Alan and Eric Barnhart grew their company, Barnhart Crane & Rigging, in two decades from a simple mom-and-pop operation to an industry leader valued at several hundred million dollars. Then, in 2007, the brothers suddenly gave the company away to a Christian organization. This move prompted plenty of media attention, as the industry tried to figure out why the brothers would make such a radical decision.
But the leaders of Barnhart Crane won't be found basking in the attention; they're a pretty humble group of individuals. When asked what the company does, Senior Vice President of Sales and Marketing Jeff Latture says, "Barnhart is a company that moves big things."
Latture may just be describing the company's day-to-day operations. A contractor working primarily in the energy sector, Barnhart Crane specializes in using large machinery to lift and transport industrial equipment across the country. The company transports almost every type of massive equipment imaginable, from space shuttles to giant drills to nuclear turbines.
Sometimes the company works on uniquely difficult projects, such as when they had to haul a 400-ton component from Tennessee to Virginia. None of Barnhart Crane's transports could carry it, and even if they could, there was a risk that highway bridges would collapse under the weight. At the 2013 C12 Leaders Conference, President and CEO Alan Barnhart explained that they solved this predicament by building an even bigger transport, one which could also navigate around the bridges. Barnhart Crane has 44 offices and 1,300 employees.
Shifting big things takes on a spiritual component for the company's leaders as well. Barnhart has been instrumental in moving one of the biggest obstacles for many ministries: budgetary struggles. The company donates a significant portion of its profit every year to churches, ministries and charities; that profit often looks like hundreds of thousands of dollars. That would be enough for most companies, but not for Barnhart Crane. In 2007, they gave away 99 percent of the multimillion-dollar company.
Blessed to Be a Blessing
Of course, Barnhart Crane was not always so large. The company that would become Barnhart Crane and Rigging was started by the brothers' father, Richard Barnhart, in 1969. Richard and his wife, Nancy, retired unexpectedly in 1986 and offered the small business to their sons; if the sons refused the offer, Richard and his wife planned to sell the company. The decision was difficult for Alan, who was in the process of leaving to become a missionary in Saudi Arabia with his wife, Katherine. Furthermore, he'd been studying the Bible and, based on the words of Christ, had developed a healthy fear of becoming wealthy.
Alan talked with his brother, and they agreed to take over the business together, but under one condition—the company had to be fully dedicated to God. Latture explained that Alan "came to his conclusion that everything we have and everything we are belongs to God, and the question is: 'What are you going to do with it? What does the Owner want you to do with it?'" The brothers repositioned the local business as a commercial company, added some cranes, and the modern Barnhart Crane and Rigging was born. They weren't entirely convinced that the business would survive the year, but they said that if it became successful, they would limit their income and find methods to give back to God and the community.
This commitment was inspired by 1 Timothy 6:17-19: "Command those who are rich in this world that they not be conceited, nor trust in uncertain riches, but in the living God, who richly gives us all things to enjoy. Command that they do good, that they be rich in good works, generous, willing to share, and laying up in store for themselves a good foundation for the coming age, so that they may take hold of eternal life."
Their principles paid off. The original staff of 12 multiplied in the next decade, attracting exciting new members—including Latture—with such perfect timing that Alan could only describe it as "miraculous." Latture explains that he and many others were attracted by the company's principles and ultimate purpose of serving the kingdom of God.
As the company grew, so did its profits. The company grew at least 25 percent every year for 23 consecutive years. By 2008, Alan said that Barnhart Crane and Rigging was worth $250 million. And that was what motivated Alan and Eric to make their big decision.
In 2007, the brothers put 99 percent of the company into a trust with the National Christian Foundation. Recently, the 1 percent that they held onto—a voting trust—was given away as well. As of 2013, Alan Barnhart owns no part of the company that bears his name, although he is still the steward of the company.
Why would the brothers make such a big move? Latture describes it as the ultimate fulfillment of their original vow: "This thing is worth an awful lot of money. It's a huge temptation and ... inheritance, passing from one generation to another—that could be a problem. So Alan and Eric said, 'We say it's God's. Why don't we just make it God's?'" They had to get special permission from the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) to make the exchange—the IRS was convinced that no sane person would give away their company unless there was foul play involved—but the transaction finally went through. Alan has never regretted the decision: "It has been so much more fulfilling to be a kingdom investor than it could have ever been to be a consumer."
For a while, Barnhart Crane's staff members were hesitant to tell their story.
"We tried really hard to be under the radar and not a known entity in the giving world," said Latture. "Then we were challenged probably 10 years ago by some guys who told us: 'The testimony is important. The model you have is also a value to the kingdom, and you need to be willing to help others.'" Barnhart Crane's model shows how a business can make a big impact on the church.
