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How & Why I Gave My Business To God with Alan Barnhart

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This episode of Bottom Line Faith features Alan Barnhart, President and CEO of Barnhart Crane and Rigging Co.

“We’re going to some really hard places and meeting some amazing brothers and sisters in Christ, who are — they’re more committed than we are, they’re more Godly than we are. They’re amazing people. And we get to be a small part of their work by contributing some financial capital, and that has been a life-changer for our folks. “

Full Transcript of Podcast Below

Ray: Well, hello, everyone. This is Ray Hilbert at Bottom Line Faith and this is the program where we look into the engine of Christian Leadership, and we have the opportunity to tinker around in with Christian leaders, their mindsets on leadership, how they lead, how they live, how they succeed, and how they fail. And as you know, if you’re a regular listener to our program here, we have had the incredible opportunity to interview some amazing Christian business and marketplace leaders from coast to coast, and today is going to be no different. We have an incredible guest, Mr. Alan Barnhart, the President and CEO at Barnhart Crane and Rigging Company in Memphis, Tennessee, and Alan thanks for agreeing to spend some time with us and welcome to the show.

Alan: Oh, my pleasure!

Ray: And Alan, we’re gonna we’re going to learn about your story. We’re going to learn about principles and successes, and you’ve done some amazingly unique things with the company here. We’re going to get to all that. But just take a moment and share with our audience what your company does. And then we’ll get to the personal side of things.

Alan: Well, great. We we basically pick up and move heavy stuff. So we do that. We have 40 branches around the U.S. and we work mostly in heavy industry. A lot in the power industry. We put up wind turbines, we do a lot of work in the nuclear power plants. A lot of work and oil refineries and steel mills. So mostly, it’s heavy industrial lifting.

Ray: So I live in Central Indiana. So just north of Lafayette, are these just countless wind turbines, might your equipment put all that together?

Alan: Yes, we put up wind turbines in probably 25 states. So we’ve, it could be.

Ray: Could be. Very good. Always know, it’s a rainy, real windy day when I drive by when they’re turned off, because we don’t want those things flying off those poles. So that is great. And give us a little bit of history on the on the on the business here.

Alan: Great. My mom and dad started the business back in 1969 with a pickup truck and a ladder and a welding machine. And they operated the business for about 17 years out of our international corporate headquarters was two bedrooms of our home that I grew up in. And it was very much a mom and pop business. And they wanted to keep it very small and controlled. And so that was that was the start of the business.

Ray: And you you said before, before we begin this interview, you said you have a really boring resume. So I think you got involved very early on, it sounds like.

Alan: I did. I was a paper boy for a little while. And then I came and started working for the company and worked all through high school and college and I really have never had another job. Came right out of college and came to work in the business.

Ray: What different roles have you had over the years?

Alan: Well, I’ve swept the floor. And I’ve been an iron worker and a crane operator and salesman and a dispatcher and then done pretty much everything. I’ve engineer and so basically done it all.

Ray: What what I’ve learned in examples like that is you probably know pretty much everything, all the jobs that exist in the company. And so you can probably sometimes know when somebody’s trying to pull one over on you, right?

Alan: Well, you experience helps a lot and doing the same thing for 30 years is there’s a big help but but as the company has grown, there’s still now there’s so much that I don’t know and and a lot goes on because we have a lot of talented people and we let them do their thing. And so I it’s a as we’ve gotten bigger, I haven’t been able to be as completely involved in each project.

Ray: And how long have you been in your current role as president and CEO?

Alan: Since 1986. So, 31 years, I’ve been in the same role. How’s that for boring?

Ray: That you’re very good at it and love it. And sounds like you may have some future Barnharts in the pipeline, perhaps.

Alan: I do have a son who’s involved in the business. 26 years old, Nathan, and he’s a project manager right now.

Ray: I learned something folks before we went on air here that there’s a very strong lineage here to the orange and white. You want to talk about that a little bit. He’s smiling. He’s smiling big folks.

