Robert Chapman pushes Barry-Wehmiller to gain yardage through both organic growth and acquisitions Featured

4:00am EDT September 30, 2013
Robert Chapman, chairman and CEO, Barry-Wehmiller Cos. Inc. Robert Chapman, chairman and CEO, Barry-Wehmiller Cos. Inc.

Robert Chapman has always been intrigued by the game of business, so to speak. At the highest level of that game is the ability to blend both organic growth initiatives with successful acquisitions to create a stronger organization. Chapman takes that blending further and ensures that his company emphasizes people, purpose and performance.

Chapman is chairman and CEO of Barry-Wehmiller Cos. Inc., a 7,000-employee, more than $1.5 billion global supplier of manufacturing equipment and services. In 2012 the company made four acquisitions and plans to do several more throughout 2013.

“We’ve been very purposeful in looking for companies which align with our value propositions,” Chapman says. “Most people look for great management and great industries. We look for companies that face issues or have opportunities that align with our experiences.”

Chapman is combining those acquisition efforts with organic growth initiatives to help create value for the company and its customers. He relates what Barry-Wehmiller has to what great sports teams do on the field.

“When sports teams go out and execute play patterns, and it almost looks easy, it’s because everybody knows their position and what they’re trying to do relative to the defense and how they’re going to advance the ball for either short-term gain or long-term gain,” Chapman says. “Our goal in our organization is to have play patterns, or strategies that allow us to create value and that everybody knows and embraces their role in that vision.”

Here’s how Chapman keeps Barry-Wehmiller ahead of the game in business.


Have a growth strategy

Beginning about 10 years ago, Barry-Wehmiller began a leadership process it calls visioning, which was an alternative to traditional budgeting and the incremental thought process.

“About 10 years ago we said to one of our divisions that was involved in this incremental budgeting, ‘What if the future was only limited to our ability to recruit and integrate competent people into a good business model? What would it look like?’” Chapman says. “That opened up a whole new way of thinking.”

The company thought it could grow at almost 10 percent a year if that were the case.

“It led to a thought process, this visioning process of where are you going, why do you want to go there, and when you get there, what will you have created of sustainable value,” he says. “That division went from modest growth to significant growth because the division began visioning their future as opposed to budgeting their year. That’s a transformation that’s occurred in the last 10 years that every year we get better and better at creating long-term goals three years out.”

That thinking has allowed Barry-Wehmiller to focus on a three-year horizon for each of its nine business units.

“It’s a very reflective, thoughtful learning process to try to continually envision,” Chapman says. “It’s created this organic growth vitality that’s combined with our acquisitions, because it includes visualizing companies that you’d like to acquire to improve the balance of your business.”

Visioning has accelerated in the last few years and the company is now in the flow of that way of thinking.

“It’s not what are you going to do this quarter or the next six months — it’s where are you going, why do you want to go there, and what have you learned that will help make the future better,” he says. “We share that with everybody. That visioning process allows for a very purposeful, focused organization that understands where they’re going.”

The second aspect the company adds to visioning is something it calls people, purpose and performance. It starts with a fundamental concept that the company’s primary focus is on the lives entrusted to Barry-Wehmiller every day.

“Are we good stewards of the 7,000 lives entrusted to us every day to help us achieve a common purpose?” Chapman says. “Is our purpose something that we can share that will inspire people to fully share their gifts? It’s all about gathering people around an inspiring purpose and then we’ve got to perform and create value.

“Each one of those is interdependent. People are not going to share their gifts with us unless they’re inspired, and unless we perform we can’t afford to be good stewards of the lives entrusted to us.”


Find the perfect acquisition

One way Barry-Wehmiller ensures it’s a good steward of the lives entrusted to it, is by increasing performance and growth through strong acquisitions.

“Acquisitions are part of our DNA,” Chapman says. “Our business at more than $1.5 billion is a combination of more than 60 acquisitions. The initial 15 years our growth was fueled by the brute force of acquisition. The last 10 years has been fueled by our focus on being good stewards and allowing people to share their gifts and rewarding people for doing so.

“The game of business is played at the highest level when you can do both organic growth and acquisition growth and blend them together. You have to be very disciplined in terms of making a responsible investment and see how bringing two organizations together makes both of them better.”

Over the past 25 years, Barry-Wehmiller hasn’t sold any of its companies.

“It’s probably one of the few cases that anybody can say that,” he says. “It’s like adopting children and then getting rid of them if they get to be better kids. Why would you sell a business if it’s a good business? If it’s a bad business, why would you pay somebody else to fix it? Why don’t you fix it?

