From the December 2015 issue of The Rotarian
On a clear spring day at the University of Michigan campus in Ann Arbor, the sky is azure, cherry blossoms and lilacs are exploding across the green landscape, and the majestic Doric columns of Angell Hall glow golden in the sunlight. This is the place that gave serial entrepreneur John W. Barfield his start.
But Barfield, 88, is not an alumnus. He didn’t have the opportunity to go to college, or even to finish high school. He grew up in a family of sharecroppers in the segregated South. In search of a better life, his family migrated north to Pennsylvania, where his father worked in the coal mines, and later to Michigan, to look for manufacturing jobs. After serving in the U.S. Army in Germany, Barfield was hired to wash walls in the massive Angell Hall. It was 1948. Thorough, reliable, and efficient, he soon secured a job as a custodian, making $1.75 an hour.
Like many African American men of his generation, Barfield faced limited options. He was a good custodian, but he didn’t want to be a lifelong one. So he used the job as a springboard. He came to understand the value of his time and his talents, and he learned everything he could, including how to ask for help, and how to win friends and influence people (assisted by a Dale Carnegie course in the 1950s and by his Rotary Club of Ypsilanti in the ’60s). He took what he knew and built a successful business around it – and he did it without compromising the principles of humility, integrity, and faith that his parents had instilled in him.
In 1949, he married Betty Jane Williams, and together they had six children and launched 11 companies. They started with J & B Cleaning Company in 1954, which became Barfield Cleaning Company in 1955, when they added commercial clients. They sold the business in 1969 for a sum they’ve never disclosed, although he says it was “significant – enough to provide us with security for the rest of our lives.” But they didn’t slow down. They diversified and built other companies, from engineering and manufacturing parts for General Motors to providing workforce management and staffing solutions – in all, a $3 billion operation. These businesses have provided jobs for tens of thousands of African Americans who also were searching for a way out of poverty.
Today Barfield still lives in Ann Arbor with Betty, in a big light-filled house full of art on lovely wooded acreage. Retired from the family business (now run by his youngest son, David) but sharp and inquisitive as ever, Barfield has written a memoir, Starting From Scratch: The Humble Beginnings of a Two Billion-Dollar Enterprise, which he wants to use to raise money for those less fortunate.
Barfield greets visitors with a continental kiss on both cheeks and holds court at a big glass table in his living room. Betty bustles nearby as workers go in and out, busy on a remodeling project. The couple’s granddaughter Janan McDougal, 33, is there too. She listens as Barfield shares some of the stories that have helped make him who he is, and that he hopes will help others find their own path to success.
Barfield was born in Tuscaloosa, Ala., in a poor area known as Kualton Quarters. When he was just old enough to walk, he became seriously ill with a fever. His parents couldn’t afford a doctor, and home remedies weren’t working. Family and friends were keeping vigil when something happened that Barfield says affected his entire life.
Two white women in long white dresses walked into the house. They handed Barfield’s father a note with an address and told him to find the house, and to hurry. Then they disappeared. His father ran all the way to the white section of town and found the man at the address, a doctor, who rushed to the child’s bedside and stayed there all night. In the morning, the boy’s fever had broken, and he quickly recovered. No one ever saw the women again.
Barfield says many people witnessed what happened, and he heard the story over and over. “When I’d ask my father, ‘Daddy, who were those women?’” he recalls, “my father replied, ‘Johnny, nobody in our community had ever seen those two ladies before, and no one has seen them since. We came to the conclusion that these were two angels that God sent to spare your life.’ He always ended by saying, ‘Johnny, God must have a purpose for your life.’ I found out that my purpose was entrepreneurism. It’s just a talent I have.”
Because of that event, Barfield says, faith has been the foundation of everything he’s done. “Every time I mention it, I feel the presence of those ladies,” he says. “I do even now.”
McDougal loves the story and says her grandfather has been a guiding light for her. “He is my hero,” she says. “He was there to pull my tooth when it was loose so the tooth fairy could give me a dollar, he was there as my biggest cheerleader when I walked across the stage to receive my college degree, and now he’s there as my mentor when I need guidance on how to grow as a strong businesswoman. He is a man who puts God first and his wife and family next, knowing that as long as he is doing right by them, everything else will naturally fall into place.”
After his family moved to Pennsylvania, young Barfield saw how hard coal mining was on his father. “If he found a good vein of coal, he could make $22 a week, but he often made less. And people said if the cave-ins and the methane gas didn’t kill you, you could always look forward to the black lung disease,” Barfield says.
Barfield was working too, but he envisioned a different path. Every day after finishing his afternoon paper route, he stopped at a store run by a man named Bert Lutton. “I admired this man,” he says. “He came to work wearing a shirt and tie. I said, ‘Someday I’m going to be like Mr. Lutton.’ One day I asked if I could help out. Before long, I was sweeping the store and helping him package the soap he sold.”
Then Barfield started selling the soap himself. He’d load up his cloth newspaper bags and walk to the wealthiest parts of town to knock on doors. He’d often sell his inventory and have to return for more. Lutton gave him a 5-cent commission on every 15-cent box. “So when I was nine years old, I not only knew how to run his shop as well as he could but I was making a commission,” Barfield recalls. “From that day on I said, someday I’m going to have my own business. And I never lost that dream.”
In the early 1950s, Barfield’s pay as a janitor at the University of Michigan hadn’t budged for several years. He couldn’t support his growing family. And he wanted to do better.
