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This article by Kathleen McGinn Spring was prepared for the February 4, 2004 issue of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
The Rise & Fall of Century Old Barbour Steel
An aerial photo in the offices of Barbour Brothers Steel Company shows two long rows of infant evergreens lined up at right angles to one another on the lawn in front of the plant. The perfectly-spaced trees now shoot several stories into the air. Despite four decades of wind, drought, and ice, it appears that nary a branch has fallen. Nothing has changed in the evergreen formation.
Meanwhile, plenty has changed in the economy of the region, and those changes are a big part of the reason that Barbour Brothers closed up shop shortly after the first of the year. The family-owned steel company, founded in 1900 as Barbour Brothers Machine Shop, was 104 years old.
"We supported the manufacturing base in New Jersey," says David Barbour III, the third generation of his family to run the business. As manufacturing declined, Barbour Brothers suffered. The company’s customers were both the manufacturers and, he says, "those who served them, the welders, the industrial fabricators, and the machine shops." The company bought steel domestically, and to a much smaller extent from Canada, and sold it close to home, too, mostly in New Jersey and eastern Pennsylvania.
Like most small steel plants, Barbour explains, his was highly specialized. "A specialty was Kleen Kote pipe and tubing," he says. "We bought it from Chicago. We were the only full service center for that." The pre-primed steel often ended up as ornamental iron. Steel from Barbour Brothers also ended up in fences, trailers, and signs.
Another photo on Barbour’s wood-paneled walls shows the company’s founders in shirtsleeves, surrounded by half-a-dozen of their employees on a factory floor in Trenton at the turn of the century. The strapping young men, smiling into the camera, are clearly in their prime, as was manufacturing in the New Jersey, and particularly in its capital city.
The impetus for forming the company came from William Barbour, David’s great uncle. A machinist, he recruited David’s grandfather, also a machinist, to come up from Philadelphia. Two other brothers, Robert and John, also were involved. The company’s first home was on the corner of Factory and Warren Streets in Trenton. It was then called Barbour Brothers Machine Shop.
"At some point it evolved into steel services," says Barbour. "We went to people who were shutting down, bought up their excess inventory, put it in stock, and sold it." As the company moved into steel distribution it moved to a new location at Marion and Reservoir streets in Trenton.
In 1966 the company, by then headed by the second generation of Barbours, and principally by "the second William," moved to Pennington. The company was unable to find suitable space in Trenton, says Barbour, and by that time the city’s manufacturing base had begun to wane. "Trenton was heavily industrial," he says, "but there is virtually no manufacturing in Trenton now." Pennington was farmland then, and those evergreens were most likely planted to hide the factory from view.
Barbour’s father, one of four sons of the founding David, was the youngest by 16 years. David Jr., now deceased, took over as president of the company in the 1970s, and remained as its chairman into the 1990s. In the 1980s and 1990s, the company hired outsiders to run the company.
"I became president three years ago," says Barbour. Formerly vice president with responsibility for sales and purchasing, he took over full responsibility when he and his family decided to sell the company.
But although Barbour has headed the company for only a short time, he has been involved with it for his entire life. Born and raised in Pennington, he is a graduate of the Lawrenceville School and of Dickinson College (Class of 1964).
"I began right after college, and except for six months in the National Guard, I’ve been here," he says. He offers to give a tour of the factory, a 40,000 foot building just behind the offices, but quickly reconsiders. "It’s empty," he says. "There’s nothing to see."
The equipment has been sold, but the business hasn’t. "It’s a down market," says Barbour. "We had an offer to sell operations, but not a good offer." Unable to find a buyer willing to pay what he considers a reasonable price, Barbour has leased the property to the General Sullivan Group. The company, "a steel processor like ourselves," is moving up from Trenton and taken a five year lease, with an option for five additional years, and, says Barbour, may be interested in purchasing the property down the line.
Meanwhile, he and his wife, Margaret, have just sold the Titusville house they bought from his parents, and are preparing for retirement in Langhorne. They have no children, and none of the nephews in the family have any interest in running the company. The lack of succession joined with the poor economy and the decline in local manufacturing in the family’s decision to sell the company.
The steel "supermarket," as Barbour calls it, once had all the customers it could ever want in Trenton. Then its customer base moved farther out into Mercer County. Now it’s in the counties adjacent to Mercer. Not only is this base declining, but it is trying to weather hard times. "Some companies that want the steel can’t pay for it in a timely manner," says Barbour. "We have had to cut them off."
The decline in manufacturing has ripples. "We had GM," says Barbour. "We had Delaval. They’re gone, but so are the welding shops, industrial fabricators, and machine shops."
The decline was gradual, and it continues. With less revenue, his operation did not keep its machinery absolutely up-to-date. A decision to stay in business, he says, would have necessitated upgrades.
When it was clear that, after three years of looking, no company would be found to take over operations, the employees had to be told. By the fall, there were only 16 employees, down from about 31 just a few years ago. Over the past few years, as employees left they were not replaced.
"It was very emotional," says Barbour of the lay-off announcement. A number of his employees had been on the job for 10 years, a couple for 15 or 20, and one for 26. In his father’s day, there was even greater longevity, he says, speaking of a duo he calls "the Adams brothers." Between them, the men racked up more than 80 years of cutting and preparing steel at the Barbour Brothers’ plant.
He dreaded the announcement, but expresses great relief – even joy – at the way the workers responded. He says that winding up the business "the right way" is very important to him. All bills were to be paid, and the workers were to be given severance. The workers pitched in, helping to shut down the plant. Many – at least half – have found new jobs already, says Barbour.
It is possible that Barbour Brothers could have soldiered on into the 21st Century, says the company’s third generation owner. The economy surely will pick up, and conditions will improve for a while, even in the manufacturing sector. But, overall, the trend is downward.
"In each 10-year cycle," says Barbour, "there will probably be a few good years." But he thinks the good times will gradually grow fewer and shorter. "Long term, it doesn’t look good," he says. "It won’t be back to where it was." The way to survive is to either "create new niches, or do something differently." After 40 years in the business, and with no heirs to the corner office on the horizon, he is disinclined to reinvent the business.
A cross country skier who also enjoys walking, Barbour has no immediate plans beyond reveling in "doing nothing." He will soon make his last drive through the chain link fence surrounding the company that bears his name. As he does, he will pass the evergreens, which have stood steadfastly in place as the county where they have their roots has embraced industries no one had even dreamed of when the Barbour family began to build their steel business 104 years ago.
– Kathleen McGinn Spring
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