Having grown up on a small farm in Alton, Missouri, Glen Barton landed his first job at Caterpillar in 1961, after earning his bachelor’s degree in civil engineering from the University of Missouri-Columbia. For the next four decades, he moved up the corporate ladder and around the world, taking assignments in North and South America, Europe, Africa and Asia. He was elected a Caterpillar vice president in 1987 and became chairman and CEO in 1999.
Barton retired from Caterpillar in 2004, after nearly 43 years of service to the company. Since then, he has kept busy with a myriad of activities with groups like the Central Illinois Angels and Business Roundtable, as well as serving on the boards of Newmont Mining Corporation, Valmont Industries and Inco Limited. His passion, commitment and drive were instrumental in the initiative which led to the establishment of Quest Charter Academy in 2010. He and his wife, Polly, are generous supporters of the Peoria community, actively involved in The Power of Play campaign to expand Peoria Zoo and build the Peoria PlayHouse children’s museum.
How were you first introduced to Caterpillar?
I grew up in a small town in southern Missouri. We lived on a farm, so we got a lot of exposure to equipment… In the summertime [during college], I worked as an intern with the Missouri State Highway Department, surveying and building roads… I was around major contractors, and most of the equipment on the job was Caterpillar equipment, so [that was] another introduction.
In my senior year of college, I was interviewed by Caterpillar… I thought I was [going to be] an engineer—that I was going to help develop and test all those fancy pieces of equipment… [but] my invitation was to interview for a marketing job. Little did I know, the company knew more about me than I knew about myself. I probably would have been a lousy engineer, and probably would not have stayed around very long had I been offered a position, but marketing fit me well. I understood how the equipment was used… and the mechanical issues associated with the equipment.
So I started in 1961, fresh out of college. The first four weeks, we were thrown together with all the other college graduates… We learned the basics of Caterpillar [and] the culture, visited some of the plants, and then went off into our own separate channels… We went through two years of product training and customer training, getting better acquainted with the company, and then went into various developmental assignments. In that process, you elected whether you’d be interested in a foreign job or not. That was a little unique, because up until that point, had you not been interviewed for [a job in] foreign trade, you were not likely to end up [there].
In 1964, I was sent to Switzerland, where we had opened an office three years prior that was responsible for marketing product in Europe, Africa and the Middle East. A year later, I found myself in the midst of Africa, and spent a couple of years working [there]… Then they offered me an opportunity to come back to Switzerland, with responsibility for what was then the emerging market of Russia and the Russian satellite countries—Czechoslovakia, Poland, Romania, Bulgaria, Yugoslavia, etc. So I spent two years traveling in and out of Russia and the satellite countries and helping to establish the marketing organization… We had shipped a ton of equipment to Russia and those countries under the lend-lease program at the end of World War II. So the equipment was Caterpillar and they loved it, but the newest equipment they had was 30 years old.
Had you ever been out of the country?
No, I’d never even been on an airplane before.
And that was something that intrigued you?
Yes, I volunteered for it. I had no idea what I was getting into. I must admit, when they first offered me a job in Switzerland, I had to look at the map… I was thinking Switzerland was one of the Scandinavian countries, and lo and behold, I found it down here in the central part of Europe! I thought my geography was good, [but] it got a lot better after that. This was a totally new world.
How did that change your world view?
That is the significant part—it really did give you a world view… I always said that it made me a better American because you were sitting outside, looking back in. You came into contact with other nationalities, and you understood Israel, and you understood what World War II had been about… And you can see in the developing countries—like in Africa, for example—the influence the Dutch had on South Africa, the English had on the English colonies, or the French… The idea that we were a part of the world was key.
Today, all of our people are exposed to that reality by working abroad. We’ve also tried to bring non-American management into the executive office and other levels of the company… And we were doing everything we could to develop our international employees, recognizing they needed to have experience with the U.S. market, just as we needed to have experience outside the U.S.
Keep walking us through your career path…
I came back [to Peoria] in the late ’60s and spent three years working on product development… providing input to the engineering side as to what the marketplace wanted. Then I went back to Europe and took over the product development side of operations… what was needed to meet equipment requirements in Europe and Africa and the Middle East… I spent a lot of my career on the product development side. Of all the jobs I had at Caterpillar, I probably enjoyed that aspect most. And again, it got back to those basics—understanding how the equipment was used.
