Obituary: Bill Barr, businessman who transformed small family firm into an industrial giant

Bill Barr of Barr Ltd, owner of Ayr Utd FC.
Bill Barr of Barr Ltd, owner of Ayr Utd FC.
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William James Barr OBE FICE, businessman, philanthropist and sports club owner. Born: 
12 March 1939 in Ayr. Died: 
8 November 2019 in Maybole, South Ayrshire, aged 80

Bill Barr’s passing, after final years in which he suffered stoically from illness, brings to the end a classic Scottish life, of a Lad o’ Pairts who took his small family firm to great heights, and along the way improved the life of his neighbours.

As he took Barr Construction from a small, family firm with eight employees to being a major national concern with 1,500 employees, Bill would self-depreciatingly joke about this being “not bad for a wee guy from Ayrshire with a wheelbarrow”.

He accomplished great things, mainly because he dotted the ‘i’s, crossed the ‘t’s, covered all the bases and had a very good staff of long-serving employees who went that extra mile for him.

The family firm had been established as a masonry and joinery business by his grand-father and grand-uncles, in the late Victorian era, and had jogged along, with a good name locally in South Ayrshire and Dumfries and Galloway until, in 1969, Bill took over.

He came to the company with his civil engineering degree, obtained at Paisley Technical College (now the University of the West of Scotland), then Glasgow University, experience gained as a land surveyor during his National Service with the Royal Engineers and a decade of work experience with various big civil engineering concerns.

This long apprenticeship had convinced him thatthe road to success was to take as much of a major contract as possible in-house. Gradually the Barr method saw him obtain bigger and better contracts locally and further afield, because he was reliable.

He had his own surveyors and architects. The basic stone came from Barr-owned quarries. The company had its own concrete works and steel fabrication yard. All the heavy plant, bulldozers, dump trucks, cranes etc were Barr-owned. He offered the construction industry a complete in-house service.

As a result he picked up an ever-growing portfolio of work and at its height in 2000, the eight-employee firm he had taken over in 1969 was employing 1500 people, building motorways, sewerage works, water treatment works, distilleries and supermarkets, and had a £200 million turnover.

Even in the early days, Bill Barr had been a keen sponsor of sports teams – starting with Ayrshire amateur football team Minishant Amateurs. He sponsored Ayr United, and the Ayrshire-based Barr Construction basketball team. Perhaps Ayr United was his main love, as his sponsorship led to a takeover of the club, where he worked with such iconic managers as the great Ally MacLeod and Simon Stainrod, presiding as Chairman over The Honest Men’ great run to the League Cup Final.

His business expertise saw him elected to the SFA Council and voted-in as vice president of the Scottish League, while he was ideally placed to branch out into football stadia building, with Barr building or refurbishing some 35 stadia the length and breadth of the UK. Perhaps the best-known of these jobs was their building of the new, 36,000-capacity St Mary’s Ground for Southampton.

But his biggest sporting success was perhaps his involvement with the Ayr Scottish Eagles ice hockey team. Fellow Ayrshire businessman Glen Henderson had bankrupted himself in attempting to build The Centrum as a home for the Ayr Raiders. The building was standing, half-finished, when Bill Barr took over.

He completed the job, took over the team, renamed them the Ayr Scottish Eagles, and how they soared – completing the first Grand Slam of winning all four major Elite League trophies and competing with distinction in Europe.

Sadly, there was a major flaw with Centrum – it was too wee; the financial numbers didn’t add-up and when the team moved to the larger Braehead Arena, under different management, it collapsed.

He got Centrum built, but, to his lasting regret, he was unable to build the one sports stadium he wanted to above all else. Ayr United are still waiting for the new home Bill Barr planned to give them

Bill was a terrific example of old-fashioned philanthropy, using the money had made to help those less fortunate. He was one of the drivers of the Ayrshire Hospice, as founding chairman. He was heavily involved in Columba 1400, a charity dedicated to building leadership skills in disadvantaged youngsters.

He was a visiting professor at the University of Strathclyde, member of court and a Governor at Paisley University, and Chairman of the Board of Management at Ayr College and National President of the Association of Science Education.

He was also heavily involved in the Institute of Civil Engineering, being awarded a Fellowship for his many contributions to his profession.

He chaired the ICE’s Health and Safety and Finance committees, and was a major player, as founding chairman in establishing an ICE commercial subsidiary which restored the Institute’s finances. ICE awarded him its prestigious Garth Watson medal in 2000, eight years after he was made OBE by The Queen.

He was born in Kyle, so, he knew his Burns, and did a good Immortal Memory – he was a popular turn at many a Burns Supper.

Bill Barr always believed, had fate dealt him a different hand, he could have survived “on the tools” in the building trade, and he had a healthy respect and duty of care towards his workforce.

This was repaid by the long service which so many of his key staff afforded him. One former Barr employee said: “The boss knew all our names and took an interest in our lives, while he probably worked harder than any of us.”

When Bill Barr spoke, people listened. He could command a room, while his rages, when things didn’t go to plan, were legendary.

One veteran Ayrshire journalist recalls being pinned to a wall at Somerset Park by an irate Barr over some slight to Ayr United.

“But, once Bill had calmed down, both myself and my Editor received a gracious apology from him,” they said.

Bill Barr was, nearly always, a gentleman.

Bill is survived by his wife of 45 years Marlean, children David, Gordon and Jane, and granddaughter Alice.

MATT VALLANCE