Alan: Go Vols. Yeah. We my wife and I met at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville and four of our six kids have been in school there. So, we have a kind of a family tradition. We’d like to go watch the Vols.

Ray: Very good. Well, being from Indianapolis. We have come Peyton Manning, you’ve probably heard of that guy, right? Very good. Well, well, Alan, you really have set the trail in many ways in this area of leadership, as Christ follower in business, would you mind taking just a couple of moments and sharing some of the unique things that you’ve been a part of, with what you’ve done with ownership and structure and kind of how things are set up here.

Alan: You know, when we started the business, my brother and I were partners, we were 50/50 partners. But as far as we were concerned, everything that we have, everything that we are, has come from God and belongs to God. And so we’re stewards and not owners and that’s the way we always looked at it. When the company grew in the in the 2005 to 2008, the company grew a lot, from a $50 million company to a $250 million company and it became worth a lot of money.

And as far as we were concerned, God own the business as far as the IRS was concerned, my brother and I each owned half and if something happened to one of us, there was going to be massive estate tax issues. And as we started going through that plan, we said this so expensive and difficult. We we need to try to find a way this is God’s company. Let’s see if we can find a way to give it away. And so we in 2007, 2008, we gave away 99% of the company and then few years later gave away the last 1%. So we’re no longer the owners, but in our mind, we never were. We’re the stewards of the business.

Ray: Now, wait a minute, let me get that straight. You said we gave away the ownership of the company to God structurally, what does that look like?

Alan: Well, the the there’s a charity that should that owns the shares of our company, the National Christian Foundation, it’s in a trust there. And so they own they are the stockholders of our company. We continue to control it and operate it where the where the trustees of the voting trust so we we operate the company day to day the charity didn’t want to do that was not willing to do that. But we so we continue to be full steam ahead trying to have a great company at stewards like we always were we just don’t hold the the shares of stock.

Ray: That’s incredible. And maybe on another time we can talk it reminds me of, Stanley Tam, God Owns My Business from up in Lima, Ohio. Was there any inspiration from Stanley story?

Alan: I heard Stanley story a little after that. But you know, very similar concept. And, and I think it some people think it’s crazy. But I think for for believers, it’s makes perfect sense. It’s just a natural extension of what we believe God owns everything, everything has come from him. And if having it having the the shares of the stock in a different entity is beneficial to the kingdom, then why would we not do it?

Ray: That’s phenomenal. So, this was roughly, what, eight or nine years ago that you were going through this planning process, it sounds like. What did that do for you or in you? In in your, your, your heart or day to day, your thought process? What what what was that like for you to go through that process?

Alan: Well, it was not a traumatic thing. We had, in 1986, when we started the company, we had said that God owns the business and all the way along, we have just taken a salary from the company and use the proceeds of the company for Kingdom purposes. And so that started from the very beginning. And so, when we decided to put the company into this trust, it was not some gut wrenching, hard life decision. We had done that back in ’86.

Ray: And so, did you feel any sense of relief, or you talked about getting the IRS out of the equation? Maybe that that was a good thing.

Alan: Oh, it was. That’s, that’s exactly what it was. It was it was relief. We were stewards and we want to be good stewards. And we felt like we had a hole in our stewardship as well, you know, if one of us had died, we hadn’t really been good stewards of that potential issue. And so putting this in place gave us additional freedom.

Ray: And have you, you’ve had a chance you shared this story all across probably the globe, perhaps, right? And almost speculate here, because we haven’t talked about this, but I’m going to speculate that perhaps you’ve shared this story. And, and maybe there was some rich young business person that’s come up to you and said, “I could never do that.” And maybe there’s one listening right now to the program thinking, “Wow, I could never do that.” What, what would you say to them?

