Today is Founders Day at Barr! Barr’s founder, Doug Barr, established our employee-owned company on May 26, 1966. Doug’s unique brand of consulting prioritized long-term client relationships built on trust, exceptional service, innovation, technical excellence, and creative problem-solving—values we continue to uphold today.
Simultaneously independent and a strong champion for mentoring others, Doug believed in balancing individual interests and passions with collective responsibility. Long before “flexible work environments” had become a commonplace concept in contemporary work culture, he introduced this approach at Barr, encouraging employees to manage their own time and act as consultants.
With that in mind, we spoke with Barr’s current President and CEO, Ward Swanson, who will celebrate his 25th anniversary at Barr this year, to learn more about his journey and what sets Barr’s culture apart.
One of 1,000 origin stories
Every single person at Barr has their own unique story—what brought them here, why they choose to stay, and how they’re fulfilling their passions and career goals at Barr. It is this diversity of backgrounds, experiences, and perspectives that makes us strong. My own story is just one of 1,000 from across our company and begins on a dairy farm in northern Minnesota, where I grew up.
When I was young, I spent a lot of time working on the farm and wandering through the woods. It was a great place to grow up. I learned all about machinery and animals, and I made a lifelong connection with the outdoors. We produced a lot of our own food, burned wood for heat, and relied on and helped our tight-knit community when needs arose. Fixing things and figuring out how to solve problems were everyday occurrences. In high school, I took a job as a dishwasher in our local small-town restaurant. I was promoted to cook and supervisor quickly, and I began managing people at age 17.
My own story is just one of 1,000 from across our company and begins on a dairy farm in northern Minnesota, where I grew up.
I left the farm to attend Gustavus Adolphus College, a small liberal arts college in southern Minnesota. I remember looking for a degree that would allow me to use my problem-solving skills on the job. Practically, it had to be a discipline that would help me quickly find employment. I found I really enjoyed chemistry, as it not only requires experimental design, data analysis, and problem-solving but also involves using tools, building things, and even learning a little about plumbing.
During my second summer of college, I applied for an internship where my uncle worked—a construction company that had recently transitioned to an environmental consulting/remediation firm. I landed the job and, after a summer of traveling around the state assessing underground storage tanks, I was hooked on the industry. I enjoyed doing technical work, being outdoors, and implementing practical solutions to make the natural environment better. After graduating, I worked in an environmental laboratory full-time while continuing to do spill response and other outdoor assessment work.
A few years later, I and a few of my colleagues ventured away from the confines of the lab and the office to start a new company, one that involved my passion—the outdoors. We invested in what was then a new upcoming technology used for rapid assessment of contaminated properties (Geoprobe® drilling and mobile laboratory analysis). This experience brought out the entrepreneur in me and helped me learn how to build, expand upon, and eventually sell a startup venture.
Limitless career paths
After selling the company, I was looking for a new adventure that would allow me to use my technical expertise while still nurturing my entrepreneurial spirit. I was convinced that I would have to choose between those two passions—either following a technical path or striking out on my own with another startup business. As I struggled with this decision, a friend referred me to Barr. I was amazed at what I found: strong technical leaders, limited hierarchy, client focus, a common-sense management approach, compensation for every hour worked (through our comp time system), and a key ingredient I had not seen from any other employer—personal responsibility for your own success with multiple career paths to choose from. These are the principles I loved then, and still love today.
It is this collaborative nature and the emphasis on allowing individuals to self-direct their career path that keeps people at Barr long term.
I began near the bottom of the technical ladder and proceeded to follow my own passions as they aligned with the organization. These passions included both the technical side (chemistry and developing new services) and the entrepreneurial side (internal management assignments and marketing new services). As I pursued varied projects and assignments, Barr’s system allowed me to flex between both the technical and management worlds, giving me stretch assignments and opportunities in both areas.
This culminated in allowing me to lead our organization down many paths, including data quality initiatives, developing our geochemistry practice, per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) studies, retooling our staffing system, business unit management, and, ultimately, becoming Barr’s president and CEO. I have been able to do all this thanks to Barr’s organizational structure and my mentors at Barr who helped me improve and gave me enough room to succeed (but not so much that I crashed and burned). It is this collaborative nature and the emphasis on allowing individuals to self-direct their career path that keeps people at Barr long term. Many former CEOs continued to work at Barr after serving their terms, mentoring people and serving in technical, client-facing roles.
Freedom to follow your passions
Much like when I started, Barr still has the feel of 1,000 individual businesses all collaborating together to help our clients, and one another, succeed. We were founded on a free market system, meaning each individual is responsible for producing a viable product, marketing that product, and ensuring its ultimate quality. At Barr, there is no manager overseeing you or assigning you projects; you are responsible for yourself, both in career direction and in aligning your project work. This allows our people freedom to meet their commitments while following their passions. While business support roles, such as those in finance, human resources, and marketing, are more traditionally structured, those groups also encourage an enterprising attitude, giving employees opportunities to work on meaningful projects that match their particular interests.
Much like when I started, Barr still has the feel of 1,000 individual businesses all collaborating together to help our clients, and one another, succeed.
While this approach has evolved over the years (we now have a coaching system and other employee-development programs to help people succeed in following their career path goals), the free-market system has been the basis of how we succeed together with limited management. This is best seen in our company’s core value—providing an exceptional client experience—both inside and outside Barr. Employees are encouraged to promote their individual brand and seek out interesting projects while meeting and exceeding our clients’ goals. By offering a collaborative consulting culture, we work together to get the job done, whether that’s with our own staff, outside experts, or competitors.
People: Our most important asset
Barr is employee-owned, meaning the majority of employees have equity in our organization. The employee-owned culture provides an incentive for employees to be good stewards of our resources and to perform at their best. This effort is rewarded with company contributions to employee stock-ownership plan accounts, along with 401(k) company contributions and an annual bonus program. Barr’s flexible schedules, hybrid work arrangements, and compensatory (comp) time further promote Barr’s commitment to providing its employees with a healthy work-life balance.
Barr’s culture has been, and continues to be, a great fit for me. I am proud of what we do in this organization and all we have accomplished and continue to accomplish for our clients, our communities, and the world.
Interested in joining the Barr team? Check out our open positions.
About the author
Ward Swanson began serving as Barr’s president and CEO in 2021, helping industry and regulatory authorities solve complex analytical issues related to preserving and restoring the environment. He is a nationally recognized expert on hydrocarbon fingerprinting, low-level mercury analysis, dioxin and furan analysis, and chemicals of concern such as per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) and 1,4-dioxane. His three decades of experience also encompass environmental-data quality assurance and quality control; laboratory regulation and certification; analytical methodologies; and internal-database quality.
Image gallery (below):
Barr’s former CEOs celebrate the company’s 50th anniversary in 2016. From left to right: Al Gebhard, Larry Molsather, Doug Connell, Doug Barr, and John Lee.