This week I was walking through Magnuson Park along Lake Washington in Seattle, when I came upon some heavy equipment – really heavy equipment – marked “Barnhart”. The largest vehicle there carried a crane capable of lifting 550 tons; that’s roughly equivalent of 275 of my Toyotas, or the weight of two of the largest train locomotives in service today. What is this Barnhart company?
Owner and President Alan Barnhart tells it this way. “It is God’s story and how he uses ordinary people,” and how a “mom and pop operation” working out of the family garage become one of the country’s largest companies known for “picking up and moving heavy things”.
All of us who are followers of Jesus are in full-time ministry
Alan and brother/partner Eric grew up in a Christian home in Memphis, TN and attended a church which believed in the Great Commission. Fellow believers saw that Alan loved Jesus and wanted to follow him, so the default response was that he should “go into full-time ministry”. But early on, by God’s grace and providence, Alan discovered that he was gifted more in business and engineering than in preaching and teaching. It propelled him to the truth that “all of us who are followers of Jesus are in full-time ministry.”
As the brothers assumed ownership of the company from their dad and things began to prosper 1, Alan and his wife, Katherine decided they must study the Bible to understand what it said about money. He came to realize that everything they had comes from God and they are stewards of it all; and they learned to “fear wealth”, because Jesus said it was hard for rich people to enter the kingdom of heaven and Paul said you can take nothing with you when you die.2 Three safeguards were put in place and have guided the two families since then, and are instructive for all entrepreneurs and business owners:
- God owns the business; it does not belong to us but we are stewards of it.
- They set a lifestyle and salary cap (for them this meant they set their salaries at the mean salary of middle class members of the Sunday School class at church).
- Accountability was put into place so that they maintained adherence to the above and put the fruits of the labors into advancing the kingdom of God.
The Barnhart brothers are known for growing a company with excellence of service, commitment to giving, and evident obedience to God’s word. Says, Alan, “…the alternative to consumption is kingdom living.” He uses a military metaphor to explain that “the army cook should not eat better than the troops.” As the company routinely gave away over half of their income to advance the kingdom (as much as $1 million per month), the blessing of God just increased. Today they still operate and grow the business but 100% of it is in a charitable trust.
And their kids did not grow up as rich kids for which the adult children are grateful to their parents today. Alan likes to use tool and toy terminology. A toy is something we would buy for our own pleasure, comfort or fun. A tool is something we buy that God can use in His service.
Tools not toys
As a family, they try to minimize the investment in toys and maximize the investment in tools. One example of an investment is the international travel they have done as a family with the result that their children have seen the needs of the world and what God is doing in other cultures. To them an inheritance for the children is faith, education, abilities and motivation.
The moral of the story for all entrepreneurs and business owners is not the details but the Barnhart principles of stewardship, a lifestyle cap and the appropriate accountability.
1 The company grew 25% a year for 23 years in the 80s and 90s and today is valued at over $250 million and has over 1,000 employees in the US.
2 Matthew 19:23; I Timothy 6:7
Larry Sharp, Director of Training, IBEC Ventures