October 26, 2012By J. Elias O'Neal
Life has always been about adventure for Thomas C. Barber III.
And in the world of business, sometimes the wilder the journey the better.
“One could call it schizophrenic,” said Barber, 68, with a chuckle before taking a sip of coffee. “I believe life is about adventure, taking risks and making the best of it.”
Barber and his wife of 15 years, Kathleen, recently sold their share of Great Clips to Morehead City-based McFreedom LLC – a franchise agreement that covered the Wilmington market – and A & B Personnel to Raleigh-based Greene Resources Inc. for an undisclosed amount. The decision came after wanting to spend more time with family and a decade of working in Wilmington.
For more than 40 years, Barber’s career has transcended all kinds of boundaries.
As a young gun, Barber served as a helicopter commander and flight operations officer during the Vietnam War. After returning to the States, Barber worked as a system engineer, served as an account executive for Merrill Lynch and started a dry cleaning business. He later went to work for a couple of small airlines before beginning a 16-year stint with then Houston-based Continental Airlines as a vice president of numerous operations within the company.
But for Barber and his wife, the grind of the corporate world began to lose its luster.
“We both didn’t want to live in Texas anymore, and it was getting to the point that we both wanted to get out of the airlines business,” Barber said. “We knew it was time to try our hand at something different.”
During a trip up the Eastern seaboard in 2000, the couple stopped at many popular Southern destinations, including Savannah and Charleston, but none of those destinations appealed to the couple. It was driving over the Cape Fear Memorial Bridge into Wilmington that would change their course forever.
“We drove over the bridge and I looked to my left and saw the city, and I told Kathleen, ‘this is it,’ ” Barber said. “She looked over to her right and saw the port and asked, ‘Are you sure?’ ”
Upon further inspection of the Port City, the couple was hooked on its charm, location and climate, and quickly closed on a residential lot in a Porters Neck neighborhood. That same weekend, Barber and his wife met with a Raleigh franchise broker to discuss purchasing a franchise that would be a good match for the area.
After mulling numerous ventures, their broker approached them with an offer they could not refuse.
“We had a great opportunity to have the exclusive rights to Great Clips for the entire Wilmington market,” Barber said. “It would be Great Clips’ first or second time to sell the franchise to an entire market … we took the deal.”
Minnesota-based Great Clips is a national hair salon chain that offers discounted haircuts and styling.
After taking the deal, both soon retired their corporate posts with Continental, sold their suburban Houston home, loaded their boat and coasted from Clear Lake, Texas into a dock at Porters Neck to start the newest chapter of their business career.
The duo was a team. Barber handled the accounting, scouted locations for future salons, while his wife handled the employee training, scheduling and coaching.
“We were very synergetic. Kathleen and I had a great ability to work together,” Barber said. “I would say that was one the main reasons we were so successful.”
From their home office, Team Barber would eventually open 14 Great Clip salons over the next nine years throughout greater Wilmington, including spots in Southport, Shallotte and Carolina Beach.
Barber said the key was finding Class-A retail space that had high-traffic and foot volumes. Barber said to accomplish that goal, he would track new or redeveloped Harris Teeter developments in the area.
“It worked for our model,” Barber said. “Great Clips is a low-price, high-volume business … if it meant paying a little extra in rent to be in a shopping center that had proven success, it was a great match for our business model.”
In 2006, the couple joined forces with Kathleen’s sister, Darcie Keefe, to open A & B Personnel – a firm that worked with a variety of companies in the area to find full-time, part-time and temporary workers.
Even through the Great Recession, both companies defied the odds, Barber said.
But with the arrival of the couple’s first granddaughter, Reagan Sophia (who was born four weeks ago in Colorado Springs, Colo.), and Kathleen’s sister battling an illness,
it was time to reconsider their ventures.
This summer, the couple sold its share of Great Clips and A & B Personnel.
But it doesn’t mean the couple is resting on its laurels.
While enjoying their boat and spending more time with each other, Barber said he and his wife are active in the community by participating on various boards and organizations, including serving as vice president of the New Hanover County Airport Authority and mentoring with the University of North Carolina Wilmington Cameron School of Business Executive Network.
He added that he’s also on the hunt for his newest venture.
“I would like to be involved with a business as an investor or advisor, not a day-to-day operator,” Barber said. “I have the experience to bring, and I’m open to anything.”