Robert E. Barnhill Jr.
Partner, Barnhill Contracting, 70
By Teri Saylor
Photo provided by Barnhill Contracting
Robert E. Barnhill Jr. can’t remember a time when he was not involved at his family’s Barnhill Contracting Co., a fixture in eastern North Carolina for 68 years that now employs 1,100 people.
“I remember Daddy being gone an awful lot, and during my growing-up days, we had a lot of work in Virginia and Delaware,” Barnhill says. “When I was 13, I went to a job in Rehoboth Beach in Delaware and after that, I would work every summer until I got out of college, and then I came to work full time.”
Born in Tarboro, where he still lives, Barnhill graduated from East Carolina University in 1970 with a degree in business administration and the ability to operate every piece of equipment used by the family business. Today, the company that has long dominated highway construction in eastern North Carolina is moving into commercial construction and expanding its reach after opening a Charlotte office in 2015. The company had previously not ventured farther inland past Fayetteville and Raleigh. Revenue totaled $555 million in 2016.
While Barnhill’s father, Robert Barnhill Sr., was a legend among the state’s contractors, his son had “the vision to diversify what had been a traditional highway construction firm,” says Dave Simpson, president & CEO of Carolinas Associated General Contractors, a trade group.
In 1949, the senior Barnhill teamed up with R.W. Long to buy some surplus military machinery and equipment and start Barnhill and Long Construction Co. Three years later, Barnhill bought his partner out and changed the company’s name to Barnhill Contracting. The company’s first major project was paving one of Gov. Kerr Scott’s farm-to-market roads from Ahoskie to Murfreesboro.
The younger Barnhill was promoted to president in 1987 and named chairman in 2000, the year that his father died. His son, Robert Barnhill III, has been president since 2010. Barnhill’s other son, Austin, is vice president of leadership development.
“We’re big believers in taking care of our employees,” Robert Barnhill Jr. says. “My definition of a good leader is being honest and fair with employees, spending time with them, giving them opportunities when they deserve them, and giving them room to prove themselves and grow.”
Founded in Tarboro, Barnhill Contracting moved its headquarters to Rocky Mount in 2014. Barnhill donated its Tarboro building to Edgecombe County Public Schools, which uses it for its central office.
“We try to reach out to the community to help and serve in ways that we can.” Current work includes a $160 million highway project in Greenville, a 12.4-mile bypass that will take U.S. 264 south and west of the city toward Ayden.
Barnhill says he has no interest in retiring, though he has backed away from his company’s day-to-day operations. “I stay busy all the time, and I’m busier than what I envisioned I would be at this point.”
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