Interview with Ken Nolen

As our 40th anniversary comes to a close, we are taking a look back at ProcessBarron’s 1st 4 decades. We sat down with Ken Nolen, ProcessBarron’s President, to talk about the company’s past and future. 

The following was taken from our interview. 

Reflections On ProcessBarron’s 1st 4 Decades With Ken Nolen

My father-in-law, Jim Woods, was one of ProcessBarron’s founders along with Jerry Doyal, Bob Perry, M.C. Davis, and A.T. Scott. They started the company in 1981 when interest rates were 17%, and those 1st 5 years were tough. They struggled just to make ends meet. In 1986 they were able to launch some additional product lines, and things started to take off. 

All of the founders were pounding the pavement to find enough business to keep the doors open. Whenever we built something we’d never made before, that product would get added to our portfolio so we could offer it to other customers. This helped us develop unique and diversified product offerings, and it helped us build recurring revenue. It made the founders look brilliant. They were brilliant, but more than that, they were resilient.

Our work started to build a reputation. We would rebuild products that the OEM had designed to last for 6 months, but we re-engineered them to last a year, two years, or five years. That reputation led to referrals and made it easier for us to connect with new customers. 

Christmas With My Father-in-Law 

I was working construction in south Florida. My wife and I had gotten married in 1984, and my father-in-law Jim Woods hadn’t told me too much about ProcessBarron, or Process Equipment as it was called at the time. One Christmas, while we were staying with my wife’s family in Birmingham, my father-in-law said, “I’d love to show you the business.” So we spent the morning touring the manufacturing facility. After meeting the other partners, Jim took me to Sneaky Pete’s to get a hotdog and said, “We need someone to help with estimating and project management. Would you be interested in moving back to Birmingham?” I thought he wanted my talent, but it turned out he just wanted his grandkids closer to home. Either way, it worked out great for my family and me.

Since 1988, I’ve worked in various roles with the company, and in 2008 I was named President. It’s been an honor to lead this organization over the years. 

ProcessBarron Grows and Evolves

There have been some major milestones over the years that defined what ProcessBarron has become today. 

Raumaster Oy

The Raumaster Oy partnership was a major milestone. They are a company from Finland that was hoping to find a partner to break into the US market. A.T. Scott met them at a tradeshow in the early 90s and brought them to meet the partners. Their technology has been at the basis of our materials handling business ever since. 

Gaines Equipment and Barron Industries

Bob Perry convinced Roy Gaines of Gaines Equipment to move his business to Process Equipment. This was a huge deal, and it ultimately set the stage for us to repurchase Barron Industries in 2002.  Acquiring Barron Industries changed everything, bringing together 2 strong teams and enabling exponential growth. 

Southern Field Maintenance

In 2006 we bought Southeastern Construction and changed the name to Southern Field Maintenance. We used them to build out our field services division. The business prospered because it aligned with our other services and grew 20x in 10 years. 

Partnership with Private Equity

As we built more and more value in Process Barron, it became increasingly difficult to buy out partners who wanted to retire. So, we went through an exhaustive 7-year process with an investment banker exploring options for taking on private equity investors. We met with 15 potential partners and in 2015, The Sterling Group became our first private equity partner. We continued to grow, and in 2019 Carousel Capital became our new, and current, private equity partner.   

Operating with a private equity partner is certainly different. It changes the financial model, and sometimes this can be challenging. But it enabled us to enhance our quality of service and grow beyond what we would have been able to achieve independently. This prepared us to weather the pandemic the last year and a half. We’ve seen some of our competitors drop out of the game, creating a lot of opportunities, especially in fan repair. We were really glad to have a stable relationship in place. 

A “Customers First” Company Culture

None of those milestones would have been possible without a great team. We built our company culture around emergency work, and that means it’s built around our customers. They call us when they need something fast. And fast can mean anything from a day to a week or even 6 weeks. And when a plant plans an outage, we have 7 to 10 days to get things done. We can’t overrun that outage, or that customer will never invite us back. Our customers depend on us, and every member of our team takes that very seriously. All of our employees have that “can do” attitude. Whatever the customer wants, we find a way to get it done. 

Preserving this customer-first culture is one of our top priorities. We don’t have a lot of turnover, so when we bring new people in, they see how our long-term employees do things. It’s inspiring to be part of a team that figures out how to get things done when the customer needs something. New people buy into the system because of the example set by our long-term staff. 

We train people in how we do things and provide a career path, whether it’s from general foreman to superintendent or from engineering to corporate leadership. You have to know our product and train for years to be proficient. 

On the other hand, you only know what you know. Sometimes bringing in an outside perspective can be illuminating. So we’ve built on our core team by bringing in some talented folks from G.E. and Caterpillar.  This helped us implement lean manufacturing strategies. It’s also helped us develop a plan for selling to clients who haven’t done business with us before. We think pursuing a good mix of internally developed talent and fresh perspectives from outside hires helps us avoid blind spots and remain competitive. 

We could never have gotten where we are without a strong and dedicated team. Our team and their commitment to our clients helps us gain market share. 

Celebrating 4 Decades

We are so proud of our team and the way they do their jobs every day. But we are also proud of all the people that brought us to where we are today. That’s one reason we are so happy to celebrate our 40th anniversary. It’s like a family reunion, and for some of us, it actually is a family reunion. We can’t wait to bring everyone together to celebrate what has been accomplished.