Bob Chapman

Bob Chapman in factory

Bob Chapman is the CEO, Chairman, and visionary leader of Barry-Wehmiller Companies, a global manufacturing firm headquartered in St. Louis, Missouri. Having inherited the CEO role in 1975 at the age of 30, Bob grew the company from $18 million to $3 billion in revenue, combining a solid growth strategy focused on acquisitions with a culture centered on what he calls “Truly Human Leadership.” Over the past two decades, Bob has committed himself to spreading his leadership vision beyond Barry-Wehmiller. Through his book, “Everybody Matters: The Extraordinary Power of Caring for Your People Like Family,” and his work with business leaders and educational institutions, he aims to "humanize” our understanding of leadership as well as our education system.

Bob Chapman has been a member of Ashoka's Entrepreneur-to-Entrepreneur Network since 2022. This profile was created upon his induction into the network.

The Entrepreneur

Barry-Wehmiller was founded in 1885 and acquired by Bob’s father in 1957, who was then the company’s treasurer. Bob joined the company in 1969, after graduating as an accountant and obtaining his MBA from the University of Michigan. He spent six years in various roles, until his father named him Executive Vice President, the day before passing away unexpectedly. 

Bob inherited both the ownership and the role of CEO in a company that, according to him, had survived for decades thanks to its founders’ original innovations but had never been able to grow beyond them. Its core business was still the same as in the late 19th century: manufacturing production machinery for the beverage industry. Bob implemented an aggressive and daring growth strategy that relied heavily on investments in new technologies, such as solar energy. Initially, his strategy paid off, and the company more than tripled its revenues in less than five years. However, Bob’s strategy was risky, and unfavorable market conditions put Barry-Wehmiller in a serious crisis in the early 1980s, crippling revenue and nearly causing bankruptcy. 

Steering the company through this crisis, Bob learned from his mistakes and adopted a new growth strategy based on acquisitions and financial discipline. Since 1984, he has led Barry-Wehmiller through more than 115 successful acquisitions, which the company now calls adoptions. 

The term, adoptions, is indicative of Barry-Wehmiller's radically transformed company culture, which Bob started implementing in the early 2000s. Inspired by several key events in his personal life (see Person section), he started looking at everybody in his company as “somebody’s precious child,” whom he has the “privilege of leading.” Based on this perspective, Barry-Wehmiller's culture is now built on a leadership model that views each employee not as their function in the company, but rather as a holistic person with needs, desires, and ambitions. 

Called “Truly Human Leadership,” the culture’s purpose is to create a work environment that is fun, rewarding, and meaningful, and offers each individual opportunities for personal development and growth. Its core message: “We measure success by the way we touch the lives of people.” Bob’s main intention was to make his employees feel valued, cared for and fulfilled. 

Based on lessons from parenting, the key components of Truly Human Leadership are trust and responsibility, leadership through empathy and listening, and extensive recognition of individual employees and their accomplishments. It asks leaders (at all levels) to make this the first principle of leadership: how can I help this person become the best version of themselves? Rather than the far more common: how can I make this person best help me achieve my objectives? 

Beyond this, Bob has identified four core strategies to implement Truly Human Leadership in new environments. These are: 1) communicate a strong message of grounded optimism, hope, patience, and caring; 2) listen to the team, engage them in creating a vision, and give them the responsible freedom to move the company toward that vision; 3) build teamwork and create a sense of oneness; and 4) celebrate all progress, no matter how small (“catch people doing things right,” as Bob says). 

Although these ideas have become somewhat more commonplace, they were highly unusual in the early 2000s. Even in 2011, research found that 88% of employees in the U.S. felt that their organization didn’t listen to or care about them.1 While the number of U.S. employees that feels engaged at work has risen from 26% in 2000, it was still only 36% in 2021.2 And although these numbers are better in some places, 19th-century manufacturing companies are typically not among them. 

At the start of this effort, in 2002, Bob gathered some 20 people from all areas of his company. Together, they drafted the “Guiding Principles of Leadership,” a document that is being used, unaltered, until this day. It includes core principles like trust, pride, positive communication, and celebration. Together with his leadership team, Bob concluded it was not enough to put this document on the wall; they decided it needed to be put into people’s hearts.  

Bob and his leadership team took the time and effort to visit the different parts of their company. They met with people at all levels, showed them the document, and asked them: “This is what we believe we should be. How do you feel we are doing on this? What can we do better?” In these conversations, they managed to inspire a sense of trust by actually listening, took all feedback seriously, and implemented the lessons learned. This effort has become the core of Truly Human Leadership’s practical implementation, and it is repeated with each new acquisition. 

Far beyond improving the company’s culture and employee satisfaction, the implementation of Truly Human Leadership has had a profound impact on both Barry-Wehmiller's financial performance, as well as its employees’ lives outside of the work environment. Over 90% of those who joined Barry-Wehmiller's leadership classes reported that it improved their marriage and relationship with their children.  

Combined with a strong and resilient business strategy, Truly Human Leadership has proven to be a key component of Bob’s own leadership and entrepreneurial journey. It has been the defining characteristic of his business acquisition (“adoption”) and leadership strategies, enabling him to combine social impact with stellar business results. Truly Human Leadership has helped him offer meaningful careers to his more than 12,000 employees and post a staggering 10% compound annual growth for over 30 years. 

