Glen Barton was destined to “bleed yellow” since he was five years old, when his father purchased the first family tractor.
“At six or seven, I could drive it and do everything you could do with a farm tractor,” says Glen Barton, retired chairman and CEO of Caterpillar. “It was sort of in your blood.”
Barton worked at Cat for 43 years, but his interest in the industry didn’t start when he joined the company—it began long before that.
At a young age, Barton had a fascination with the way things worked, and he taught himself about engines using an unlikely tool: a washing machine.
“Washing machines used to have gas engines on them,” he says, describing how he used to remove the engine to tinker with it.
Throughout his youth, Barton ran his family farm in southern Missouri with his two older brothers. He then followed in their footsteps to become a civil engineer.
Barton graduated from the University of Missouri in 1961 with a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering. Following graduation, he immediately joined Caterpillar as a college graduate trainee. His career took a turn when he accepted a marketing position at the company.
“I was actually interviewing for an engineering job,” he says. “I was surprised when I ended up getting invited to further interviews in Peoria for a marketing job.”
Prior to his promotion as chairman and CEO, Barton held a number of positions at Cat, including sales associate, manager, vice president, executive vice president and group president. His career sent him to a number of regions, including Latin America, Europe, North America, Japan, Australia, Africa and the Middle East.
“I spent a lot of time on airplanes,” he says.
Growth and prosperity
Throughout his career, Barton spent a tremendous amount of time on product development, and he played a part in the evolution of the equipment, from cable-operated to hydraulic to electronically controlled high-pressure hydraulic equipment.
As chairman and CEO of Caterpillar, he concentrated heavily on industries that offered economic growth, keying in on the mining industry.
“I feel what I learned from the mining industry was significant.” he says. “I got heavily involved with mining companies and their professional organizations and helped broaden our product line significantly.”
When Barton began working at Cat, the company’s product line consisted of about 10 models of equipment for road building. When he realized the economic opportunities available in mining, he spearheaded Cat’s entry into the industry.
“He recognized very early that mining was going to be very, very important for Caterpillar, and to not play in that arena to the greatest extent practical would be a big mistake,” says Jim Parker, former vice president of the Americas Distribution Division for Caterpillar and current CEO of Carter Machinery. “He was very passionate about Caterpillar success.”
Barton’s involvement in the mining industry, as well as other industries, helped to greatly expand Cat’s product line.
“It became a major sector of our overall business success,” Barton says. “The key thing there was [offering] larger equipment.”
Despite his success in the aggregate and mining industries, Barton had to face some challenges stemming from the economic downturn.
“We had to make some tough choices,” he says. “We elected to get out of the agricultural business simply because it was robbing resources, at a time when we couldn’t afford to do so, from other product lines that were very successful.”
As chairman and CEO of Caterpillar, Barton helped pave the way for a significant culture change within the company.
“Within Caterpillar, we changed the culture, in my opinion, by doing two things,” he says. “We organized into business units where we had these 15 different profit centers that were responsible for producing results and developing product. Then the introduction of Six Sigma addressed some of our quality problems and organizational issues.”
Six Sigma, introduced to the company in 2001, is an integrated, disciplined strategy geared toward improving facets of an organization based on historical information and data, as well as optimizing efficiency and success. It strays away from making common-sense decisions and harbors the importance of fact-based decisions.
“Internally, Glen was really known for his Six Sigma thrust,” Parker says. “Forever, he’ll be known as the ‘Father of Six Sigma’ for Caterpillar.”
The integration of this strategy helped stimulate employee efficiency and organize the company. It also encouraged a refined sense of unity that Barton fostered with his employees.
“Whenever I visited one of our manufacturing plants, I insisted on having an opportunity to meet with all of the employees, if possible, or at least a segment of the employees each time, to convey my knowledge of what they were doing and give them some feedback and appreciation for what they were doing,” Barton says.
Barton’s people-oriented personality and leadership eventually led Caterpillar to grow from a $685 million company in 1961 to a $30 billion company in 2004. Today, his legacy at Caterpillar is felt every day through the company’s continued success in economic growth and expansion.
“We have an expression around Caterpillar that you get ‘yellow blood,’” Barton says. “And I certainly am one of those individuals that ended up with a full tank of yellow blood.”