By Lawrence Bivins
Across three generations, one aspect of the business culture at Barnhill Contracting Company has remained unchanged. “We fulfill our word,” says Allen Barnhill, senior vice president, who has been with the company for 40 years. “What we say we’re going to do, we do.”
Integrity lies at the heart of the company’s corporate values. The firm was founded in 1949 and currently employs 1,000 people across 12 North Carolina locations. “All employees are treated like family,” says Barnhill. “When an employee has a problem, we try to help.” The philosophy, while not simply the right thing to do, also makes strategic business sense. “Our employees feel that this is their company,” he adds. “They take ownership because of the way the family treats them.”
About 60 percent of the company’s work involves site infrastructure and highway construction. Among its first big projects was work on the Washington, D.C. beltway in the mid-1950s. More recently, Barnhill Contracting has built expressway bypasses in Bertie County, Wilmington and Goldsboro, and is now at work on similar projects in Greenville and Fayetteville.
Barnhill relies on a network of business partnerships, which its well-won reputation for integrity also helps foster. “We’ve been working with Barnhill for a long, long time,” says Randall Gattis, vice president of the bridge and heavy construction division at Sanford Construction Company in Sanford, N.C. The two firms share projects opportunities and more. “If Barnhill has a piece of equipment that would help us solve a problem, they’ll gladly go get it,” Gattis says. “And we’d do the same for them.”
Barnhill and Sanford often team up together on design/build projects. “We’ve been very successful with that,” says Gattis, who has worked in the construction industry for 40 years. “They have a high demand for quality, and so do we.” Longtime professional relationships – and often personal friendships -- between personnel at the two companies form the fabric of the
partnership. “They know our people, and we know theirs,” he says. Gattis calls his collaboration with Barnhill Contracting “the pinnacle” of his career. “They’re that good.”
School buildings, public facilities and arts complexes account for the rest of Barnhill Contracting Company’s work. The firm is constructing the Steven Tanger Center, a 105,000-sq.-ft. performing arts center featuring a 3,000-seat theatre in Greensboro developed through a partnership between the city and private donors. The $58 million facility is expected to open in early 2020. Barnhill is also at work on the Rocky Mount Event Center, a 177,600-sq.-ft. field house and community center set to open later this year. The company’s portfolio also includes K-12 and higher education buildings, renewable fuel facilities, mixed-use complexes and multi-unit residential projects. Barnhill’s footprint extends across the Carolinas, Virginia and elsewhere in the South.
Rob Barnhill, president of the company his grandfather founded, says about 40 employees work out of the firm’s Rocky Mount headquarters. The number includes executive-level personnel, human resource officers, administrative employees, estimators and project managers. Barnhill’s Highway Group and Grading and Paving Group each are based there. “Our best success is hiring people who are already from the area,” Barnhill says. “More and more, the folks we try to hire from outside are open to the idea of moving to the area.”
Barnhill is encouraged by the renewed vibrancy he sees and feels taking place in Rocky Mount. “There’s momentum building,” he says. The re-development of the historic Rocky Mount Mills into a regional destination for businesses, residents and visitors has captured the imagination of the millennial generation. “There’s definitely a sense that younger people are moving back,” says Barnhill. News of a coming $86 million Corning distribution center and Triangle Tire’s 800-job manufacturing plant has drawn global attention to the area. “The publicity has helped,” he says.
And there is equally meaningful progress that has escaped major headlines. Southern Bank’s new 18,000-sq.-ft. presence in downtown Rocky Mount houses mortgage operations and a call center, in addition to one of the bank’s largest branches. Not far away, a $13 million Biotechnology and Medical Simulation Center at Edgecombe Community College’s Rocky Mount campus is drawing more than 1,200 students from around North Carolina annually. Even the opening of a new Starbucks coffee house, the city’s first, is evidence of a sea-change for the Twin Counties.
“All of these things are helping our recruitment,” says Barnhill, who is a longtime member of the board of directors at Carolinas Gateway Partnership. “There’s a lot of building, and it feels good.”
[Lawrence Bivins is a Raleigh-based contributing editor at the North Carolina Economic Development Guide.]