I ain’t the wolfman: John Barba sets the benchmark in contractor training

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By John Mesenbrink

To say that he is good at what he does would be an understatement. John Barba, Taco’s Contractor Training & Trade Program Manager, is one of those industry “lifers” that teaches and trains as vehemently as he cares about the industry in which he “serves.” And if you meet him in person, attend one of his training sessions, or communicate with him via social media or Taco’s own “The Neighborhood,” I think you would come away with that same impression. That is why we—John and Eric—have a tremendous amount of respect for the man. Knowledge, charisma and a bit of humility are some of the driving forces that put Barba atop the training perch in our good industry.

JBTraining23bThe Early Years
Barba was introduced to the plumbing and heating industry at a very early age. Like a lot of people in our industry—in a family business—Barba’s dad, Mario, started his own plumbing and heating business in Harvard, Mass. in 1938. He had graduated from Worcester Boys Trade School in 1934, and worked for a couple of local plumbers until starting his own shop. “He’d bring me along on jobs when I was real young, about six or seven to start. He’d have me fetch wrenches or whatever else he may have needed from the truck. Dad had a crew of guys working for him, so he mostly handled the plumbing service work. It was mostly just ride-along stuff at that point—probably to get me out of my mother’s hair during school vacations,” recalls Barba.

Later, Barba remembers spending an entire school vacation one year, around the age of 13, digging trenches for soil pipe in a condo project at which they were working. “He made sure I was familiar with the business end of a shovel!” says Barba.

John’s father instilled in him lessons that often times get lost in today’s parenting landscape. “If you can work with your hands, you can always earn a good living. That wasn’t just a lesson, it was reality. The old man liked to see people work with their hands; he would always take in apprentices from the local trade schools,” continues Barba.

Says Barba, “Both my mom and dad made sure all their kids understood a few basics: be thankful for the many blessings you have, be honest, always give your best effort, don’t forget where you came from and try to have a few laughs along the way.”

Barba’s father not only ran a successful business for decades, he was a leader in the town government and in the local church. He also founded and ran a national social organization for folks whose families came from the same village in Italy, was one of the founders and leaders of the local Rotary Club, served on the board of directors for the local bank for 27 years and traveled the world after surviving colon cancer surgery in 1965. In his later years, Mario Barba became the town historian, delivered the keynote speech at his town’s 250th Anniversary celebration and inspired a one-man stage show by the great storyteller Jay O’Callahan, called “Village Heroes.”

Barba performs in front of a sold out training class at Taco’s new Innovation and Devlopment Center.

Barba performs in front of a sold out training class at Taco’s new Innovation and Development Center.

In 1969, Mario Barba was awarded a Gold Medal by the Columbus Association’s International Institution of Culture and Assistance in Trieste for “promoting collaboration among all men by means of education, science, culture and loving assistance to the poor and need without discrimination, aiming at universal peace and good will, respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms.”

Yet running the business end of the company was daunting, to say the least. Barba learned first hand how hard running a business was. Making payroll and the payroll taxes, managing and paying for insurance, finding jobs, figuring job quotes, selling the jobs, not selling the jobs, ordering material, paying for the material, deciding which bills to pay and which ones you have to let slide, chasing money, scheduling jobs, finding and keeping good help, improving that help’s skills, keeping the books straight, making sure the company has money in the bank, making unhappy customers happy, keeping happy customers happy, finding new customers, keeping old customers, dealing with a down economy, learning about new technology, “it’s a hell of a lot to have on your plate, and we haven’t even turned a wrench yet. That’s a lot of balls to keep in the air.  You either get good at juggling, or you don’t,” says Barba.

And when did Barba know it was time to take down the stakes and close shop? “When I realized I wasn’t a very good juggler. And, as a result, I have a ton of respect for the guys who sit in my classes because they’re doing something I wasn’t very good at.  Running a business can be a monumental challenge and it takes a special kind of person to do it successfully.”

(l to r) Contractors Dan Foley and John Abularrage share a laugh as Barba provides “hands-on” training.

(l to r) Contractors Dan Foley and John Abularrage share a laugh as Barba provides “hands-on” training.

