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Barry Family Engineers Firm That Stands Time’s Test

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Bob Barry decided a decade ago to emphasize more family values at his dozen-employee firm, John Barry & Associates.

“If someone’s got a situation in their family, we’ll cover for them. If someone’s been with us for a couple of months and there is this important wedding and he or she doesn’t have vacation built up, go for it,” Bob said during an interview in his office.

“I think the whole concept of a family feel is a big part of our success.”

John Barry & Associates is a 64-year-old industrial engineering firm in a nondescript two-story building on Newport Boulevard next to Mama D’s Italian Kitchen on Balboa Peninsula in Newport Beach. It specializes in improving manufacturing processes, helping companies move, and sometimes both—“improve while you move,” Bob quipped.

“There is an interest when you’re moving to a new building to take a clean sheet of paper for a brand-new look at your systems to see how you can improve.”

The cost for his firm’s services ranges from $2 to $3 a square foot, depending on the complexity. The job can be as complicated as moving 600 people and 400 pieces of equipment with minimal downtime. In recent years, it’s picked up businesses affected by eminent domain seizures for the expansion of the (I-5) Freeway.

The firm’s clients include small companies and well-known ones, including Titleist, Hughes Aircraft and Disneyland Resort. One past client is Irvine-based Taco Bell, which Bob helped boost service in the 1980s by 15 to 18 meals per peak hour.

“If they can serve people faster, that maximizes their volume,” he said. “A lot of work we do is the speed of throughput, whether you’re making tacos or plastic parts or popcorn. We apply proven industrial engineering practices.”

The Engineering Boys

Bob traces the firm’s roots to his grandfather, Emmett David, who moved from Akron, Ohio, to Southern California in the 1930s, raising five boys here.

“My grandfather told the five boys they could study anything in college, as long it was engineering,” Bob said. “One broke the rules and became a Catholic priest. My grandfather was happy with that.”

His grandfather emphasized engineering because he believed it would be “a popular and fruitful career.” The four boys attended schools like CalTech, MIT and the University of California-Berkeley, each starting his own management consulting engineering firm with a variation of the Barry name.

“Sometimes we would compete against each other, and sometimes work with each other,” Bob said. “The consulting is in the blood.”

John, who was teaching at the University of California-Los Angeles and Loyola Marymount, began his consulting business in 1954, setting up shop in Newport Beach.

“A number of people thought he was crazy,” Bob said. “Back then, most of the work was in Los Angeles and Pasadena.”

John so loved the ocean lifestyle that included sailing that Catalina Island became a second home. The family bought lots of land on Lido Island when it was only a third built out. Bob said, “Real estate wise, it was brilliant” to move to Newport Beach.

All five of John’s children, three boys and two girls, with Bob in the middle, worked at the family business off and on while growing up. Bob remembers using drafting boards and hand-cranking the mimeograph machine. He began consulting while a student at UCLA and said he’s “always loved the business.”

“I’ve enjoyed the variety of work, the different companies, the manufacturing,” he said. “It’s fascinating how people will take an idea and run with it.”

John would take each of the children on business trips, which Bob recalled as special “one-on-one time.”

“My dad always had a philosophy that if you liked it and did it well, he’d embrace you. He also thought that we all should do what we have passion for.”

The boys’ two sisters weren’t interested in engineering, instead gravitating to banking. Nancy attended Stanford and Harvard Business School and eventually became an expert on microlending at World Bank. Susie Baggott worked for Citibank, and brother David is now a circuit board manufacturing executive at Flex Ltd.

Bob and Ted

Only Bob and Ted stayed in the family business, which sometimes goes by JBA. Bob and his wife, Roberta, own the company after buying out the others’ shares. The couple handle sales while Ted designs new factories and oversees move management.

“Ted is the best I’ve ever seen in move management,” Bob said. “He’s a roll-up-your-sleeves guy. He’s designed millions of square feet of space.”

Bob said a successful family business requires a disciplined plan that compensates family members for the work they contribute. If a particular skill isn’t in their repertoire, the family should feel comfortable enough to hire an outsider, he said.

Nowadays, Bob teaches industrial engineering part time at the University of San Diego and is helping Chapman University develop its engineering program. Time will tell if the couple’s two children take over the business or if they sell it to employees or an outsider. While John and his wife, Lorna, are now gone, it’s clear they left behind a family legacy.

“Their focus was for the five of us to stay close, no matter what,” Bob said. “We’ve done that. We’re good friends.”

Peter J. Brennan
Peter J. Brennan
Peter J. Brennan has been a journalist for 40 years. He spent a decade in Latin America covering wars, narcotic traffickers, earthquakes, and business. His resume includes 15 years at Bloomberg News where his headlines and articles sometimes moved the market caps of companies he covered by hundreds of millions of dollars. His articles have been published worldwide, including the New York Times and the Washington Post; he's appeared on CNN, CBC, BBC, and Bloomberg TV. He was awarded a Kiplinger Fellowship at The Ohio State University.

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