Then I moved on from that… [At the time] we had a marketing group, an engineering group, a financial group, a manufacturing group, a product support group… all of these individual silos of activities to make a new product happen. The only one who overlooked the whole company was the chief executive officer. I ended up heading up a group that was trying to pull all these other groups together…
I was the first Caterpillar individual to work at a newly acquired company in San Diego, Solar Turbines. I went out there in 1987. This was almost like leaving Caterpillar and going to work for another company. The product line was totally different… a different customer group, for the most part… They had their own manufacturing facilities, a different accounting system…
We had bought it four or five years prior to my going out there… but our experience up to that point had been very poor—we had lost money every year. So we had some major decisions to make. Do we stay in this business? Can we turn it around? We looked at both aspects, but… by the time I left, we had turned it around… and it has made a substantial profit every year since.
When I went to Solar, it was an opportunity for me to have responsibility for all facets of the company. We really did not have any models like that in the rest of the world. The executive with responsibility for Solar at the time was George Schaefer, who became chairman… and he always thought we could be better organized. So I was on the original team that did the first strategic review. We spent a lot of time talking with other companies… ‘What are you doing? Why are you doing it this way?’ All of this was fueling the idea that we needed to be organized differently.
Caterpillar as a whole?
Yes. So in 1990, we made a major change and organized into business units. Rather than having these functional silos, we now had units like Solar [with] responsibility for all facets of the business… I ended up becoming one of the group presidents… And that [reorganization] was probably one of the biggest things we did to ensure Caterpillar’s future.
When Caterpillar acquires a company today, how does the assimilation process work?
We had made an acquisition in the late ‘60s that was never successful, and finally sold it… It was always the belief that we put too many Caterpillar people into that business, rather than leveraging the people who had been running [it] successfully at the time. Then the pendulum swung to the other extreme—when we bought Solar, we put no one in, until I went there five years later. We thought it would operate better… We found out it didn’t—that we needed to put some people in.
So today, when you set out to do an acquisition, you start working on a transition plan. How are we going to run this thing once we buy it? We know we can’t just throw a lot of people at it—we tried that. We know that if we don’t throw some people at it, that doesn’t work either. So many of these acquisitions are based on the synergies you can create. So as your people are putting together the purchase proposal, you’d better identify those synergies and have someone who is willing to realize them. Because if you don’t, you’re going to be disappointed with the results.
What was your involvement in the labor strikes of the early 1990s?
The executive office deliberated that situation with a great deal of depth… We knew we had to regain control over our factories. At that point, the union had more control over how our factory ran than we did… We knew it was a battle we needed to win… [and] we had to be ready to do the tough work ourselves. And so we did. We carefully measured every step of the way and weighed the alternatives, and were blessed by the fact that we had workers who came back to work and that we could use management employees to produce good product… The bottom line was we had to be able to make the decisions we needed to make to be a successful company. We could not let somebody else have control over our manufacturing capabilities.
What changes did you make when you became CEO?
Governance was starting to become a major issue. We had, at the time, three board members who were inside directors… and the trend was that there only ought to be one. That was a major change that happened because of what was going on in the governance world.
What ensued after that was an interesting five years… We went through 9/11, we went through a recession, and we went through the strategic planning process. We figured out that we could be a $30 billion company if we believed in what we were doing and our products were the best in the marketplace. We also agreed that we needed to tackle our cost structure and quality situation, so we went on the Six Sigma journey… and got tremendous cost savings out of it. We started to do things in a more process-oriented manner… [and] we liberated a lot of people who had sort of become stymied in their positions… who were capable of contributing far more than we were asking them to contribute at the time.
I characterize it as being [similar to how] Microsoft comes up with a new operating system every several years. This was a new operating system for Caterpillar. It basically said, ‘If you’re going to work in this house, you better be familiar with Six Sigma and the Six Sigma methodology.’ Then we all speak the same language, and we can move people from one organization to another, from one department to another, and fully understand how all this works together.
