June 8, 2018
Lifetime Achievement Awards 2018

Tom Barnes carries on Barnes Group legacy

HBJ Photo | Steve Laschever
HBJ Photo | Steve Laschever

Tom Barnes

Chairman of the Board, Barnes Group Inc.

Size of organization: 5,500 employees; $1.4 billion in sales

Highest Education: MBA from UConn

Previous job: Vice President of Carpenter Construction Co.

Tom Barnes has a bounce in his step as he bolts up the circular staircase that evokes an image of a spring. The staircase, illuminated by a skylight, naturally is in the center of the Barnes Group international headquarters in Bristol.

At age 69, Barnes exudes the spirit of a cheerleader who as a youngster played third base, the hot corner where line drives can take you out in the fraction of a second. He's on his toes, alert, four years after retiring as an employee of this multinational corporation that has flourished in one form or another over 10 generations.

Still serving as chairman of the board and the company's charitable foundation, Barnes represents the fifth generation of the family to have been actively employed by the Barnes Group entity founded by his great, great grandfather Wallace Barnes. Tom Barnes' father, Wallace "Wally" Barnes, served as the company's president and chief operating officer from 1964 to 1977, chairman of the board and CEO from 1977 to 1991, and then chairman of the board from 1991 to 1995.

The history of the Barnes Group is to a great extent the history of the Industrial Revolution. Among the early family endeavors: producing wire for women's hoop skirts and patenting springs for clocks. The company would become one of the world's largest producers of springs also used for guns, valves, bicycles and cars.

An 1860 advertisement for a Barnes partnership offers cast steel skirt springs, coil springs and skirt materials of all kinds at a "Manufactory" in Bristol and a warehouse on Murray Street in New York.

Tom Barnes routinely visits schools and community groups wearing what some audience members perceive as a scary mask representing his 180-year-old or so great, great grandfather.

"I'm sort of the company historian in my generation," he said.

Asked about the burden and privilege of carrying on the legacy, Barnes responded, "It's important for anybody to work hard. I was fortunate I could work construction in Bristol."

Barnes recalled some early adventures in construction around the time he earned a business degree from the University of Hartford. He worked four summers as a welder, carpenter and payload operator. On one occasion another business in downtown Bristol put out an emergency call for help. A sewer drain valve was shut tight. Could anyone help?

"We got it open," Barnes said, noting that he ended up wearing much of the evidence. "I've learned not to open sewer drains since then."

Barnes would go on from sewer drain operator to earn his MBA at the University of Connecticut and work as an executive for the local construction firm and the former Connecticut Bank and Trust. He also served as a director for Barnes Group and became a senior vice president in 1993. He was elected chairman of the board in 1995.

One of his sons, Elijah Barnes, is a principal in a Washington, D.C. commercial real estate group and has served as a Barnes Group director since 2016.

The company now bills itself as an industrial and aerospace manufacturer with more than 5,000 employees worldwide, $1.4 billion in revenue and market capital of $3 billion.

"We've had to transform ourselves many, many times to survive," Barnes said.

Community involvement

While continuing to steer the ship of the Barnes Group as chairman, he becomes animated talking about the numerous community organizations he serves and related philanthropic projects. The community involvement is encouraged throughout the company and the Barnes Group has matched gifts by more than 200 employees to organizations including a local nature center.

"The company involvement," he said, "makes our employees feel good about their company. It also builds camaraderie."

When Barnes believed the big banks operating in Bristol were not as responsive to small business as they should be, he helped found a community bank. "We were concerned," he said, "there was not enough attention paid to the local community."

Currently Barnes serves as a director of organizations including the Bristol Chamber of Commerce, the Connecticut Forum, Connecticut Science Center and the Bushnell. He is a past director of groups including Renbrook School, Main Street Community Foundation in Bristol and the Connecticut Children's Medical Center. He is a former chairman of the Connecticut Business & Industry Association.

"Talking to Tom is like talking to a neighbor," said Cindy Bombard, president and CEO of the Central Connecticut Chambers of Commerce. "He's never too busy to take a call if I have an idea."

Bombard said Barnes eagerly served as a guest speaker for an event honoring local small businesses.

"All the Barnes family has been extremely generous to our community," she said.

On the job

Guiding business principle: Treat people fairly, give back to the community.

Best way to keep your competitive edge: Be prepared, get a good night's sleep and keep your commitments.

Proudest accomplishment: Founder of Valley Bank and the Main Street Community Foundation.

Goal yet to be achieved: Have every employee of Barnes Group have their opportunity to buy stock in the company.

Favorite part of the job: Meeting our employees around the world.

Least favorite part of the job: Telling one of our directors it is time to step down.

Personal touch in your office: Family pictures everywhere

Judgment calls

Best business decision: Selling Olson Brothers, a small screw machine shop I owned for 10 years.

Worst business decision: Developing a 60-lot subdivision.

Biggest missed opportunity: Not holding onto Federal Realty stock when we sold the Bristol Shopping Plaza.

Best way to spot trends: Listen to your customers.

Next big move: Completely retiring at 75.

Your pet peeve: Being late

Personal side

City of residence: Bristol

Favorite way to relax: Watch shows with my wife and get away to our house in Vermont.

Hobbies: Golf, bridge and travel, especially cruising

Last vacation: March CBIA meeting in Orlando with three of our 11 grandchildren

Favorite movie: "Caddy Shack"

The car you drive: Ford Navigator

Currently reading: "Gold Coast," by Nelson DeMille

Favorite cause: Too many to list

Second choice career: Meteorologist

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