Contractor of the Year Finalist: Bruce Barnes

Driving his red pick-up between site prep jobs on the scrub prairies of east central Texas, where distance is measured in time, not miles, Bruce Barnes doesn’t look like a music teacher.

Taking a lesson
The son of a career Navy man, Barnes had the opportunity to attend the Naval Academy but instead went to college in Dallas for several years with the intention of becoming a music theory professor. He put that plan aside, however, when he discovered music teachers earned about $11,000 a year in the late ’60s. After touring Europe for two years performing with “Up With People,” he started a small residential painting and renovation business with a college friend, naming the company BG Construction – ‘B’ for Bruce and ‘G’ for his partner Glenn. Eventually Glenn moved on to another career and Barnes took a job with Brown and Root – but held on to his company’s name.

His first duty with Brown and Root was digging manholes by hand 40 feet down under the hot Texas summer sun. Barnes now wryly notes that this gave him the opportunity to start at less than the ground up. He seized every opportunity to learn from his supervisors about the job at hand. As he became proficient at each task, he’d asked for the chance to move up. Barnes’ appreciation of the math in music gave him a natural understanding of engineering, and he soon found he could mentally calculate and design solutions to construction obstacles. Barnes quickly mastered his “field studies.”

In 1980, Barnes breathed new life into BG Construction. With help from his wife Sharon, Barnes started doing larger renovation jobs and he began to specialize in structural concrete work. BG Construction now provides site prep services for a local surface coal mine. Subbing with Russell & Sons, Barnes constructs tricky concrete slopes for pond inlets and spillways on water reclamation projects and has a reputation for doing complex concrete engineering jobs well. Barnes also designs and builds custom flood control gates as required for each project. He might tell you he does the jobs the other contractors don’t want to tackle.

BG Construction’s current projects include site prep services for a coal mine that will generate power for east central Texas. Part of the job includes building a railroad spur to connect the mine to the main rail line and BG Construction is laying huge concrete culverts and pipe under what will be the rail and road beds. Barnes anticipates this project will last several more years. The difference between the remodeling jobs he started with and the jobs he does now? “One has crown molding, the other is diesel and dirt,” says Barnes.

Ethics and equipment
BG Construction works closely with Russell & Sons, their handshake agreement lasting more than 20 years. Barnes’s reputation in the area is sterling. Mark Russell of Russell & Sons says, “If Barnes tells me he’s going to do something, he makes it happen.”

“He’s always in a good mood, treats everyone with respect and when he comes in the door, everyone wants to wait on him,” says Danny Rogers of Dowden Supply. “Barnes plans ahead and on the rare occasions he’s in a bind, we jump through hoops to help him. You won’t find a better guy.”

Dub Floyd with dealer Holt Cat simply calls Barnes, “outstanding.”

Like other contractors in his area, Barnes says finding qualified employees is a challenge. When he hires new people, he tries to cross-train them so they can be promoted within the company. Immigration issues can make hiring more complicated, and Barnes works hard to make sure his employees are treated fairly.

Barnes buys the equipment he uses daily and leases machines he uses less frequently, and stays true to his brand of yellow iron. By simplifying what he owns and what he rents, Barnes keeps tight control over maintenance, service and replacement costs. Since he bids his jobs by the hour, knowing exactly what each machine costs to run is a crucial part of how he determines his costs.

Barnes has perfected an efficient pipe-laying plate excavator attachment that falls into the why-didn’t-I-think-of-that category.

He’s built a set of half-circle 1-inch-thick steel plates, ranging from 4 to 12 feet across, with a simple connector that holds the plates flat across the mouth of an excavator bucket. The operator extends and lowers the excavator arm, digging into the ground and dragging the dirt towards him, leaving a tightly packed, curved ditch that is cut to size to fit the pipe. Once the pipe is put in place, a dozer backfills the soil just pushed aside, filling in the small space between the pipe and the ditch. Barnes says that because the pipe lies in a solid and stable trench, the seams between pipes are much more secure and less prone to shifting and leaking. “An engineer we worked with dreamed it up and when he first told me about it I thought he was nuts,” Barnes says. “Now, it’s the only way we install corrugated metal pipe.”

Roof tops and debutants
BG Construction now has 12 employees and does more than $2 million in business annually. Barnes and Sharon run the company from their home office and Barnes credits Sharon with being his greatest asset. Sharon also directs the Marshall debutant program but has been known to shingle roofs with Barnes when money was tight in the early years. They have four daughters, seven grandchildren and are reluctant empty-nesters.

When Barnes’s college friend left to pursue another career, Barnes kept the ‘G’ in BG Construction’s name. “Now it stands for Bruce and God. We’ve been blessed beyond anything we could have dreamed,” says Barnes.