By Lee Chottiner
To Wade and Alice Houston, business and sports have something important in common: Both are ways that the couple
gives back to their community.
Wade, a former basketball player and Division I college coach, and Alice, a coach’s daughter, counselor and
administrator, founded Louisville-based HJI Supply Chain Solutions, a logistics and distribution company that employs
300 people at six locations in two states.
A successful venture, but making money was never at its core, Wade said.
“Our goal was to grow it and sustain it to the point where we could always answer a call from the Urban League,
from Big Brothers/Big Sisters, or from the Jewish Community Center,” he said.
Likewise, through athletics, the Houstons have mentored young athletes, helping them use their talents to achieve college educations.
“Athletics for us offered such character values as dedication, persistence, resilience,” said Alice. “If a play broke
down, you didn’t just quit; you found a way to go on. So many of those things are transferrable to life [and] to business, of course.”
The Houstons have touched many lives in Louisville and elsewhere, which is why they are the 2021 winners of the Blanche B. Ottenheimer Award, which recognizes individuals who have devoted their lives to making a real difference in
The Houstons will accept the honor at the Jewish Community of Louisville
Annual Meeting on July 8.
“Alice and Wade are two of the members of our Louisville community who so truly represent the values and virtues mandated by Blanche Ottenheimer when she set up this distinguished award,” said Bob Kohn, a member of the selection committee.
A native of Alcoa, Tennessee, Wade, 76, made history in 1962, becoming the first African American to sign a
basketball scholarship at the University of Louisville. He went on to earn his bachelor’s and master’s degrees there.
After two years of professional basketball in France, he started his coaching career, eventually becoming an assistant at UofL under Coach Denny Crum for 13 years before becoming the head coach at the University of Tennessee in 1989, the first African American to head coach in the Southeastern Conference.
He co-founded the Black Coaches Association, which addressed the then-lack of head coaching and sports
administration opportunities for African Americans at major universities, and he co-founded the African American
Business Alliance. He also started the Houston-Bridgeman scholarship program at UofL and serves on the
board of the Allan Houston Legacy Foundation, fostering relationships between fathers and sons, mentors and
Alice, a Louisville native and daughter of William Lee Kean, football and basketball coach at Louisville Central
High School and a hall of famer, graduated from Baldwin Wallace College in Ohio before earning a Danforth Foundation Fellowship in Latin American History to Vanderbilt University in 1968. She left the following year to marry Wade and join him in France.
After returning to the States, she went to work at UofL, first as director of educational services in the Office of Black Affairs, then as assistant director of financial aid, leaving the school in 1988 to embark on a series of family business ventures with Wade, culminating with HJI.
She has since served on the local and national boards of the Urban League, was past chair of Greater Louisville, Inc. and sits on several other boards, including Simmons College of Kentucky and the Federal Reserve Bank of St.
In 2020, Alice joined a program sponsored by NCJW and the Federation that addressed the Black Lives Matter
movement from a woman’s perspective.
Together, their business careers started small and came with plenty of bumps along the way. They bought a grocery store from Muhammad Ali’s uncle, opened another, then opened a deli. Finally, with the help of networking, they started HJI, which took advantage of a drive by big corporations, including the Ford Motor Company, to diversify their supply chains so they look more like their customers.
Today, HJI not only claims Ford as one of its clients, it contracts with other minority-owned suppliers.
While proud that the success of their business has bettered other lives, especially African Americans, Alice
said their success comes with enormous responsibility.
She recalled a time when a female employee happily informed her that her family was about to buy a house.
“I broke out into a sweat,” she recalled.
“I thought, ‘You’re buying a house based on the decisions that we’re making.’ And that was a scary thing.”
Wade also has felt that responsibility, particularly as a coach and recruiter at the college level. When walking into
a home to sell his school to a young athlete, he also knew his offer could change lives.
The feeling that comes with changing lives can be addictive – in a good way.
“You see how they have struggled to get where they are, to just receive that offer to come to your university,” Wade
said. “Once you leave that setting, you want to go back … and see if you can make more of an impact.”
They have both made an impact, through the jobs they created, the young people they counseled, the programs
and scholarships they have supported, and the contributions they have made. Their biggest contribution to date
has been $500,000 for the new 24-acre Norton Healthcare Sports and Learning complex in the West End, which
promises to be an economic generator for an historically underdeveloped part of the city.
But neither Alice nor Wade considers that gift to be their most impactful. They say they really don’t know what
their most impactful gift is.
It could be $25,000 to help a small business make payroll, which they have done.
Or it could just be inspiring a young man or woman from the West End to start a company, too, seeing the
“In addition to mentoring, the fact that we might have shown the way for someother young entrepreneurs to start their
companies, to become entrepreneurs, simply because of what they saw or read or heard,” Wade said, “to me that is
Alice put it more succinctly.
“We show up,” she said. “We take the call, and we show up.”