In 1979, when Chuck and Terry Barebo purchased Otterbine Aerators in Emmaus, Pennsylvania, the company was losing money. However, they had a goal in mind. They wanted to create a company that might one day become a family business.
With this goal in mind, they devised a five-year plan to make this pond and lake aeration/fountain business profitable, so that all three of their children could be part of a thriving business.
Then it was time for them to retire, though, they didn’t want to just toss the company keys to their kids, get in their Winnebago, and drive off into the sunset.
Carla Barebo-Ott, the youngest of the Barebo children and vice president of sales and marketing, started working for the company when she was only 13. “Our parents got us involved in as many facets of the business as they could, from marketing to accounting to manufacturing to packing parts,” she says. Middle sibling, Chris, president of the company, says he started out as a janitor, then moved to shipping and receiving, and finally into manufacturing. Older brother, Charlie, Barebo’s current CEO, says that he never thought he’d be working in the business.
You see, Charlie had other dreams. Attending the University of Utah on a music scholarship, Charlie thought he would be a professional musician. It shouldn’t have been a surprise to their parents, since Chuck had been a gospel singer in a quartet; Terry also sang and played the piano. Charlie played baritone sax with several bands, and even played in touring bands for Chuck Maggione and Aretha Franklin. At one point, all three Barebo siblings were in a band called the Set Backs, with Chris on guitar, Charlie on sax, and Carla as vocalist. Chris and Charlie eventually formed their own bands. Chris’ band, the Vultures, cut a CD and toured out of Boston until the family business really started to expand. Charlie’s band, Vital Link, opened for Chick Corea and Spiro Gyra.
As Chris and Carla finished college, jobs in their fields were scarce, but the family business was growing. Each took on duties with the company, but never in any privileged, entitled positions. They both worked in field sales, and moved into other areas of the company as their business acumen improved. Chris created a unique vendor rating system, the first computerized inventory system for the company, and took over as vice president of manufacturing, earning a master’s degree in marketing and management along the way. In 2001, he became company president. Carla took over marketing and sales, and like Chris, earned an advanced degree in marketing.
Charlie came off the road and got a graduate degree in business and finance. He laid the groundwork for the domestic and international distribution network. He continues to manage and grow the international division. His greatest challenge, he says, has been dealing with and understanding the different cultures.
Though Chuck and Terry sit on the board of directors, they are content to remain on the sidelines, and let their children lead. Carla says, though, that she and her brothers look to their parents as advisors, taking advantage of their vast experience.
The siblings have worked out a unique leadership plan for the business. Though they each have a title, they share autonomy in the business and report to one another. Eventually, each of them will take the position of president.
Through it all, they are taking the company into a new era, and offering inventive ways to meet their employees’ needs. “You have to play as hard as you work,” Chris says. Employees are not only offered great benefits, but have some say in workplace activities by being part of the Fun Committee. This committee arranges workday events periodically that help build team spirit. Last year, the Fun Committee offered turkey bowling (with frozen turkeys as bowling balls) and baby picture contests. “We are a family business,” Chris adds, “for the 32 people and their families who work here.”
The Barebos are all married, but Charlie is the only one who has children: two, ages three and five. They all work hard together, but manage to take time to do things they love. Carla likes to explore roads less taken on her Harley-Davidson 888 Sports Hugger. Charlie feels strongly about giving back to the community in which he lives, and passes along his business skills to Junior Achievement students in his free time. Chris’ passion is skiing and he tries to get his siblings together for a ski trip or two whenever they can all be away from the business at the same time. And their musical interests aren’t totally in mothballs; they do get together every Christmas to give a concert at an assisted-living facility.
It’s not too often that a company can boast its leaders all have soul.