ocean_lighthouse.jpg

Get The Weekly Bancroft & Annual Newsletter delivered straight to your inbox!



Barber Foods unique Maine firm that still needed outside help

The economic situation made a sale now look like the best long-term solution.

I don't know about you, but I was a little sad to see the announcement that Barber Foods had been sold to a Midwest group called AdvancePierre Foods. My memories of Barber Foods go back all the way to the company's earliest days.

As a kid growing up in Cape Elizabeth, I knew the company's founder, Gus Barber, as a friend of my dad's. Many Saturday mornings my dad and I would venture into the small storefront on Commercial Street, then called Barber Beef, to chat with Gus and his right-hand man, Mr. Humpy.

I never knew Humpy's real name. He was simply Humpy to all who knew him. He was legendary for his skills with a knife and his gruff personality – though he was invariably kind to kids, I am happy to report.

Gus Barber was one of the nicest men this cub reporter ever met. He was also, apparently, an excellent businessman with an instinct for creating opportunity.

Gus saw the opportunity to add chicken products early-on and, over time, with the help of his two sons and two daughters, turned the two-man shop into Barber Foods, employing more than 700 people and becoming one of the great success stories of Maine business.

Barber Foods has been much more than a successful business in southern Maine.

It has been a company that has embraced Maine's immigrant community, now employing more than 61 nationalities.

As part of this commitment, Barber Foods provides exemplary education opportunities for its employees, offering everything from English as a second language to college courses through an affiliation with the Southern Maine Technical College.

The company has given many from the Somali and Sudanese refugee community their start in Maine, and the success of several of these men and women has been nothing short of inspiring.

In addition, the company has been very supportive of community non-profits both through corporate donations and by the active participation of Barber Foods employees.

In short, Barber Foods has been a model business, providing the kind of manufacturing employment that is vital to a community like Greater Portland at a time when sustaining manufacturing of any kind in Maine has been an enormous challenge.

We are thankful to the Barber family for shaping this legacy and hopeful that key elements of it will survive the transition to the new owners.

The food service business is highly competitive. Who knows whether Barber Foods could have continued to compete successfully as a relatively small company for the national stage?

Clearly, company leadership made the determination that the better bet was to combine with AdvancePierre. Let us hope they are right.

AdvancePierre has stated they will invest in the facility here in Portland. That is a good sign, though only time will tell whether they deliver on these promises. Moreover, we know from the comments of David Barber, Barber Foods' current CEO, that some layoffs from the consolidation with AdvancePierre are inevitable.

Looking at the history of AdvancePierre, there is reason for both hope and concern. The company was formed only about a year ago from the combination of three separate and somewhat disparate food service companies. It is owned by Oak Tree Capital, a large private equity firm out of Los Angeles.

As I have a close working relationship with a (smaller) private equity firm in San Francisco, I have a good sense of the Oak Tree strategy – to acquire a series of small, preferably family-owned, food service businesses and build a national company of size and scale.

This approach can be successful if indeed the business combinations make sense and the company leadership is good. In the case of AdvancePierre it is clearly too early to tell how well this will all work out. Barber Foods has a strong franchise; hopefully, AdvancePierre will be smart enough to continue to grow and strengthen it.

This is, for me, a bittersweet moment. This kind of acquisition may well be the only way to ensure that something of Gus Barber's legacy lives on.

However, we in Maine will have lost something because the culture and focus of the new company will inevitably change. We have seen it before in the acquisition of Hannaford Foods, BankNorth, Tom's of Maine and several other good Maine companies.

The American free market system is relentless in consolidating smaller regional companies. Over the long run, our hope as a small state depends on encouraging the next generation of Gus Barbers to keep that quirky strand of hardy Maine entrepreneurs alive.

Gus and Humpy are gone, but we will remember their legacy.