Training Introduction
Barba recalls getting into training by accident, actually, in 1993 when he was working for Urell, Inc., a manufacturer’s rep in Watertown, Mass. Urell is a pretty large rep firm and, at the time, they were the rep for HeatLink radiant products. “If you liken the growth of radiant heating to the development of a child, the business was just learning to crawl.  And Heatlink, while a fantastic product, was well behind the ‘big boys’ in New England at the time – Stadler (now Viega), Heatway (now Watts Radiant) and Wirsbo (now Uponor),” says Barba.

Barba had been to a few training classes on radiant when he was working with Joe Fiedrich and Rich Trethewey at Stadler, and had installed what passed for “a lot” of radiant at the time (about a dozen jobs). Barba suggested to David Urell that maybe they could move sales a little by offering a training class on radiant. “David asked me if I had ever done a training class before.  No, but I’ve been to a bunch.  How hard could it be?’” Little did they know. Barba will be forever grateful to David Urell for that opportunity.

The first actual training class was in 1993 at Urell. They had five people at that first class, and three of them came as a personal favor. It was a full-day class, and for a first effort, in Barba’s words, it was truly awful.  “We did another one and improved to terrible. The third one advanced to pitiful and the fourth one made it all the way to just plain bad. Our ultimate goal was to just ‘not suck.’”

But they kept doing them, and more people started coming.  About this time Wirsbo was looking for a new rep in New England. Urell was the 2nd largest rep firm in New England (Emerson Swan was and still is the largest) and it was a natural fit. Uponor knew that they were doing training and armed them with a formal training package, which made it very easy. Wirsbo’s trainer at the time, Dave Laursen, was a former teacher and taught Barba about learner-focused and outcome-focused training.

Eventually, Dave was promoted to sales manager and Wirsbo was looking to replace him as a trainer.  One thing led to another and Barba was lucky enough to land there.

The Rest of the Story…
Now Barba is lead trainer at Taco, Inc., and along with David Holdorf, they both do some great things.

Here is the rest of the conversation with Barba:

MH: What was the transition like to Taco? How is it working for John White, Jr.?
Barba: The transition to Taco was very easy. The vibe at the company is very similar to late-90’s Wirsbo—a can-do kind of attitude with a commitment to strong customer relationships.

And working for Johnny White, well, it’s hard to put into words. The man’s passion for his company and his commitment to keeping 500 manufacturing jobs in Rhode Island and Massachusetts, and his commitment to the betterment of his employees’ lives, is truly inspirational. He calls Taco a “great experiment,” and the company is constantly evolving—looking for newer, better ways to do things. As an employee, that inspires and empowers you. You want to go above and beyond not just for yourself, but for your coworkers, too. We’re a relatively small, family-run company competing against billion-dollar international conglomerates, and we’re competing successfully. There’s something very American about that, and working for John is not so much about the paycheck, it is a cause; we’re succeeding because our products are innovative, our service is stellar and our programs help our customers be as successful as they want to be.

MH: Who are some of your mentors?
Barba: There’s been lots of help along the way. I was fortunate enough to work for Richard Trethewey for a year, and that exposed me to a new world of products and ideas for creating comfort. Bob Goodrich held my hand when I installed my first several radiant heating jobs. He showed me the right way to get it done and the value of personal relationships in this business.

But the day I first heard Dan Holohan speak was the day my entire life changed. He showed that there were reasons heating systems are installed the way they are, and that there’s actual math and science behind how these things work. He also showed me the value of making training interesting and fun for those poor souls who have to sit in the chair and listen to you yak all day long!

Can’t forget Dave Urell for actually letting me get in front of a group of people for the very first time, and Dave Laursen and Joe Pauley at Wirsbo. I’ve never met anyone who can hold an audience in the palm of his hand like Dave can, and Joe’s leadership and commitment to professionalism bang around in my skull pretty much every day.

MH: Which do you prefer, turning wrenches or PowerPoints? Why?
Barba: I’m 53 years old, so it’s PowerPoints all the way. I like the process of developing a training program from start to finish, and the PowerPoint is always the last thing do.  It’s a logical process—kinda like building a heating system. When you build a heating system, you don’t start with the boiler, you start with a pad of paper, a pencil and a calculator. You do the math, select the boiler, size the pipe, choose the right circulator and develop the materials list, all so you can deliver to your customer what they need and want. The last thing you do actually is install the system in someone’s house.

