Barnhart inducted into Society of Entrepreneurs

Feb 25, 2008

By Amos Maki

Friday, February 22, 2008

Richard Barnhart is still building things.

But instead of helping build iconic local structures like The Pyramid and Cook Convention Center, the founder of Barnhart Construction Co. -- the precursor to Barnhart Crane & Rigging -- now spends most of his days at his wooded lake house in northwest Shelby County designing tree houses.

"That's my nature, I like building big things," said Barnhart, 74, one of this year's inductees into the Society of Entrepreneurs.

Barnhart also tips his cap to his wife, Nancy, who served as the front office for the company when it was founded in 1969.

"She was the total office for the company when I first had it," said Barnhart, whose company now has 18 locations nationwide. "While we were doing the Schlitz brewery, we had about 80 people on payroll and she wrote every check by hand."

While things may have seemed tenuous at first, Barnhart used hard work, planning and old-fashioned luck to turn the company into a power.

After finishing a project for Chicago Bridge and Iron Co. in Memphis, Barnhart, a Massachusetts native, decided to follow his passion for building big things by starting his own firm.

"Our operating capital to start with was about $20,000," he said. "We started off with a pickup truck and a couple of welding machines."

The young company's fortunes would change the following year when Barnhart won the steel erecting contract for the old Schlitz brewery. The steel had been hauled to Memphis on dozens of rail cars and Barnhart sensed an opportunity.

"I told them if they could pay me a unit price to unload that steel, and if I could invoice every two weeks, and if they'll pay me within a week of my invoice, then I think we can make the money flow work," Barnhart said with a laugh, recalling just how much he needed the brewer's cooperation to win the contract.

"That was asking a lot but they were in a bind," he said. "Almost anything I wanted, they went along with. That was the miracle start right there because that built our capital where we could operate well."

Barnhart capitalized on another break when he won the contract to build the Regional Medical Center at Memphis.

The Med's leadership had to bid the project out three different times and the third time was the charm for Barnhart, who quickly prepared a bid.

"I had to make (the bid) high to be sure I did all right and I bid about twice what I figured it would cost and got the job," he said.

"Those two projects, the Schlitz brewery and The Med, are the ones where I had an unusual situation and made an unusual amount of money," Barnhart said. "You have to recognize that it's an opportunity and you have to jump."

Things quickly took off after that, with Barnhart winning the contract to erect the Cook Convention Center and build the bridge carrying the monorail to Mud Island.

Barnhart's sons, Erik and Alan, studied under their father, working summers at the firm during high school and college.

They grew the firm into a national heavy crane, rigging and transport company on the strong foundation their father built.

Erik Barnhart described his father, who has a civil engineering degree from the University of Massachusetts, as a visionary who changed the way Memphis was built, especially the industrial areas where his innovations in tilt-up construction are now commonplace.

"He was well ahead of his time in the way he was doing things," said Erik Barnhart. "My brother and I have taken that same spirit of innovation and taken it nationally."

And in a sign of just how successful Barnhart was, his sons have run their company, Barnhart Crane & Rigging, longer than he ran his.

"It's really remarkable when you think about it," said Barnhart, who built a house-sized tree house on his compound. "The big thing about it is that they've multiplied it by 100-fold. I stayed pretty close to Memphis but they're all over the country."

J.T. Hill, who began working at Barnhart Construction in 1970 and still works at Barnhart Crane & Rigging, said Richard Barnhart had a knack for making lemonade out of lemons.

"I guess you could sum that guy up in one phrase," said Hill. "There's a lot of different people similar to him, but nobody can take nothing and make it something like he can.

"He would take a job that nobody else wanted and that was the job he wanted," he said. " He taught us there's a lot of opportunities out there in life if you capitalize on them."

Richard Barnhart

Position: Founder, Barnhart Construction Co.

Age: 74

Education: Degree in civil engineering from the University of Massachusetts, Class of 1960.

Hobbies: sailing, scuba diving, woodworking, daily wine with his wife.

Family: wife, Nancy; Sons, Erik and Alan.

Community involvement: Young Life, Memphis Leadership Foundation and Hurricane Katrina recovery efforts, local tornado clean-up with UMCOR

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