Local CEO says future of business is caring for your employees like they’re your kids

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CLAYTON, Mo. – One of the most successful and fastest growing companies in the St. Louis-area is a name you may recognize but know little about.

The Barry-Wehmiller Company is transforming its workforce while also transforming business as we know it. And it all starts with Bob Chapman, the chairman, and CEO of Barry-Wehmiller, who says that all business success starts with how you treat the people who work with you.

The world headquarters for Barry-Wehmiller is based in Clayton, right across from Shaw Park. As a matter of fact, the new fountains and waterfall are named in his honor. But his success certainly wasn’t guaranteed and he almost lost everything several times.

Barry-Wehmiller began in 1885 as a provider of equipment to the brewing industry. Anheuser-Busch was one of the company’s first customers in 1901. They revolutionized several business practices centered around the brewing industry, which allowed the company to grow significantly. There were plenty of ups and downs before Chapman became president of the company following the death of his father in 1975.

Chapman says everything that he touched turned to gold until the mid-1980’s when the banks started pulled out of the company. That is when he realized a change was needed at his business.

“I said to our team, our history does not provide us a future,” he said. “We need to acquire companies and give us a better future. So I began with no money and no experience to acquire companies in 1984.”

That started the process of growing his organization by buying struggling companies and turning them around. Chapman calls these acquisitions “adoptions” and Barry-Wehmiller now has 107 businesses under its belt. It was during these lean times that he really began to grow as a leader.

“I learned more when I had no money than I did when money was easy,” he said proclaims.

The company now has about 12,000 associates worldwide and around $3 billion in annual sales.

But this is where the story takes a twist. Chapman claims there are a couple of distinct moments that changed the way he did business. And none of these awakenings happened during “business hours.”

One was while he was sitting in church when he realized that the preacher in his church had such a big impact on his life, yet he was only there for one hour per week.

“How much more impact can we have at work when we have people under our care for 40 hours per week,” says Chapman. “And I said that day as I walked out of church, business could be and should be the most powerful force for good in the world if it simply cared about the people it had the privilege of leading.”

Another of his awakenings was during a wedding, as he saw the father of the bride giving away his daughter to her husband. That was the moment he realized that when he hired someone, he wasn’t just giving them a job. It was so much bigger than that. He was, in effect, promising to take care of someone’s precious child for a big part of their lives.

“Without question, in my revelations, that expression ‘everybody is somebody’s precious child,’ everybody can relate to,” he said.

Chapman now teaches business leaders around the world that you must view people as someone’s precious child, not just another worker to enrich yourself.

“When you stop seeing people as a function and you see them as ‘that’s my best friend’s son,’ ‘that’s my brother’s daughter,’ when you see people as ‘somebody’s precious child,’ it profoundly affects the way you treat them,” he said.

That principle has transformed his workforce and is now transforming business around the world. In fact, his philosophy is now being taught at elite business schools.

“I was at Harvard, sitting with 90 global business executives, and they were teaching the Barry-Wehmiller cultural case study at Harvard. And I sat in that room and I said, ‘How did I get here?’”

Chapman wants to make sure that the next generation of business leaders are wiser than he was.

“It never occurred to me in my education that the way we treated people in the work environment would affect the way they treat their spouse and their children,” he said.

Again, he encourages people to view everyone as ‘someone’s precious child.’

“But we know for a fact that when people leave work not feeling valued, we know for a fact when they go home, they are less of a parent, less of a spouse, and less of a citizen, because they don’t feel valued,” he said.

Chapman’s book, “Everybody Matters,” is often listed as one of the must-read business books by publications around the country. He says that this change in the workforce is good for business, and society as a whole because it’s the right thing to do.

“You don’t have to justify caring, you have to justify not caring about the people you have the privilege of leading,” he said.


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