Alan: Well, you know, I mean, some people do think it’s kind of crazy. We get this when we’re in our 40s. And our first set of advisors said, this is a bad idea, don’t do this, but, but
to me, it just, I’m an engineer, and I’m trying to I’m logical in the way I approach things. And this just seemed a logical progression of what I believe, I believe that everything I have is come from God, I believe I’m gonna live forever. I believe my life on this earth is a small speck of my total existence. And I think being a steward has been a experience of freedom, not an experience of bondage. So, we’ve had 30 years or more of walking this and we’ve just seen it as a not somebody gut-wrenching, hard, discipline thing, but just as freedom that comes from God. So we, we seen it as a natural, logical thing to do.

Ray: And I think you mentioned you have six children, is that correct?

Alan: Yeah, six kids. Yeah.

Ray: And what was that like walking them through that process as well. I know, prep some were younger at the time. But what was that like as a parent, and what lessons were able to pass along as a result of some of the business decisions you’re making?

Alan: Now, we’ve told our kids that we want to leave them a rich inheritance of of work ethic, and faith and education and ability to make their way in the world, but that we didn’t want to leave them a lot of money. And that we thought money was dangerous. And we had kind of lived our life with a fear that that came from all the warnings we saw in Scripture about money.

And so, my kids have grown up with that lifestyle and have learned to be content with in all the good stuff in life is free. My kids have had a great childhood, when we finally got the actually got the papers signed and the company was given away, my oldest son came to me and said, “Dad, hey, thanks, thanks for doing this. I know, if something had happened to you, it would have been a big mess for me. And I really appreciate you putting this in place.” So, they to never really saw the company as as their’s, it’s a it’s always been God’s,

Ray: I’m amazed I can imagine and have three kids of my own, you know, I’m trying to instill some of those same values. I don’t have those same res–the amount of resources but I have resources that have been entrusted to me, as does every one of our listeners. And so what advice along these lines would you give to a business owner or leader who’s building a company and understanding that they are a steward of what God has entrusted to them, but God may or may not speak the same to every person, right? And so we’re all on a journey. But what what kind of principled advice would you get and please also talk about the dangers of money? I I wrote that down. Yeah, that was a statement you made.

Alan: Yeah, yeah, I mean, well, the dangers of money, Jesus talks so much about it. And he said, it’s hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. He said, watch out be on your guard against all forms of greed, on and on. He, when he told the parables of the the four soils and have a third soil was the deceitfulness of wealth choked out the fruitfulness of the person, and on and on in Scripture, you can’t serve God and money. There are just so many verses that would talk about money being a danger.

And so as I read that, I read through those when I was when I was in my early 20s. And it really is what set the trajectory for us as we were looking all these verses, and the concern about both the reality of stewardship and the danger of affluence is what caused us to put some of the things in place that we did when we started the– when my brother and I started our company 1986.

Ray: And so what advice would you have?

Alan: Well, I’d say, I would say, handle money with care. Jesus talks so much about it. And this was before Madison Avenue, this was 2000 years ago, it was a big deal then, it’s a big deal today. Do it on purpose. When it comes to decisions about money, I think that most believers would say God owns at all. So, ask the owner what he wants you to do, and, and don’t do what comes naturally in this area.

Like, like many areas, if we don’t do it, if we do what comes naturally we’ll mess up. And if we if we’d be in if we’re intentional, and looking at what Scripture has to say, it will lead to freedom, the constraints in our life, lead to freedom and a life without constraints leads to bondage. And I think so, Godly constraints, constraints that come from Scripture are there to to lead us into freedom. And that’s what we found.

Ray: That’s incredibly countercultural, you know, when we’re living in a day and age where everybody just kind of like do your own thing. And, and post-modernism you’re talking about these so that there’s incredible freedom in constraints. And so, I want to transition in that vein around lessons learned that maybe some Biblical principles that along the way you learned but maybe had to and I don’t say the hard way, but had some consequence to it. But tell us a little bit about a couple of main lessons you’ve learned as a Christ follower in business.

Alan: Well, I think, I think the big struggle for me initially was staying in balance. I was working hundred-hour weeks and, and really pushing hard to try to make this company it was really small then and trying to make it go and, and I neglected a lot of stuff, and particularly my wife and I think it caused damage. I mean it causes damage that that you live with the rest of your life almost. So I mean, we’re still married we have a wonderful marriage, but but I caused some damage. And I think that’s a was a pretty severe lesson to learn.