We suffered through 9/11, and fortunately all our people were safe, our dealers were safe. Then, after the recession, we were able to start seeing a recovery in our business… and we instilled in the organization the idea that even at the bottom of the cycle, we ought to be able to make a profit. We said we were going reach $30 billion in sales and revenues by 2005, and we did it in 2004.
We also decided to get out of the agricultural business. That was a big growth opportunity for us, but we had to invest so much to keep our efforts going forward that we were actually robbing development money from the rest of the product line. So we made the decision to get out of that business, but it took a billion dollars of growth away from us.
Having gone through recession in the early 2000s, did that help prepare the company for the far worse recession of 2008?
When we reorganized the company in the early ‘90s, we asked every business unit to put together a recession plan based on a 30-percent drop in sales and revenues from forecasted levels. How will we be profitable if that ever happens? Several of those years, it seemed kind of perfunctory, an exercise in futility… but it was always in the back of our minds. So when 2007 and 2008 came along, [then-CEO] Jim Owens knew we had a recession plan. That prepared everyone, but it still required tough decisions.
Did you have a specific management philosophy as CEO?
I always wanted to be the most accessible. My office was on the seventh floor, and I could ride the escalator up with two or three people… I loved to have a smile or hello, or just a quick question or comment… I loved to go to employee meetings and explain how we’re going to be a $30 billion company. And in that process, we also talked about a lot of other problems and opportunities.
Was it difficult to retire when you still had so much energy?
You don’t want one person in that job for too long. When you look at my schedule… how many times I was on an airplane going somewhere, and the next day having to be half a world away, it takes a toll… If you can’t arrive at each [place] with a lot of enthusiasm, you’re not going to be as effective. And the other way it takes a toll, is if you’ve done something so many times… you start being more selective in what you do or don’t do. Now you’re sending a signal to the people who wanted you there that you’re not coming back this year…
I was very pleased with where we were on our strategic plan. We’d introduced Six Sigma and gotten huge cost savings. We were starting to make improvements in product quality and reliability, we had entered some new markets, and I was satisfied that the team that was likely to replace me was very capable of carrying on, and bringing new energy and enthusiasm to it.
Did you have a plan for your retirement?
We bought a home in San Diego… and figured we would spend the first three months of the year in California, and a couple months throughout the balance of the year. I was on a few boards and involved with several community activities… Even when I was in California, I would get up at six in the morning and call in for a 7:00 or 8:00 meeting. There was never a time when I felt there wasn’t something I could be doing. A lot of it was with startup companies I knew something about, or with organizations like the Business Roundtable or Heartland Partnership… I was [also] frustrated by our public school system, and by education in general.
I got a call from Bashir Ali at Workforce Development and Cindy Fischer, who at the time was assistant superintendent of schools at District 150… They showed me the background work that had been done… [on the charter school initiative]. The question they asked was, ‘How do we get the public more interested in this? How do we create a ‘burning platform?‘ I looked at that information and said, ‘You’re telling me that at the fourth-grade level, 85 percent of our kids were meeting requirements, but by the eighth grade, [just] 45 percent are meeting requirements? … That’s the burning platform. You can’t allow that drop to occur.’
I was invited to be part of the taskforce Cindy Fischer was leading. [She] was starting the process of trying to figure out… how do we make a math/science academy available? I was able to provide information on how charter schools could address this problem… [and] we had people going off to visit Indianapolis, Chicago and Springfield to look at charter schools… So we gravitated toward preparing a document the district could use to solicit proposals for charter schools, and then changed into an organization that was in a position to respond to the request for proposals. That’s how we ended up getting into the charter school business. I was absolutely convinced that if we could provide a safe environment, with qualified teachers who were really caring about students, and equip it with some of the latest technology… that all our kids could learn, given the right kind of environment.
I know it’s still a work in process, but I am so delighted with the progress we’ve made [at Quest Charter Academy]… Eighty percent of these kids are low-income students, and likely 70 to 75 percent of them would have ended up on some sort of aid program… or incarcerated. And we’ve got a chance to turn [them] into economic contributors. This is the best of economic development—taking people who are going to cost taxpayers and making them into people who are going to add to the tax base.