Giving Away a Million
On the surface, what Barnhart Crane does doesn't look any different from any other company. Alan and Latture consistently describe Barnhart Crane as a for-profit company. The senior staff members view making money as their goal. But the "why" behind the "what" is what makes the company remarkable.
Latture understands that the company is not Christian.
"Companies can't be Christian," he said. "But the leaders are, and we run that based on our faith. ... It means we believe that as we're successful and attempt to make lots of money, it's not a call to increase our lifestyles and make more money. It's a call for us to give back."
The senior staff members see God as the ultimate owner of everything. God has given them everything, from the original business to the resources, from the employees to the clients; company leadership believes it is their duty to return those gifts to Him by supporting ministries both locally and internationally. In 2009, Barnhart Crane and Rigging gave away $1 million to more than 200 charities and ministries; from all available evidence, that's a pretty standard year of giving for the company. So where does it all go?
The Barnharts don't decide which ministries get the money through a family foundation. Rather, they started a group called GROVE (God's Resources Operating Very Effectively). GROVE is composed of employees who have an interest in where the money they're making is going. Members tend to become advocates for one or two ministries, and then extensively research and build relationships with that ministry.
"We have 60 to 80 people, in some cases with their spouses involved, doing due diligence on ministry, building their relationships, traveling to see the work and then facilitating the grant request internally to get a gift approved," Latture said. "There's no expectation that you do it as part of your job, but we do give people the freedom to do that if they have interest."
These advocates have gone as far as Yemen on trips to work alongside these ministries, which has helped to adjust their own perspective when it comes to working at Barnhart. In fact, Alan says that several of them have even come to Christ as a result of their experiences.
Not all the charities are in far-away locales; some are located in the company's own backyard. Barnhart Crane supports inner city ministry, as well as local churches and outreaches. The youth ministry Young Life, which helped Alan develop his faith growing up, is a beneficiary. Barnhart Crane is affiliated with Hope Christian Community Foundation, which aims to help other companies devoted to kingdom investment. But in general, Barnhart Crane doesn't like to brag about all the organizations they're helping; after all, "when you do your charitable deeds, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing" (Matt. 6:3).
Modeling Faith on the Job
At the end of college, Alan's friends told him he needed to become a minister. He wanted to serve the Lord in full-time ministry, but after prayer, he realized, "All of us who are followers of Jesus are in full-time ministry." This view has infused both his life and his company.
Barnhart Crane's staff views their whole company as a form of ministry, not only serving the surrounding community but also their employees within. After all, the church isn't limited to a church building, and kingdom ministry doesn't cease after Sunday morning.
To make their company a place where ministry can thrive, the senior leadership team tries to model both openness about their faith and acceptance of others for who they are in Christ. To hear them talk about it, creating a Christ-centered workplace is pretty simple.
"We don't have a 'Gospel Hour' or anything like that," Latture laughed, and said it boils down to openness. "The senior guys are as accessible as anyone in the company. ... That openness creates an environment where you live out your faith, and in the company, it wouldn't be uncommon if we're having a working lunch to pray over the meal."
That transparency and openness among the top tier helps create a relaxing environment for the workers, who can more freely express themselves without fear of getting shut down. Christian employees are free to share their faith with unbelieving employees and to grow in spiritual discipline. Even nonbelievers can benefit, appreciating the personable environment and, of course, the benefits that come from being part of a successful business. Latture stresses that they hire a wide variety of faiths and, in a way, that gives their workplace a potential mission field.
"A couple of times a year we will explain the purpose of the company and why we believe what we believe. ... Thanksgiving we tell why we're thankful, Christmas we tell why we celebrate, and at Easter, we get to tell why we believe." Latture said. "We're very respectful, and that's what we should be anyway as believers: respectful but clear about what we believe when given the opportunity."
To young business leaders who are looking to follow Barnhart Crane's unusual model, Latture urged them not only to serve in the community and to adopt openness, but also to find mentors and accountability.
"I think all of us need a mentor," he said. "I think wealthy folks have a hard time having peers that will speak into their lives about how to deal with (wealth), because it's important and other believing business owners or leaders that have walked part of the road can be a great help."
When Alan and Eric gave their company to God, they realized that there was no going back. In the event that the company ever sells, the proceeds from it go to the trust. If Alan ever retires, he can't hand it off to his children like his own parents did. The board will pick another trustee to run the company, hopefully one who will protect the same vow Alan made.
Yet Alan isn't concerned or worried about his company. He knows that it's ultimately in God's hands, as it always has been. In his closing remarks at the 2013 C12 Conference, Alan said that none of this experience has felt like he made a sacrifice. In fact, he said, "It feels like a blessing."
Taylor Berglund is assistant online editor at Charisma Media.
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