Ray: Things, you can’t get back right? Times and events missed and special occasions and things like that. And so, do you see that you are now able in this chapter of your life to share those lessons and pass those lessons along? And, and are you finding a next generation of leaders responsive to the lessons you’ve learned?

Alan: You know, I am, I think actually, this, this current generation likes the whole concept of profit with a purpose, rather than just profit. And that’s one of our core values is profit with a purpose. What I think this generation maybe needs is more of a push on, on hard work and, and being willing to, to do what it takes to–to generate value to create value and generate profit. So, but we–we think that the whole purpose to business is something that is me beyond just accumulating money. And I think that that’s resonating with young people now.

Ray: And on that vein of or that kind of subject area of working with a purpose. You’ve talked about the structure of the business, giving away stock ownership to the charity and that sort of thing. Have you always seen the work itself here as ministry? Or was that something that had to be learned along the way, that the work itself was glorifying to God, not just what we do with the profits?

Alan: No, that’s exactly right. And that’s–that came to me in college. When I was coming out of college, I had grown a lot in my faith then and some friends were telling me, “Alan, you need to go to seminary.” Or, “You need to go on staff with Young Life, do something significant with your life, anybody can do this construction stuff.” And, and as I looked at it, I realized that that all of us who are followers of Jesus are in full-time ministry.

And, but we need to, we need to use our skills and gifts and God’s service and and you don’t have to work for a charity to be in full-time ministry. And that that God had gifted me more in the area of engineering and business than he had in preaching. And so my full time ministry has been in the business world, but I think our work does matter to God. And I think coming up with a good strategy or creating a new piece of equipment is just as glorifying to God is writing a sermon or, or a good song, or I think it’s all of us using our skills and gifts. And he’s gifted me more in this area. And so this has been my path.

Ray: I love that lifelong passion of mine as well. And so let’s speak for a moment to that person who’s listening to the program right now. And and maybe they’ve sort of felt like, well, maybe God will call me into ministry? Or does God really care about how I lead? Or does God real–You know, the guy running one of your cranes out in the field, you know, does God really care about that? What would you have to say to them, to encourage them as their mission field and understanding that?

Alan: Oh, God has called you into ministry, and he has gifted you and and use your skills and gifts in his service. And he asked us to love him and love other people, and in the skills and gifts that you have, will allow you to do it. And so put them to use.

Ray: I love the story. There are very few times in the Old Testament, original language, it talks about the actual the Holy Spirit, you know, we, we read about that after Pentecost, and so forth. But there is a time in the Old Testament that’s mentioned that the Holy Spirit showed up. And that was with the blessing of those who were building the temple. Those were cutting stones and wood and, and, and the rock and that’s what you’re talking about, right? is there’s there’s honor, there’s dignity, and there’s ministry in the working with our hands, right?

Alan: There definitely is. I think, you know, we say the purpose of our company is to glorify God in three ways. One is by doing good work, and we think good work glorifies God. The second is by communicating what Jesus has done to others and sharing our faith. And then the third is try to generate as much resource as we can for the kingdom. And so we try to make money and we try to be proud to become valuable to our customers create that value, convert it to profit, and then use it for the kingdom.

Ray: Folks, we are talking with Alan Barnhart, President and CEO at Barnhart Crane and Rigging here in Memphis, Tennessee. And this has been great. I’m on the road this week, getting some incredible interviews and–and Alan has been sharing with us the story in the journey of literally turning the ownership of the company over into the Lord’s hands, which is quite freeing, as we’ve learned from him. Alan, how would someone learn about the company and where they can read more about you?

Alan: Yeah, our website is barnhartcrane.com and you could see some of the things that we do there. We we don’t we don’t on our website, on our website, we’re a business we’re–we’re a secular business. So, we don’t have a lot of the information about the ministry things were involved in, but they could Google my name and there’s some there’s some videos that are on the on the internet.