Developing a training program is a similar process. You start with a pad of paper, a pencil and, since there’s always math in heating, a calculator. From there you slowly and methodically build the program so that you can deliver to your customer what they need and want. The last part of the process is creating the PowerPoint.

MH: What do you think is the proper mix when giving a presentation—humor, engagement, information, etc.?
Without solid information the program is kinda useless, so you start with that. The attendee has to leave with information that can be put to use the very next day in someone’s basement. Without that, the program is a failure.

How the presenter delivers that information is the key, and how they do that is as unique as the person doing the presenting. People like to be talked with, not lectured, and they like to be an active participant, not a passive observer. There are lots of ways to make this happen—but they’re all techniques. The information is the most important part.

MH: I’ve noticed a lot of music references in your classes and/or blogs. Was there a musical influence growing up? I heard you were a DJ at one time?
Barba: That is correct. I spent several years right after college as a DJ and a radio news guy.  At the time I thought I was going to be the next Wolfman Jack or Dan Rather but I kinda hit the talent wall. It was a heck of a lot of fun, but unless you’re Howard Stern or Chuck Nowlin, it’s not terribly lucrative.

I think most people from our generation have a “soundtrack” to their lives. We were the first generation to live with transistor radios, phonographs, stereos, FM, LPs, CDs and iPods. I can clearly remember my older sister’s fixation with The Beatles, and listening to Sgt. Pepper when it first came out in 1967. Give a listen to the Beach Boys song “Add Some Music To Your Day” from 1970 to see what I mean.

I try to select music for the blog posts to help make a point, or set a theme.  Sometimes songs are chosen just for the hell of it, but that’s rock and roll, right?

MH: What do you love most about your job?
Barba: That every class, whether it’s a two-day factory class, a one-day class in the field, or a 90-minute webinar, is completely unique. Every audience is different and has its own personality, and that is so much fun to experience. People often ask me if I don’t get bored presenting the same material all the time and the answer is it’s never the same material, it’s never the same program and it’s never the same audience, so it never gets boring.  The fundamentals of hydronics don’t change.  Sure, there are new products to discuss, but the basics remain the same. The difference is that you’re sharing that information with a unique group of people every time, and each group brings something new to the table. The fun part is you never really know where each class is going to go, or how it’s going to end.

MH: What are your thoughts on the skilled trades shortage of workers entering the job market?
Barba: The numbers tell the story. A huge segment of the plumbing and heating trades is over the age of 50—with fewer wrench-turning years in front of them.  Combine that with the dwindling number of youngsters in the pipeline to replace them, and you have a potential catastrophe on your hands. There’s a lot of service and replacement work out there, and a shrinking supply of skilled people to do it.

I think programs such as mikeroweworks.com and films such as “The Tradesmen: Making an Art of Work” are shedding light on this problem, and are showing people that a life in the trades can be lucrative, and can be a fairly quick path to owning your own business without the albatross of huge college loans.  And there’s no greater satisfaction that actually building something of value with your hands.

Every time I meet someone like Anthony Tosco, a young, self-made contractor from Philly, or Andy Mickelson, a young, self-made contractor from Montana, I feel very good about the future. These guys are making their own futures, and are perfect examples of what a smart, talented and ambitious young person can achieve in this business.

MH: Big picture: you are a recipient of the Carlson/Holohan award and you are one of the most well-respected, hard working people in this industry. When you finally hang it up, how would you like to be regarded? Legacy? (Other than the guy who leaves early in the 4th quarter only to miss great NFL comebacks)
Barba: You had to bring that one up, didn’t you? Don’t think I’ll ever live that down.  And so everyone knows, yes, I did leave the December 8 game between the Patriots and Cleveland Browns with two minutes to go, with the Patriots down 12 points.  And yes, the Patriots scored two touchdowns in the final minute and held on to win the game while I was in the parking lot feeling like a total doofus.

Legacy? Please. My only marketable skill is the ability to talk non-stop for long periods of time and not get tired. It drives my wife crazy, but I’ve been lucky enough to find people who are willing to pay me for it. Otherwise I’d be working for Eric Aune, and no one wants to see that!


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