Cameron & Barkley Company

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Cameron & Barkley Company

P.O. Box 118007
Charleston, South Carolina 29423-8007
(843) 745-6900
Fax: (843) 745-6973
Web site:

Private Company
: 1865
Employees : 1900
Sales : $610 million (1998 est.)
NAIC : 421830 Industrial Machinery & Equipment Wholesaling; 421610 Electrical Apparatus & Equipment, Wiring Supplies, & Construction Material Wholesalers

Cameron & Barkley Company is one of the oldest and best known providers of industrial and electrical supplies in the United States. It operates branches in 24 states and has a presence in Canada and Mexico. The entirely employee-owned company has grown significantly in the 1980s and 1990s, and its membership in the International Supply Consortium extends its reach even further.


Archibald Cameron was born in Scotland in 1813. After emigrating to the United States, he established the Cameron, McDermid and Mustard foundry in Charleston, South Carolina. An 1859 directory lists J. Johnson, Jr., and J.F. Taylor as partners in Cameron & Co. Foundry. The firm offered stationary and marine engines, high and low pressure boilers, saw mills, threshers ... etc. The foundry was destroyed for the second time in a fire that ravaged Charleston in December 1861.

Among the foundrys products was equipment for the Confederate Army, including possibly the first rifled bore cannons made in the United States. Shortly after the Civil War ended, Cameron went into business with Rufus Calvin Barkley, creating Cameron & Barkley Company on July 6, 1865. Both men had banking as well as manufacturing backgrounds. They established offices on the corner of Meeting and Cumberland Streets, a location that also stored oil, iron, and machinery.

Before the war Barkley had worked in Philadelphias Baldwin Locomotive Works, and the new venture drew upon his machinery manufacturing experience. The company also supplied equipment to South Carolinas cotton mills, forming the basis of the industrial supply business. Railroad and steamship operators also patronized the company. Among its offerings were Studebaker horse-drawn wagons. After 20 years, Barkley bought out his partner, Archibald Cameron.

With the dawn of the new century, the company began dealing in light bulbs and lanterns, and phosphate mines in the South Carolina low country had become a major source of business. Cameron & Barkley opened an office in Tampa, Florida, in 1908 when its clients began mining phosphate in that vicinity. Lumber mills attracted Cameron & Barkley to Jacksonville in 1912 and an office was opened in Miami. These sites comprised its industrial supply network for many years.

The company (known by then as CamBar) tried to put out top-quality catalogs and attempted to ensure that the manufacturers it represented were only the best. Its leather-bound 1926 catalog for mill supplies and machinery, contractors equipment, and roofing material weighed in at nearly 800 pages. Other catalogs addressed heavy sawmill machinery; internal combustion engines; centrifugal sand dredges; pumping machinery; concrete, brick, and tile machines; irrigation outfits; motors and generators; machine tools; road building machinery; woodworking machinery; crate and veneer machinery; and locomotive cranes. CamBar had four locations at the time: Charleston, Jacksonville, Tampa, and Miami. Its CamBar logo incorporated the word service written on an underlining ribbon.

Rufus C. Barkley, the founders grandson, joined the company in 1922 and became vice-president five years later. In 1933 he succeeded his father, Matthew B. Barkley, as president.

New Postwar Ventures

Cameron & Barkley began distributing electrical supplies during World War II. Paper mills became major customers. It established branch offices in Savannah, Georgia, and Orlando in 1944. By 1946 it was opening its sixth store in Orlando, where the company helped develop spray irrigation systems for Florida citrus growers. CamBar also supplied the related packaging plants.

In 1950 CamBar employed 250 and had annual sales of $10 million. A fourth-generation descendant of one of the founders, Rufus C. Barkley, Jr., joined his father at the company in 1954. In the mid-1950s the company opened the retail lighting store that would bring it the most name recognition among Charleston residents.

In 1956, however, Cameron & Barkley moved its headquarters to Jacksonville and established a distribution center there. Barkley reasoned that site was geographically more central to the companys business and a better location to warehouse its stainless steel and specialty metal products.

Rufus C. Barkley was elected chairman in 1958 as Edward J. Fitzgerald, Jr., became president and general manager. Barkley took over when his father died in September 1959. He later explained to Industrial Distribution that many employees left the firm at the time, not having confidence in their new leader. Faced with poor results in most of the companys product lines, Barkley made what he later called one of his lifes best decisions and bought Butts Electrical Supply in Charleston.

Barkley also bought out the companys plumbing business with another employee. It became the Barkley Bilbro Supply Co. CamBar announced a move to a new headquarters in North Charleston, selling its site at Meeting and Cumberland Streets.

By October 1959 CamBar had moved its headquarters back to Charleston from Jacksonville. A new office also had been added in Bartow, Florida, while the Savannah branch closed.

Sales doubled between 1955 and 1965. The company invested in extensive renovation and construction to keep up with demand. It was now involved in construction (roofing, heating, and plumbing), agriculture (irrigation), and the automotive industry. The companys electrical supply business had five branches, all in South Carolina. At the time of its 100th anniversary, Cameron & Barkley employed 200.

New Owners and New Growth in the 1970s and 1980s

In 1975 the company was one of the first of its size to develop an employee ownership plan. Wary of takeover offers, Rufus Barkley wanted to keep the integrity of the companys heritage intact. The move also was credited as a great employee motivator. Sales were about $26 million in 1975. The company also sold its plumbing subsidiary that year.

Interestingly, to combat favoritism, an antinepotism provision was written into the Employee Stock Ownership Plan. This meant not even Barkleys own relatives could be hired. He reported that he was the last one interested in the family business anyway.