Ray: And on that vein, actually, that’s one of the questions I wanted to ask you as well, you because of the processes and systems that you and your family have made over the years, you’ve had an opportunity to travel globally and, and share this story. Is there ever any danger in that in the, the notoriety of that? And how do you process that?

Alan: Yeah, it’s been, it’s been a big deal for us. For the first 15 years, we were in business, we didn’t tell anybody our story, we just put our head down and worked and made money and–and contributed to ministries. And–and, but some people challenged us and they said, “This is not your story.” This is God’s story. He’s done an amazing thing at your company. And you need to be willing to tell it, it will be an encouragement to others.

And so, we–we kind of embarked on that adventure. And we had a stewardship of the story a bit, and we’ve been willing to tell the story and not a great speaker and I’m not on some speaking tour. But when people you know, some of the time when people asked were willing to go and share the story, and I’m not just myself, but several other guys here in the business.

Ray: And where do you let–that’s awesome. That is, I can’t be a comfortable thing, you know, like you said, you just put your head down, try and do what God’s called you to do. And but yet, he does call us into our discomfort zone sometimes, right? And so where–where, as best you can tell, you’re getting up each day doing what God’s calling you to do. But where do you see the company going from this point,

Alan: I really don’t know, I’ve never been a big 10-year-plan kind of guy. If I’d ever made one, it would have never been right. And, and but I think we want to continue to get better as a company, we want to be a better place to work, we want to be an employer of choice for our people. And that’s a that’s a semi, not a new focus for us, but a rejuvenated focus is to try to be a great place for the people that work here. We have about 1200 people. Not–not all of them are believers by any stretch. And but–but all of them are human beings. And we want to be a great place to work and sometimes the, the push of being great at what you do, you can lose some of that, but–but I think the two are complementary.

Ray: And so you mentioned about 1200, you call them teammates and gay–what’s the term you used to–?

Alan: Team members is what we, yeah.

Ray: Yup. Team members. And so can you share an example of how this culture may have impacted? No names of course, but can you tell us a story or two of how this culture and what you’ve done here has made a difference for the kingdom in the lives of those who work for you?

Alan: Yeah, first, first thing is we, we involve anyone who wants to in the process of figuring out what to do with the money that the company makes. So initially, there was about six, that there were six of us that got together and prayed and said, God, what do you want us to do with your money. And now that group is about 80 of us within the company, and which includes some spouses that are part of that process of figuring out where to send this money and we have a pretty extensive process. That’s been a life changer for guys, because 95% of our funding is international.

And we’ve sent people all over the world to really hard places we had a guy in Yemen, just a couple months ago, had a guy in Iran recently. So, we’re going to some very hard places and meeting some amazing brothers and sisters in Christ, who are, they’re more committed than we are, they’re more Godly than we are they’re–they’re amazing people. And we get to be a small part of their, their work by contributing some–some financial capital. And that has been a life changer for our folks.

So that’s one of the one of the major elements and those that’s for the people that are interested and want to do it for all the people we try to, we try to give them a great place to work, we try to communicate our faith to them, we try to help them in areas of marriage, and finances, and–and counseling. And, and we also we involve trying to involve everyone in the company slightly in our giving through a platform called Co-tribute, where they’re all able to designate part of the company giving to some local ministries.

Ray: So, that is a very inclusive process. But it’s also got to be complicated to have that many voices and opinions and, and yet, and not all believers, right, as you’ve mentioned, and so how have you handled situations where maybe requests have come in that weren’t consistent with the values or the kinds of charities that–that are not consistent with the company?

Alan: Sure, on the major giving, that we do, all of it would be for, for organizations that are overtly Christian, that’s just a given for the Co-tribute platform, which is really small dollars where I’d say more inclusive and would allow some these are gifts of $25, or $50 is a relatively small amount of money, that we would be less solid about that. But for theā€”for the major giving that we do, it’s all overtly Christian. And if someone wants to enter in they need to understand that and almost everyone who enters into that process is a believer.