The Vision

Building upon the lessons of Truly Human Leadership, Bob’s vision now extends far beyond Barry-Wehmiller and its employees. His ultimate vision is a world where we no longer say “TGIF: Thank God It’s Friday,” but rather “TGIM: Thank Goodness It’s Monday.” Recognizing just how pervasive the lack of employee engagement is, and how much this affects people’s personal lives and those of the people around them, Bob believes that if we implement better leadership, we can truly “heal the brokenness in this world.” 

In fact, Bob argues that if businesses and their leaders had the courage and the skill to actually care for the people they have the privilege of leading, business could be the most powerful force for good in the world. At the core of this vision is a shift from thinking about management to thinking about leadership. Bob defines management as the manipulation of others for your own success. By contrast, he looks at leadership as the stewardship of the lives entrusted to you, and as genuinely caring for the people you are leading. Underpinning all of this is the most crucial ingredient to caring leadership: empathetic listening skills, in direct opposition to most leaders’ focus on speaking skills. 

In order to help the world make this shift and implement Truly Human Leadership, Bob focuses his efforts on two areas: “curing the patients” by inspiring and working with existing businesses and their leaders; and transforming the way our education systems think about and teach leadership. 

Along with Barry-Wehmiller, Bob has developed multiple initiatives to achieve these two goals and to share his leadership philosophy with the world. Together with Raj Sisodia, co-founder of Conscious Capitalism, he wrote the book “Everybody Matters: The Extraordinary Power of Caring for Your People Like Family,” which serves as a manifesto for Truly Human Leadership. He founded the Chapman & Co. Leadership Institute, a training and consulting firm that has helped over 600 organizations implement the lessons of Truly Human Leadership. Together with his wife, Cynthia, he also founded and funded the Chapman Foundation for Caring Communities, a non-profit that offers free leadership training and has supported over 11,000 participants. 

Perhaps Bob’s most passionate work is in the field of education, which he views as the core of both the problem and the solution. Part of his mission is to transform higher education – particularly business education – by shifting from teaching management to teaching leadership, and by teaching human skills as well as academic skills.  

This work includes an initiative launched this year by Barry-Wehmiller and Fordham University, called “Humanizing Business Education.” The initiative engages not just Fordham University, other universities and colleges, and the Association of Jesuit Business Schools, but also organizations like the UN and Ashoka. One of its main goals is to provide a leadership training program for individual business school professors. Its Academy of Humanistic Leadership, operated by Fordham University and Barry-Wehmiller's own leadership academy, has been running its first cohort this summer. Over the next five years, this program aims to train at least 5,000 professors from around the world on how to teach and empower students to be humanistic leaders who, like those within Barry-Wehmiller, empower those around them to be the best version of themselves. 

In addition to higher education, Bob has recently started working on a pilot program with Charlotte Latin, a private K-12 school in Charlotte, North Carolina. Before agreeing to work with the school, he required that the school commit to implementing the lessons of Truly Human Leadership not only in its curriculum, but also in its own leadership model, and that this decision be supported by the staff, students, parents, and trustees. Building on this broad base of support, the experiences at Charlotte Latin will serve as a starting point for a broader campaign to include humanistic leadership in school curriculums at all levels.  

The Person

Bob Chapman grew up in a middle-class family in Missouri, as the middle of three siblings. He is married and has six children and multiple grandchildren. One of his sons, Kyle, joined Barry-Wehmiller in 2009, after 10 years of working in private equity, and was elected as the company President in 2020. Family is an important part of Bob’s life, and he takes pride in his ability to be a present and caring father despite the demands of his job. 

A faith-driven entrepreneur, Bob describes himself as someone who has been blessed with a vision of a world where everybody matters. He finds proof of God’s work in the fact that “a simple accountant from Ferguson, Missouri” has been able to create the impact he has. Bob’s faith is a major source for his vision for leadership, and one of the main revelations that led him to it happened during a church service.  

Contemplating what a privilege it was for his pastor to inspire so many people to be the person they’re intended to be, it suddenly occurred to him that he had the opportunity to do the same with the thousands of people in his company – and rather than only speaking to them one hour a week, he had them in his care for 40 hours every week. This revelation inspired him to look at business as a potential force for good 40 times more powerful than our churches, an opportunity and responsibility he has taken very seriously since then. 

Apart from regularly sharing this story, Bob doesn’t talk much about his faith in public and he has kept it out of his leadership model, which he wants to be inclusive and accessible for anyone regardless of their religious beliefs. He believes his vision of seeing everybody as somebody’s precious child is not inherently religious, and that people don’t have to be religious in order to appreciate the importance of caring for others. 

Beyond his faith, Bob attributes his own leadership and success to several core traits: common sense, creativity, an immensely optimistic attitude, and an intellectual curiosity about humans and what causes them to behave the way they do. A great example of his curiosity can be found in his work as an auditor at Price Waterhouse, prior to joining Barry-Wehmiller. More than simply auditing his clients, he actively tried to understand them, their business models, their challenges, and the way they managed to be successful – a learning ground that proved very useful when he took over Barry-Wehmiller's leadership. 

Having held that leadership for over 46 years, Bob’s main concern now is to make sure his vision doesn’t leave this earth with him, and that his message becomes a movement. He has built an organization that is ready and committed to continue carrying that movement, with many of Barry-Wehmiller's leaders actively sharing the message of Truly Human Leadership and engaging in leadership initiatives beyond the company. When successful, their work, particularly in transforming education and teaching future generations to be more caring individuals and leaders, will ensure an impact and legacy that will last well beyond Bob’s lifetime.