Cover StoryPutting Something Back
Business Leader of the Year Barclay Simpson Brings a Humanitarian Touch to Work and Giving
By Marguerite Rigoglioso
Barclay Simpson, BS 66, is not one to talk about himself, but the company he's built speaks volumes. He is founder and chairman of Simpson Manufacturing Co. Inc., a firm so imbued with his personal philosophy that the motto is, "We learn. We grow. We put something back."
Over the past half century Simpson has built his company into an $800 million business, supported affirmative action in the workplace, and supported groups that work with disadvantaged youth. In recognition of his commitment to entrepreneurial success and his outstanding leadership in giving back to his community, the Haas School named Simpson the Business Leader of the Year for 2005.
"When I think about Barc and leadership, I think of the Mozart effect," says Earl Cheit, dean emeritus of the Haas School, who serves on the Simpson Manufacturing Board. "Young students who listen to Mozart before taking a test do better than those who don't. Well, those people who work for and with Barc learn more about leadership than those who don't."
When his father had a heart attack in 1947, Simpson quit Cal to take over his window screen business. In two years, he dropped making screens and concentrated on other items. Then, in 1956, he was asked if he could make a structural connector by the brother of a neighbor. "I said I could do it even though I wasn't really sure, and before I knew it I had an order for 25,000 connectors. That was the start of Simpson Manufacturing," he says.
Now publicly traded, Simpson Manufacturing, based in Dublin, Calif., is a top producer of structural connectors, venting systems, and other building products, garnering major shares of the housing and commercial structures markets in all of the regions where its 11 branches and 2,600 employees are located — the United States, Western Europe, and Canada. The company, for which Simpson now serves as chairman, earned more than $800 million in sales in 2005, and Forbes magazine has ranked it among the 200 best-managed small companies.
"The key to running a company is to keep things decentralized and empower decision making at the lowest level possible," he says. "Tell your people what the standards are and let them figure it out. Give them the authority to go along with their responsibility."
Simpson Manufacturing has also become a sought-after employer. "Barc has almost no turnover among his employees," says Cheit. The reason, says Simpson, can be summed up in one word: respect. "I have a great deal more regard for a janitor who does a first-class job than a Ph.D. who doesn't use his education to the fullest," he says. Simpson's approach translated into a proactive stance on affirmative action beginning several decades ago. "Unions and other employees sometimes resisted it, but I persisted. I wanted our plants to reflect diversity and offer opportunity for people from many walks of life," he says.
Tom Fitzmeyers, CEO of Simpson Manufacturing for more than 25 years, credits Simpson with fostering an atmosphere in which even those employees who have not had strong educational backgrounds are encouraged to get the tools and skills and move up. "Barc has always encouraged us to provide in-house training programs and scholarships for work-related education," Fitzmeyers says. "He gets so excited when someone who didn't have a lot of chances in life does well."
Simpson, a father of seven, has been as zealous in his mission to help the underprivileged outside the company as he has inside. "We're doing a terrible job of educating inner-city kids who live in poverty-level areas," he says. "The situation is increasingly leaving young people unskilled and unprepared to enter the work force and is leading to greater poverty and crime."
To help create solutions, Simpson has formed the Simpson Put Something Back fund, a permanent charitable trust devoted to education and the arts. Among the organizations the fund supports is Girls Inc. of San Leandro, CA, a program that educates K-12 girls in below-average income areas of the East Bay. "If you can give little girls' self-esteem and education, then they'll be in a better position to have productive, fulfilling lives and in turn make sure their own kids get a good education," he says.
At UC Berkeley, Simpson is a major donor to the Young Entrepreneurs at Haas Program (YEAH), a program where Haas School students mentor Bay Area at-risk youth as they move along the pathway to college.
Elsewhere in the Bay Area, Simpson serves as trustee of the California College of the Arts and chairman of the UC Berkeley Art Museum. Moreover, for 13 years, he and his wife, Sharon, have exhibited mostly young, and relatively unknown contemporary artists in their Barclay Simpson Fine Arts Gallery in Lafayette, Calif., and in art fairs in London and Los Angeles. "When you expose young people to art it opens up their minds to other things, including science and math," says Simpson.
Simpson's own upbringing taught him the value of hard work. "I always had to work to earn money even to go to the movies, but I consider that to have been an advantage. It trained me to work hard and the resourceful," he says. By working part-time jobs, Simpson managed to scrape together the then $75 a year in tuition to attend UC Berkeley. His college studies were interrupted in 1941, when he enrolled in pilot training in the Naval Air Corps and became part of a group recruited from the Berkeley campus called the "Flying Golden Bears." Simpson subsequently flew anti-submarine patrols out of Alaska and the Aleutian Islands, and dive-bombers off an aircraft carrier in the Pacific during World War II.
After the war, Simpson resumed and nearly completed his studies at Berkeley but took an extended break to take over the Simpson Screen Company from his father. Simpson eventually finished up his remaining few units to earn a BS at Cal in 1966. Over the years he has also served three terms as an elected director of Bay Area Regional Transit (BART), including time as board president.
Reflecting on his past few decades working with Simpson, Tom Fitzmeyers says, "In all the years I've known him, Barc's been the same clear thinker and strong leader, with reverence for the individual and definite ideas about right and wrong. I've had such a good time working with him that it hardly seems possible 25 plus years could have passed." Luckily for Fitzmeyers, his octogenarian crony doesn't show any signs of quitting soon.