Barton Malow Heritage: 1935-1944
Barton Malow’s assets in 1935 were $34,000, and revenues were $226,000. It seems incredible that earnings were $1,000. Being in the black provided a vote of confidence for the management. The client list included Rockne Motor Corporation, Studebaker Corporation, McKesson Corporation, Statler Hotel, Kroger Company, Linde Air Products, Sears and Roebuck Company, Westinghouse, and Minnesota Mining.
Diversification was necessary to sustain growth so we pursued new clientele such as utility and insurance companies, food processing plants as well as many service organizations.
By 1937 the Company had completed over 2,200 contracts and amazingly, a volume of $1,258,000 was achieved. Dividends of $15,000 were paid to the stockholders. The Company not only survived the Depression, but actually grew.
In 1938, I was fortunate enough to be employed by the C.F. Smith Grocery chain working afternoons, evenings and Saturdays while attending high school. That summer I was hired by Barton Malow Company as a laborer, engineer, timekeeper, and general handyman on tank foundations for Firestone Rubber in Trenton, Michigan. The Company's offices at the time were at 1900 East Jefferson in Detroit. My wages of 60 cents an hour were a nice increase for the $14 a week I had been receiving in the grocery store as the assistant manager. The Company was nonunion so there were no jurisdictional boundaries, and if one were to excel, you did whatever you could, as jobs were still quite scarce.
I went to night school to receive my high school diploma and enrolled in an estimating course sponsored by the Builders and Traders in the Penobscot Building. It was a busy program, but one that I enjoyed.
The Company always had a reputation of earning repeat business, which expanded our client list to include Gulf Refining Company, General Electric Corporation, Kelsey Hayes Manufacturers, National Bank and many others.
The Detroit Tigers played at Navin Field. Charles Navin, the team owner, was so delighted with our handling of the project at the ballpark that he engaged the firm to repair an incinerator at his residence.
The Company employed an Italian immigrant laborer by the name of Orazio Rea, who very conscientiously chided me one day while I was wheeling brick on a plank runway with a steel wheeled wheelbarrow. He advised me never to become proficient in this task. He said if I got too good at it, I would be doing it for the rest of my life.
Orazio continued to work for Barton Malow for many years until his retirement. He was one of the many reliable employees who worked most or all of their career for the firm. Today we have many third and fourth generation employees.
The construction industry was different in this era. General contractors employed all of the basic trades; laborers, carpenters, brick layers, cement finishers, rod busters, operating engineers, and in our instance, painters, iron workers, millwrights, riggers, and other trades that composed the building industry. For the most part, subcontractors that were employed by the general contractor consisted of electrical, mechanical, plastering, and other specialty trades. It was a rare exception when the owner would award separate contracts for the various phases of the project.
When World War II broke out, everything changed dramatically. To avoid the draft into the military, many young men went to the defense plants to work on manufacturing with the hope of getting a deferred status.
Throughout the industry there was a shortage of good mechanics and carpenters since so many men were in the military. Mostly everyone worked excessive overtime.
Around this time the Company unionized, like many firms in the Detroit area. I joined the carpenters union as an apprentice. I was such a poor carpenter, that within a year I was made a foreman. I guess they figured I’d do less damage directing work than actually doing it!
When I was 20, C.O. gave me an opportunity to run my own job, an addition to Garwood Industries in Wayne, Michigan. Fortunately, experienced men like Rea and others came to my support and really carried me through.
At the end of the project, I went to see the owner’s representative. He asked me how old I was and I told him. He said he thought I was young but was afraid to ask. The job was profitable, and the owner was happy. I shudder to think of the responsibility I had at such an early age.