The primary criticism of charter schools is, ‘What about the rest of the district? What happens to those kids?’ Can you respond to that?
There are a couple of answers. One, [the district] could do the same thing as we can—so you have to ask that question first: Why can’t they do the same thing in the classroom as we’re doing? We do a few very basic things in trying to get kids on track… In those first two years [fifth and sixth grades], we have longer days, and more days a year. So we give them about 20 percent more instructional time than what they’re getting in the district. Secondly, we have two 45-minute periods a day devoted to mathematics, and also to reading and language arts… If a kid can’t read, you can’t progress. And if you don’t understand basic mathematical functions, you can’t progress very quickly.
The third thing is we have math teachers teaching math, and we have reading and language arts teachers teaching reading and language arts… All of our teaching is done by teachers who are experienced and who majored in the subject they’re going to be teaching. And finally, is the strong curriculum through our contract manager, Concept Schools. They bring a proven model being used in 27 other schools today. So you take that model that’s working elsewhere, and you apply these other things in addition to it.
Is Quest a model you’d like to see the rest of the district follow?
We would like to bring some of these things to the district, but it’s harder for them… The problem of longer days is one. The district lengthened the days by 30 minutes this year, but there are still five-and-a-half hours a day as opposed to seven. Secondly, they’re making decisions about 40 different buildings… so it is much easier for our board to make decisions.
I went to a program the other day called Learning in Motion. This is a YouTube-equivalent database of about 30,000 educational videos… Chris Koch, the state superintendent of schools, was there, and there was a very good science teacher from East Peoria in the room. We got to talking about technology in the classroom… and she said, ‘ISATs are going to be administered this year electronically… and we only have one computer in the classroom. How are 25 students going to take the test on one computer?’ Dr. Koch said, ‘Well, we had $250 million in our proposal to the governor for technology in classrooms to help with the ISAT situation, and he took it out.’
It’s hard to imagine. Each of our rooms [at Quest] has smart boards, and at least a half a dozen computers. If the teacher wants to take the whole classroom to a computer room, they can. So when you start asking, ‘How do we take all this back to the district?’… You’ve got a huge step to make—you’ve got to get technology to the district.
Tell us more about the Power of Play campaign.
Polly and I are both active in the zoo activities and the children’s playhouse… We’re pleased with the progress we’ve made—the new Africa! exhibit… and now the Australian Walkabout development. The new entry building [offers] much better access to parking… the larger gift shop allows them to have a lot more merchandise on hand, and it’s certainly a convenience for all parts of the zoo.
Polly is very involved with the Power of Play campaign, and hopefully we’ll get it concluded in the not-too-distant future. Some parts couldn’t start until the Park District administration was relocated from the pavilion in which [it] will be located. That building will become available shortly, and hopefully we can get some construction underway even before all the money is raised.
Regarding Peoria NEXT, how has that group developed?
It’s had its ups and downs finding its role… If you go back to the kickoff, everything occurred on the morning of 9/11, so you go back… quite a number of years ago. A lot of things have happened going forward from that point.
We were trying to keep on top of the world, and one of the good things that organization helped cause was the I-Wire, which brought rapid communication and connection into the nationwide Internet system that was primarily linking universities at the time… With the maturing of the Internet, a lot of that is second-nature these days… We used to have big conferences at the Civic Center where we’d talk about what was going on and what might happen in the future… and a lot of those things have transpired.
There is an effort underway to re-establish Peoria NEXT in what might be its next kind of role… [as] a convener… bringing together organizations that might want to work on a central project. In the health arena, for example, there is a unique opportunity… Not too many people in this area go outside of it for medical care, so you can easily use it as a test market… and the Department of Health is willing to fund activities that might test some of these theories, and in the process create some breakthroughs in regard to future healthcare alternatives. What that really takes is someone being aware that this funding is available and determining who in the community is willing to help develop the project that’s envisioned.
Whenever you’re trying to play on the leading edge… you keep having to reinvent yourself, because the world is moving rapidly, and if you don’t, you will find yourself on the sidelines. iBi