A Legacy of Leadership

January 14, 2021
  • Bob Chapman
  • Bob Chapman
    CEO & Chairman of Barry-Wehmiller

One of the most meaningful moments with my father was just as I was beginning my career.

I had just passed the CPA exam on the first try. It had taken my father, Bill – also an accountant – three tries to pass. He was so impressed that I passed it on the first seating. I was an average student in high school, but he watched me become a strong student in business school and go on to do very well with an opportunity on the audit team at Price Waterhouse.

In 1969 – during my second year at Price Waterhouse – my father asked me to join Barry-Wehmiller. It was something I had never considered, as I aspired to be a partner in the accounting firm. Our family had become controlling owners of the company in the mid-1960s from the Wehmiller family when the company borrowed the funds to retire the Wehmiller family stock. My father’s $30,000 investment represented 60% of the remaining stock.

When my father asked me to join Barry-Wehmiller, two of his executives had just tried to find someone to buy the company behind his back, which was really hard on him. As a result, my position was basically “someone he could trust.” This unique entry point allowed me to move around in roles my father felt needed attention, which gave me a good understanding of every aspect of the business. From engineering to manufacturing to international license agreements and to what was most impactful, customer service.

Then suddenly -- six years after I joined Barry-Wehmiller and I was now VP of Finance -- my father died. The night before, he told me, “you are really running the company,” and said that he was going to promote me to Executive Vice President. That was the last conversation I had with him and it was meaningful that he had the opportunity to express his respect and confidence in me.

I’ve written many times about finding my footing as a leader after my father’s death and the struggles and successes over the next couple of decades. It led me to develop a robust business model for Barry-Wehmiller that captured the learnings from my many roles in the company and the transformational challenges I experienced and survived.

The vision we developed in 1989 was one of balance and diversity that would leverage our learning of the past. We called it the Strategy for Growth, Value and Liquidity. It has guided our journey from a $20 million to $3 billion company and grown our share value by over 10%, compounded for 30 years. It withstood the dramatic challenges of 2008-2009 and has again proved to be resilient during the pandemic of 2020.

Along the way, I also had my “revelations” that started our journey of Truly Human Leadership. These ideas helped us realize that business was about more than just economic value creation, but people, purpose and performance -- providing an opportunity for people to join our company, give them a sense of purpose so that they share their gifts with us while we provide them a safe, challenging and rewarding career path.

For me, 2020 will be an additional milestone in my career. Not necessarily because of its challenges, but because of what has meant to the legacy of the Chapman family in this world.

Last September, our Board announced that my son Kyle would be promoted to President of Barry-Wehmiller after serving as its Chief Financial Officer.

Kyle’s path in Barry-Wehmiller was even more unique than mine, as he helped launch a new “hybrid equity” investment initiative that combined the best of our strategic value drivers and what Kyle had learned in 10 years in private equity markets.

About ten years ago, after he had worked at Bank of America’s private equity team, Kyle joined our organization when he started BW Forsyth Partners with his colleague Ryan Gable. BW Forsyth Partners is the disciplined diversification investment arm of Barry-Wehmiller, focusing on industries/markets that leverage our combined experience and further improve the overall balance and risk profile of Barry-Wehmiller Group.

Now, after more than 30 acquisitions, BW Forsyth Partners is a $600 million part of our company, diversifying our company even further into the insurance services, infrastructure, medical devices and printing equipment industries.

Kyle’s time as managing partner of BW Forsyth Partners also allowed him to prove and develop his leadership skills independently of my unique journey. Over the last few years, he assumed a greater role with Barry-Wehmiller Company and Group before his promotion to CFO in January 2020. His skills were a key driver in addressing the challenges of the 2020 pandemic, further earning the respect of the Barry-Wehmiller leadership team and Board.

Instead of having “revelations” to realize there was a better way to lead, Kyle has been a major contributor to our culture of Truly Human Leadership, as he has walked alongside me in this journey.

A story I’ve told many times that was important in the development of our culture was when a team member asked me one night at dinner, 15 years ago: “Bob, what is your greatest fear?”

I responded, “My greatest fear is that we will have worked hard to build something of significance here at Barry-Wehmiller and that it will die with me”.

That simple thought-provoking question and my impromptu response became a clarifying moment in our organizational journey. Shortly thereafter, we began to engage in bigger conversations about the legacy of our business and we launched Barry-Wehmiller University, our internal educational unit.

Unlike many corporate training experiences, the goal of BWU was not to “get more out of” our team members, but rather to transform them from managers to leaders, so they will have the skills and courage to care for those they have the privilege to lead. When we began teaching our leaders how to care we were pleased that 90% of the feedback from leadership classes were about how it improved their marriage and relationship with their kids. Along the way, we found that the spirit of caring fostered through this special training became an essential “fuel” of our business model “engine.”

I am very proud of all our initiatives to instill Truly Human Leadership into the hearts of our team members and to bring it to the world. I am very proud of what Kyle has accomplished and what he will accomplish in the future. Just like my father’s pride in my passing the CPA exam, I have confidence that Kyle will carry on the Chapman family legacy of caring for those we have the privilege to lead.

I am continuing in my role as CEO and Chairman of the Board with no plans for that to change anytime soon. There is still much work to do on my journey and I know that we have only just begun to be a business that creates human and economic value in harmony!

As we enter a new year, let us take a moment to reflect on 2020. We have always emerged strong and more resolute from the many challenges we have faced and the current pandemic is another unique learning experience that will shape a better future.

Now, let’s look at 2021 with purpose and intention and continue our efforts to make the world a better place through the power of business.

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Need help in applying principles of Truly Human Leadership in your organization? Chapman & Co. Leadership Institute is Barry-Wehmiller's leadership consulting firm that partners with other companies to create strategic visions, engage employees, improve corporate culture and develop outstanding leaders through leadership training, assessments and workshops.

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