“We’ve never even entertained selling a business, and that’s why when we have the chance to acquire a company, people feel the confidence that they’re a part of an organization that wants them, and they’ll be a part of that for the indefinite future.”

Chapman says the key to a successful acquisition is knowing whether you’re making the right investment up front.

“You have to be very purposeful in what you look for and make sure that with the investment you make, you clearly see how you’re going to make it financially meet the criteria your investors expect,” he says. “Make sure you clearly see the path to get that return because for people who make investments that don’t meet criteria, it becomes demoralizing. Again, you have to have a vision where you’re going, why you want to go there, and why when you get there, you’ll have something that’s sustainable in the future.”

Once you acquire a company you have to remain disciplined to realize the potential you saw in that acquisition.

“Being disciplined means you’re going to pass on a lot of deals, but you have to have that discipline,” Chapman says.

“You also have to make sure that the team you lead is committed to that value creation initiative. There is a pretty high failure rate for acquisitions, which is not a good thing for the investment of shareholder funds. A lot of people don’t have good discipline.”

Despite a large number of acquisitions not panning out for many organizations, the acquisition process is very exciting.

“Nobody likes to be acquired, but everybody loves to acquire somebody else,” he says. “It’s motivational, and it’s a great professional challenge. When I started doing acquisitions in 1984, I did it during a time when the company was financially thin and therefore I couldn’t afford to fail.

“I didn’t have the luxury of saying, ‘Whoops, that didn’t work out, isn’t that a shame?’ If it didn’t work out I died. We were that thin. I began doing acquisitions when failure was death, so our DNA of acquisitions is don’t do them unless you know they are going to be successful.”


Human leadership

While Barry-Wehmiller was driven early on by a strong value-creating business strategy, in recent years that success has been enhanced by grasping the significance of the cultural impact business makes on people’s lives.

“You have to focus on the people in harmony with the vision so that we are creating value for all stakeholders and not just shareholders,” Chapman says. “We are taught in business school and in the business environment that people are necessary to achieve our goals. The way it should be looked at is along our journey of life we have the chance to invite people to join us to create something of significance that creates value for everybody.”

Leadership is the profound sense of responsibility over the lives to which you have an impact in your role.

“You have to see those people as somebody’s precious child who wants a life of meaning and significance, and you have a chance to give them that by the way you treat them in the environment of the work,” he says. “Eighty-eight percent of people feel they work for a company that doesn’t care about them and they’re right. You have to look at the people that you invite to join you as if they are your own children.

“Barry-Wehmiller is being recognized more every day as a unique, powerful business model that we evolved through this eclectic journey we’ve been on and it is going to encourage others to embrace human leadership.”



  • Have a growth strategy to know where your company is going.
  • Combine organic growth with acquisitions.
  • Treat employees well so they in-turn perform well for the company..


The Chapman File

Name: Robert Chapman

Title: Chairman and CEO

Company: Barry-Wehmiller Cos. Inc.


Born: St. Louis


Education: He attended Indiana University and received a bachelor’s degree in accounting. He received a master’s degree in business administration from the University of Michigan.


About business: Business ignited my mind. I fell in love with business as a game.


What was your first job, and what did you learn from that experience?

My first job was working at Combustion Engineering in the Boilermakers Union in St. Louis. I had to join the union and work in the plant as a welder’s helper. Being in that culture I learned how people think and what it was like to punch a time card and be told what to do every day. It was an incredible experience to work in the production environment.


What is the best business advice you’ve received?

In 1982 and 1983 our senior director was a man named Bob Lanigan. We had to make tough decisions because the company was fragile financially and under tremendous stress and Bob used this analogy that I’ve used for years. He said, ‘When you’re in a DC-3 airplane and you’re trying to go out west, and you’re coming toward the Rocky Mountains and your pilots say to you, “Team we need to cross the Rocky Mountains but we’re losing altitude and unless we drop some weight, we’re not going to clear the mountains.” In an environment where you’re going to die unless you lose some weight, your priorities are not very clear. When it’s clear that you want to end up clearing the mountains, your priorities become clear.’ That clarity of thought caused us to prioritize what was important and what wasn’t important.


If you had the opportunity to invite any three people to dinner, who would you invite?

Jesus Christ, Ronald Reagan and Ken Blanchard.


How to reach: Barry-Wehmiller Cos. Inc., (314) 862-8000 or

Twitter: @BarryWehmiller