To supplement his income, he started washing and waxing cars for professors and working in their homes. “Then I noticed a lot of small houses being built on the west side of Ann Arbor, so I went to the contractor and said, ‘Could I clean those for you before the owners move in? Because, respectfully, I can see they’re not being cleaned well.’”
Soon Barfield had all the work he could handle. He made $35 for every house he cleaned, and he could clean two or three houses a day. And, in one day of working for himself, he could make as much as he would working a full week at the university.
The next step was calling on people who ran large commercial and industrial businesses. “Our reputation grew, and I had a simple strategy,” he says. “I hired the best people I could find. I trained them to be twice as efficient as my competitors’ employees, and I paid them twice as much. By doing that I could eliminate turnover, improve quality, and gain more contracts. It worked. Thirteen years later, in 1969, I sold the business to International Telephone & Telegraph. What I discovered in that period was that I was extremely valuable.”
He also developed client friendships that lasted a lifetime, says his friend Anthony Derezinski, a former lawyer and lobbyist, now retired, and a member of the Rotary Club of Ann Arbor. “John Barfield has such an inquisitive mind. It’s wonderful,” he says. “He’s so interested in people. He wants to know what their life experience has been.”
In 1977, Barfield was offered a chance to do engineering work for General Motors – despite not knowing “a single thing about engineering,” he says. The opportunity arose because of a connection he’d made while providing janitorial services for a GM engineering and manufacturing facility – and because of his good reputation.
“I knew enough to know what I didn’t know, and I knew enough to go to someone who did,” he recalls. This became one of the core principles of his companies.
In this case, the person he approached was Charlie Ford, an African American manager of engineering services at Bendix who had also played a role in the Apollo space program. Barfield knew Ford through his contract for cleaning services at Bendix. Ford agreed to help with this engineering venture, and Bendix gave him permission to do so part time.
They started with six engineering students from Washtenaw Community College, and soon the company grew to 30 employees. “If I had not had Charlie to advise me and work with me on the engineering project, I couldn’t have done it,” Barfield says. “On my own, I would have failed.”
When GM asked Barfield to start a factory and manufacture parts, Betty was hesitant because they didn’t know anything about running a factory. But Barfield had learned that “if you find the right people, you can supplement your lack of knowledge with the wisdom of others,” he says. “There’s no end to what you can do if you use your imagination. This is what I like about entrepreneurism.”
McDougal remembered those words when she became disenchanted with her job as an investment banker. “My heart just wasn’t in it,” she says. “My heart was set on running my own business. Seeing the things my grandfather had done, listening to his words of wisdom, gave me the courage to give it a go myself.” She has developed a business consulting company and is working with her grandfather on promoting and distributing his book.
She believes in the principles for success that Barfield has shared with her, such as maintaining a strong reputation, and being honest and fair. “He taught me that a successful business is built with honesty and integrity as its foundation. Putting those things into practice has helped my business start to grow.”
The decision to retire at age 86 wasn’t easy for Barfield, but he had faith in his son’s abilities. “He worked himself up to become CEO and – I’m not saying this because he’s our child – he’s the best CEO we’ve ever had. He’s a brilliant manager.”
Despite the years of hard work, Barfield knows how to enjoy life, Derezinski says. “He is constantly trying new things, and he has incredibly varied interests. He’s a voracious reader. He’s an avid duck hunter. He loves to travel. He and Betty have a place in the Caribbean, and we met up with them in Paris once to explore places like Sacré-Coeur and Pigalle. He’s an excellent golfer. He loves to swim. One day we were talking with Betty and John, and Betty said she saw a to-do list on his desk that said, ‘Buy horse.’ He said he’d always wanted to ride horses. So he did. He’s just an infectiously interesting guy.”
Barfield attributes much of his success to lessons he learned in childhood, including the importance of giving back, whether it is time, expertise, or wealth. “As an African American, I believe it’s my responsibility to be an example to our young people,” he says. “The secret to a long and healthy life is caring for people and doing as much as you possibly can for others, especially those less fortunate. That’s what I’d like to be remembered for.”
John Barfield has given to numerous philanthropic projects and organizations.
“Mr. Barfield looks for opportunities to give back all the time,” says Brandon Marsh, a Dale Carnegie corporate trainer who has known him since childhood. Barfield advised Marsh on fundraising and provided a match to set up a $20,000 endowment for scholarships benefiting kids in Washtenaw County, Mich., through Marsh’s Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity. “I’ve learned more about business from him than from engineering school or business school,” Marsh says. “John Barfield has had so much impact on people. He inspired and motivated me. He molded me into a better leader. He teaches by example.”
Barfield joined the Rotary Club of Ypsilanti in the 1960s. “I became interested in what they were doing,” he says, “but when they announced the polio initiative in 1985, and the mission to eradicate the disease, I was just floored by that.” He remembered that the news of Jonas Salk’s polio vaccine had been announced at the University of Michigan in 1955. In 1995, Barfield challenged his club to raise enough money to immunize a million children in developing countries. In the end, it raised enough to vaccinate 497,000 children.
He approached The Rotary Foundation earlier this year with a proposal to help finish that challenge by donating $15 from the sale of each of his hardcover books. “I hope Rotarians will support it,” he says, “because if we can save another 500,000 children from polio, it would be a wonderful legacy to leave. That’s my dream.”
TO BUY THE BOOK Starting From Scratch: The Humble Beginnings of a Two Billion-Dollar Enterprise by John W. Barfield with Anthony Neely, use the promo code ROTARY at www.johnwbarfield.com.