Ray: Very good. And just, my goodness, time is flying by. We’ve got just a few more moments here, only about five or six minutes. But I’m really curious, one of the questions as you think back over the course of your career, if there is one thing and this may be an unfair question. So, you can tell me there’s one thing you could go back and do differently? What would that be? What would you do differently now with the hindsight of wisdom and experience anything come to mind?

Alan: Well, I think–I think two quick things. One would be I mentioned earlier about neglecting my wife and and–and to some degree, my children, I think I would I wish I could have done that differently. The second is, I think there were some–some personnel decisions that I wish I had done differently. Some people that I allowed to stay in the company too long or–or people that I should have never allowed to be in the company. So, some of those–those decisions hurt the whole team and–and there have been a few of those that I that I have regretted.

Ray: Well, we read Patrick Lencioni, his work, talks about culture eating strategy for lunch. I think that’s kind of what you’re talking about?

Alan: Absolutely. Strategy is way overrated. Culture–culture, eats it for lunch, as does execution.

Ray: That’s perfect. So just two more questions and one along those lines. You’re sitting across the table from potential key hire in the organization. What would be the kinds of questions or the kinds of things that you would share to help determine is this person a right fit for the culture here?

Alan: It’s good question. I want to understand their path, how they think, how they have made their career choices. I’m looking for a person that is interested in taking on responsibility, not in a position. And a person that can understand servant leadership.

Ray: Those are great insights. And folks, we’re talking with Alan Barnhart, President and CEO at Barnhart Crane and Rigging in Memphis, Tennessee. This is Ray Hilbert your co-host of Bottom Line Faith. You can learn more about this program at bottomlinefaith.org and about the ministry Truth at Work. If you’re a Christ follower in business, and you’re looking for some tools and resources and encouragement, perhaps even interest in participating in one of our roundtables, check that out at truthatwork.org.

Well, Alan, we are down to the last question. We talked about this before going on the air for the interview here and I like to call this my 423 question. And this is based out of Proverbs 4:23 these words from Solomon, where he says, “Above all else, guard your heart, for it determines the course of your life.” And there are many biblical scholars who believe that these may have been amongst Solomon’s last words and we know he gave us such incredible insight and wisdom that we have in Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and so forth. And so kind of the word picture Alan that we look at is imagining that Solomon is at the end of his time, this side of eternity, he has an opportunity, perhaps nearly on his deathbed, and he’s gathering his loved ones, his family members, those who are most precious to him, and he gives him–them his above all else advice. And he says, above all else, guard your heart for it determines the course of your life.

So let’s turn the clock forward. We don’t know when that day would be, but you now have a chance you’ve gathered your family your loved ones, those most precious to you, and you now we’re going to pass on your above all else advice. So, Alan, above all else…

Alan: Love God and love people.

Ray: Is it really that simple?

Alan: It will, it really is. And I think if on the guard your heart piece, I think I think this whole area of money is a big blind spot. And I would say, Be careful in that area. Jesus warned us about it so much. Be careful

Ray: It’s incredible. I’ve been encouraged just by learning more about your story. I’ve seen your videos online, I’ve heard you in other venues, but to have this chance to sit down and the quietness of your office has been a blessing for me. I’m really grateful for that opportunity and I thank you for your faithfulness for your family and all that you’re doing for the kingdom. Is there anything else that you would share? Maybe as a word of encouragement, perhaps there’s a business owner or leader listening to this program, someone who’s dis discouraged in their leadership. Any last words of encouragement that you’d care to pass along?

Alan: I would say just continue to be faithful where God puts you and everyone’s story is going to be different. God has given us all different opportunities. Be faithful where you are.

Ray: Well, folks, there you have it from Alan Barnhart. We’re in Memphis, Tennessee. I am your host, Ray Hilbert at Bottom Line Faith. Alan, thank you so much. You’re so kind to extend this time today and just appreciate it.

Alan: Well, thank you very much. Thanks for coming.

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