The gift of good-bye

My father gave me many gifts throughout his lifetime, but one of the most important was the freedom to sell our 80-year-old family business.

By Lynda Barness

My family’s business had its beginnings in the days of Calvin Coolidge and the flapper dress. In 1925, Joseph Barness—a young immigrant with little money but much hope—and his wife, Mary, gave up chicken farming in rural Bucks County, Pa., and built a house for sale.

And then they built another. And another. Dedication, patience and persistence were the building blocks of this effort. The goal was the American dream—home ownership.

Better roads were built, electricity was brought to the county and a community grew. Success was measured not in dollars, but by neighbors emerging in a farming landscape.

Joe and Mary Barness were my grandparents. They were pioneers, and they helped other families develop roots.

Those who worked on Barness homes became part of this kaleidoscope. Business was conducted with a handshake. Each house mattered, because the people who would live there mattered.

My father, Herb Barness, joined the family business full-time in 1948, after serving in World War II and completing his engineering degree at Bucknell University. His vision and courage changed the family business from a small, local builder to one that encompassed shopping centers, a skating rink, apartment buildings, subsidized housing, a race track, golf courses and the like.

I was privileged to work with my father for about 14 years before his untimely passing in 1998. I could go on about the life lessons I learned from him, especially how to treat the seller. My father never lost sight of what was really important, and he taught that to his children and grandchildren by example.

I continued the business until 2005. By that time, I could see that the real estate market had changed. Farmers would just call my father and ask if he wanted to purchase their farms. But shortly after his passing, I felt the need to establish a land acquisition team. National builders were entering our market, and local municipalities were making development more difficult. I saw the writing on the wall and knew it was time for a builder of my size to get out of this market.

My father and I didn’t discuss succession while he was alive (we both assumed he would live to be a lot older than 74!), but I remembered an off-the-cuff conversation in which he said that if anything ever happened to him, I should sell the business and not risk everything that had been established in the decades before.

This is what I call the Gift of Goodbye. It was offered in the context of another conversation, but with it I was given freedom to use my best business judgment and not be clouded by expectations from the grave. I knew it was a gift then, but I had no idea what a huge gift it was until I was faced with his loss. There was no need to perpetuate the business out of emotion.

I looked for a buyer who was part of a family business, who would understand the values of The Barness Organization and honor those values by hiring most of the employees who had worked at Barness for years.

The sale was exceedingly emotional for me, because I was leaving people I had worked with for more than 20 years. But I was heartened by the fact that many of my employees were continuing on or had found other rewarding work.

The first house my grandparents built had a detached garage with a swinging door and a chicken coop in the rear yard. So much has changed —but maybe not everything. The Gift of Goodbye will last for my whole life.

Lynda Barness, the former president of The Barness Organization, now is the principal of I Do Wedding Consulting in Philadelphia (www.idoplan.com).