid somewhere honoring what he did (for business owners) in this city.”
Friends, colleagues and family members recall a sharp-dressed, disciplined man who served as the first president of a Black-owned bank in the state, the former Palm Beach Lakes Bank in West Palm Beach.
But it was his launching of the Black Business Investment Corp. in 1987 that cemented his legacy as a business leader and mentor. The BBIC is a Riviera Beach-based nonprofit that guarantees bank loans to Black and minority-owned businesses.
From baseball player to banker of the people
Were it not for a bad day at baseball practice, the former Baltimore Orioles baseball player might not have chosen a path in finance that led him to become one of Palm Beach County’s leading business mentors, said Marlon White, who succeeded Howard as president of the BBIC when Howard retired in 2018.
Howard frequently recalled how he was injured one day at practice, when the cleats of a player sliding into third base shredded his hand. That injury effectively ended his pursuit of a career as a ballplayer.
Howard said he had no regrets in life, he once told community and business leaders during a speech, except possibly one: “I probably wouldn’t have gone to practice that day,” White recalled him saying.
But baseball’s loss was Palm Beach County’s gain.
Howard’s departure from sports led to his joining the banking world. After serving in the U.S. Army, he moved to Miami and worked at Southeast Bank and, later, the Bank of Miami. In 1980, he was named president of Palm Beach Lakes Bank.
Following the passage of the Small and Minority Business Act of 1985, which provided money to nonprofits, Howard launched the BBIC in Palm Beach County.
A different approach to Black business lending
Other BBICs in the state did direct lending, but under Howard’s leadership, the BBIC in Palm Beach County took a different approach. It provided guarantees to loans made by local commercial banks.
John Ahrenholz, a former BBIC chairman and the former president of First Bank of the Palm Beaches, said it was Howard’s idea to provide loan guarantees rather than direct lending. This allowed the BBIC to stretch its resources and help more companies while minimizing losses.
“John’s leadership helped well into the thousands of people, both employees and owners of Black-owned businesses,” Ahrenholz said. “If we had been direct lenders, we would not have been able to do that.”
Howard also was skilled at working with the area’s leading bankers to help the BBIC and its clients. “He knew what he was talking about and was able to convince a lot of major banks to help fund the organization,” Ahrenholz said. “It was quite a feat.”
The BBIC’s goal is to overcome any “no’s” that a bank might have with a loan application by providing a loan guarantee and taking some risk off the table. Issues can range from a credit problem to the risk of a new business venture.
Lending to Black and minority-owned businesses might seem desirable now, especially with the nation’s renewed interest in Black and minority entrepreneurship, but in the 1980s it was a heavy lift.
“It wasn’t easy for people of color. Banks were turning them down on a regular basis,” Hayden recalled.
Nevertheless, Howard was persistent in his quiet but determined way.
“For John to stand up and to go into the financial institutions and talk to them about what they needed to do and make that happen, it’s a testament to his character,” Hayden said. “There are a lot of folks today who are in business because of what John Howard did for them.”
In addition to loan guarantees, the BBIC provides educational programs, such as the preparation of business plans, marketing strategies and accounting systems. Howard’s calm way of dealing with people helped guide clients during the process of thinking through their business plans.
Quiet man who was also ‘powerful and down to earth’
He was a quiet man, “but so powerful and down to earth,” White said. “Trustworthy. Someone you could have a conversation with and someone who could give you feedback or criticism. But you didn’t take it harshly. You saw him as a coach, someone doing something in your best interest.”
“Dad didn’t tell you what you wanted to hear,” echoed his son, John Howard Jr. “He told you what you needed to hear.”
White, a longtime Palm Beach County banker who served on the board from the BBIC’s inception, said he came to know Howard not only as a colleague but also as a friend, mentor “and most of all, coach.”
Throughout his life, Howard continued his ties with many of the business owners he helped during his career at the BBIC.
Juan Williams was an insurance claims adjuster who sought help from Howard in 1989. Williams wanted to open a State Farm insurance agency in Lake Park. Howard helped him obtain a $50,000 bank loan to build out office space and start the business.
After the deal was done, Howard and Williams stayed in close contact. “He’d check in with me,” Williams said. “He’d mentor me.”
Howard later became Williams’ client.
A different kind of retirement, too
More than a decade ago, Earl Pleasant wanted to develop a shopping plaza in Riviera Beach. “Mr. Howard really helped me with my business plan and introduced me to different bankers,” said Pleasant, who opened Pleasant Plaza in 2001.
In the week before Howard’s death, Pleasant was at Howard’s home, doing repair work on some tiles.
After the Post published an article about Howard’s 2018 retirement from the BBIC, Howard sent an email to the reporter.
“I promise you that even in retirement I will continue to make positive contributions to our community,” Howard wrote.
He kept his promise, friends and family said.
White said he and Howard frequently talked, with the conversation inevitably turning to the BBIC.
Others called, too.
“He became a consultant via phone calls with people,” Howard Jr. said. “He would do that constantly. I had friends who I didn’t realize were still talking to my Dad. That was his way of continuing to be available.”
Throughout his life, whatever he was doing, Howard made it his mission “to always help people,” his son said. “He was always trying to do the right thing.”
John was born in Perry, Florida, to the Rev. Lar Celious and Mary Lee Howard on Nov. 16, 1937. He attended Syracuse University in New York, where he studied Business Administration. He then attended the Florida School of Banking at the University of Florida. He earned a Master’s of Business Administration from the University of Miami.
After his baseball career was cut short by an injury in the early 1960s, John enlisted and served with honors in the U.S. Army throughout Europe, Africa, and Southeast Asia. While stationed at the Army Base in Fort Hood, Howard met his wife, Christine Melton.
They were married for 50 years.
Howard is survived by his wife, Christine Howard; brother Louis C. Howard Sr.; sons John Mack Redish, and wife, Angie, of El Dorado, Texas; Jasper “Tate” Johnson and wife, Jean, of Miramar; John Henry Howard, Jr. and wife, Adrienne, of Royal Palm Beach; William Arthur Jahmeir Howard and wife, Jonique, of West Palm Beach; daughter, Valeria Johnson of West Palm Beach; and eight grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.
A funeral service was held July 20 at Palm Beach State College’s Loxahatchee Groves campus.
Shuler Memorial Chapel funeral home, which turned to Howard 20 years ago for help with a bank loan, handled his funeral arrangements.