Alan Barkman joined the family business as a forklift driver at 22. That was in 1976 in Steinbach, Man., on the outskirts of Winnipeg, and Barkman Concrete Ltd. looked almost nothing like it does now. Working at his family’s company was “a no-brainer,” says the now-president. “Plus, I didn’t know what else to do.”
The company had been a plumbing and heating business since its founding by three brothers in 1948. When local sewers needed septic tanks, they saw an opportunity and took it. “The older brother had the idea of pre-casting the tanks, and from there grew the concrete company.”
The first thing to know about concrete is that it’s not cement, laughs Barkman, clearly not explaining this for the first time. “Cement is dry and you can buy your own bag at Home Depot. Concrete is cement plus water, gravel, pigment and a number of other things.” Barkman Concrete pre-casts slabs for sidewalks, steps, landscaping, slated flooring, benches and stone veneers. They also get creative with kits to build outdoor kitchens, pizza ovens and even skate parks (for the dozen or so years when they were in vogue).
“Our strategy is to grow both by product offerings and geographically,” says Barkman. The second half of that focus is an obvious choice, considering that Steinbach, the province’s third-largest city, only has a population of about 15,000. To remain profitable, Barkman Concrete must sell more and further—throughout Canada and the United States, and even as far away as Madagascar.
To grow to its current size of more than 250 employees at three locations, Alan Barkman had to rethink the family model. “My father was the hub running the whole place,” he says. “But one person is limited by their own energy, time, mobility, intelligence. To spread the load out, you have to let the team itself be the hub.”
So when the junior Barkman became president in 1996, he began building an executive team to replace him. “My philosophy is it’s never one man’s strategy, it’s always a team effort.” He includes a GM and director of sales on this team, yes, but also the employees at entry level. “We push decision-making as far down the chain as possible to the people who actually know the situation. That’s how you get people engaged.”
And with his free time, Barkman has formed the Concrete Producers Alliance, a technology exchange that connects similar businesses in Switzerland, Germany, Spain and, soon, South Korea. “We talk about process, products, marketing, innovations, profitability. Sometimes we even share moulds.” For concrete, not cement.