Written by Jason Plett Published on March 8th, 2018
Arnold, Edwin and Peter Barkman started Barkman Hardware when they first bought Bills’ Paint Shop on Mainstreet in 1948. Starting out as a small tinsmithing shop, the company soon grew to include all manner of plumbing and heating supplies.
According to the late Peter Barkman, “It was just an open space with a lot of stuff in it. And so, we ran a heating and plumbing business out of there.” The brothers stocked supplies and could order in anything that customers might need. Along with plumbing and heating supplies, the brothers also sold general merchandise, such as mops, dishes, cleaners, tools, paint, floor covering and hardware supplies.
For five years after starting the business, the store focused solely on being a hardware and supplies retailer until Arnold, Edwin and Peter saw an opportunity for growth.
Entry into Concrete
At the time, steel septic tanks were prone to rust out in three to five years opening the door for the Barkman brothers to experiment with concrete septic tanks. Starting out with pouring the septic tanks in the ground they quickly realized the walls would not hold up and had to come up with a better solution. The plumbing side of the business slowed down during the harsh winters in Manitoba which spurred on the need to fill the employment gap. Providing the solution, Arnold designed and created an innovative septic tank made of precast concrete that could be produced in their shop during the cold winter months. This allowed them to retain their employees and grow their business.
Peter said, “Winters were very slow, and that’s why we thought that if we could build septic tanks in the winter time, we could employ our people and then install them in the summer time. So that was really what drove the whole thing: wintertime employment”
Unlike the standard model of the day, which needed to be cast in the ground and was very difficult to make, the new design could be made indoors and transported by truck to the installation site. This new process made it possible to create a durable product. Along with the improved production process, Arnold also invented a concrete syphon for the tank. At the time, septic tank syphons were made of cast iron, so making this part out of concrete made it ten times more cost effective to produce.
Proving successful, the Barkmans looked to expand their precast concrete line and in the mid 1950’s, precast steps were added to production. At the height of their success, Barkman was producing up to 30 steps a day. Shortly thereafter, they also started producing sidewalk paving slabs. These are the products that birthed Barkman Concrete as a leader of precast concrete.
In 1960, the Barkman brothers soon found that their current location was no longer able to meet their production needs. Only eight years after first designing the new septic tank, the brothers built a new manufacturing plant where the Barkman Concrete headquarters have been located ever since. It was expanded numerous times in the following years as Barkman Concrete grew its product line and became well known throughout Canada and the United States for its quality and innovation.
A key aspect to Barkman Concrete’s growth and success can be attributed to the consistent outlook of innovation and improvement within the company. As Peter Barkman said, “Whenever we would hear about a new product somewhere in the world, we would go and find out what they are doing and bring it here if possible.” This attitude led Peter and his son Alan on many trips around the world in search of new ways to work with concrete that could be brought back to Canada. The bulk of these research trips were to Europe, specifically Germany, as they pioneered the use of concrete after World War II. Using what they learned across the world, Peter and Alan consistently pushed Barkman Concrete to be an industry pioneer. In 1975, Barkman began production of Finnetta, a dog-bone shaped paving stone, which established Barkman as one of the first companies in North America to produce paving stones. One year later, Barkman Concrete pushed further into this field and introduced the Uni-lock paving stone. These two products built the foundation for Barkman to establish a dominance in the hardscape industry which has expanded across Western Canada.
By the year 1978, both Edwin and Arnold had decided to pursue other ventures leaving Peter at the helm of Barkman Concrete. That same year, Peter’s son Alan was invited to join the company with his wife Joy. Under Peter’s guidance, Barkman Concrete expanded its product lines as well as market share, and the company saw continued growth. Peter stepped down as president in 1996 to make way for his son Alan Barkman. Since then, Alan has driven Barkman Concrete to expand into new product lines, new territories and develop innovation as a competitive advantage.
In the last two decades, Barkman has continued to expand and improve upon its robust and diverse product lines. Barkman produces a wide range of hardscapes, site furnishings, do-it-yourself kits, trenching, agricultural and custom products. Barkman products can be seen far from Canada with products that have travelled to Guantanamo Bay, Norway, the Caribbean and even Madagascar. Barkman’s reach within Canada also continues to grow. The latest advancement to the Barkman brand came in 2015 when Barkman took large steps forward in concrete innovation with its new Hess paver plant. This state-of-the-art manufacturing facility, was the first of its kind in North America and has helped increase production and provided countless other product possibilities. Revolutionizing the dry cast concrete production method, the Hess plant has pushed Barkman Concrete forward as a truly progressive market pioneer and has set them apart from competition.
In 2016, Barkman Concrete said goodbye to Peter Barkman when he passed away in April. Having just received the CME Pioneer award two weeks prior to his passing, Peter left a legacy of building stronger communities through his philanthropy and by pushing the industry forward. The Pioneer Award is awarded to individuals who have developed and nurtured a thriving manufacturing business and who are key builders of Manitoba’s manufacturing community. Having grown Barkman from the small hardware store to what it is today, Peter Barkman was truly a pioneer, and is deeply missed.
As Alan Barkman looks back on 70 years of success, Barkman has enjoyed, he observes that “it did not happen by chance but through the efforts of passionate people who worked hard to make the unthinkable possible. My father, the late Peter Barkman, said, ‘When you have good people, it’s very rewarding to see what you can do that hasn’t been done before.’ Barkman Concrete has great people as its foundation and its driver of success. It has been amazing to see that from the humble beginnings of a small hardware store to what is now a well-recognized brand. Barkman has indeed grown while staying true to its core. We can look back with pride, knowing that the company has achieved its successes by holding true to the same family values and beliefs as it did when it began, and that countless people have been positively affected by our impact in the industry and our local community. Barkman is built upon a legacy of building stronger communities and with this in mind, we look forward as an innovator creating concrete solutions.”