Sales passed $80 million in 1981. CamBar reopened a branch (industrial) in Savannah in 1982. The company named William G. Halbritter president and chief operating officer. By the next year, CamBar was entirely employee-owned.

CamBar Software, originally CamBar Business Systems, spun off of Cameron & Barkleys in-house MIS operation in 1981. IBM had been so impressed with CamBars in-house order processing system that it asked the company to develop a version for others. A separate company owned by the employee trust, CamBar Software provided software for distribution and warehouse operations. In 1982 it became a sister company, owned by the Employee Stock Ownership Trust.

CamBar restructured in the mid-1980s after a decade of growth. Administrative, industrial, electrical, and national sales divisions were created. It preferred not to use offshore suppliers and created a flexible manufacturing group to equip the smaller, more automated plants that were becoming a trend. Customers began to expect more emphasis on service, including storeroom management.

Sales were more than $150 million in 1986. Industrial and electrical supplies were about equal in size. The full line industrial supply catalog had 800 pages, the electrical, more than 600. Cameron & Barkley, now with 40 branches, opened Florence Electronics in 1987 and purchased Raleighs Southeastern Electronics in March 1989.

Company Perspectives

Our Vision: Excellence in every aspect of our business. Our Mission: To exceed the requirements and expectations of our customers by empowering all employee-owners to provide superior value through quality service, innovation, continuous improvement, and strategic alliances with key suppliers. Our Principles: As a company responsible to our customers, suppliers, and shareholders, we will: expect integrity, professionalism, and ethical conduct from all employee-owners; be committed to continuous improvement in all areas of our business; be committed to superior service and satisfaction for all customers; create and sustain alliances with our customers, suppliers, and employee-owners; maintain a visible commitment to quality throughout our organization; create a participative work environment designed to empower all employee-owners to be innovative and creative; promote and encourage an attitude of cooperation and mutual respect.

CamBar embraced Total Quality Management in the late 1980s. Many new clients were attracted to the company initially because it carried both industrial and electrical supplies. It pitched one-stop shopping to the point of selling the Gatorade drinks so popular with construction crews. The company, however, no longer carried roofing, plumbing, heating, automotive, or irrigation supplies.

Expanding Horizons in the 1990s

By 1990 Cameron & Barkley had 1,400 employee-owners. Operations stretched from Florida to North Carolina and its catalogs boasted more than 100,000 separate items. The founders great-grandson and namesake was still chairman, and James R. Warren was president and CEO.

CamBar founded its Material Management and Services Inc. subsidiary in 1993. This provided staffing and support for warehouses. Its involvement in the role sometimes extended to the point of actually owning the clients inventories.

Saturn Corporation, the offshoot of General Motors that set out to change the way cars were made, used Cameron & Barkley not only as an electrical and electronics vendor but also to manage 1,800 indirect suppliers. Supply chain management would be the central role in CamBars relationships with large manufacturers.

A number of management philosophies urged multinational corporations in particular to reduce the amount of vendors while reducing costs. To this end, in June 1994 the company teamed with McJunkin Corp. to form McJunkin-CamBar and the International Supply Consortium. The pairs combined annual revenues topped $1 billion. Within a couple of months, Bearings, Inc. (later known as Applied Industrial Technologies) joined the venture. Bearings brought 300 branches and $800 million in annual sales to the consortium.

CamBars revenues were more than $380 million in 1994. The company maintained a million square feet in warehouse space among 40 sites. It had embarked on an automation program incorporating radio frequency data communications and bar code scanning to improve efficiency and accuracy. It reported a 20 percent productivity increase while reducing costs dramatically. In 1995 CamBar had 1,640 employees and operations in ten states. Annual sales reached $540 million in 1996 and rose another $50 million the next year.

To position itself for the coming century, CamBar began to expand by acquisition into the Midwest. It bought Warner Industrial Supply Inc., a Minneapolis company nearly as old as CamBar itself. Warners geographic reach extended as far as Washington state and Colorado. The purchase of Illinois-based Don E. William Co. soon followed. The acquisitions were expected to add more than $90 million a year to CamBars revenues. CamBar Software also grew dramatically in the 1990s. Employment doubled to 100 in the 1990s and sales reached $8 million a year. Clearly, topping a billion in sales shortly into the new millennium was not out of the question for the venerable South Carolina company.

Principal Subsidiaries

Material Management and Services Inc.; McJunkin-CamBar (50%).

Principal Divisions

Administrative; Industrial; Electrical; National Sales.

Further Reading

Cameron & Barkley and McJunkin Add Bearings, Inc. to Consortium, Industrial Distribution, September 1994, 12.

Cameron & Barkley Company, 1990: Celebrating Our 125th Anniversary, CamBar Quarterly, Fall 1990.

Cameron & Barkley Offices Will Shift to Jacksonville, News and Courier, May 2, 1956.

Company History, Employee-Owner Handbook, Charleston: Cameron & Barkley, 1995.

Ellenbogen, Milt, and Josephine Fiamingo, Distributor of the Century: Cameron & Barkley Company, Industrial Distribution, December 1986, pp. 30-38.

Gardner, Fred, saturns Better Idea: Outsource Purchasing, Electronic Business Buyer, September 1993, pp. 136-41.

Hatcher, Thurston, Cameron & Barkleys a Heavyweight, Post and Courier, January 15, 1991.

Making the Transition to World-Class Performance, Automatic I.D. News, March 1995, pp. 58-61.

McDermott, John P., CamBar Continues Expansion, Post and Courier, December 30, 1998, p. 7B.

_____, CamBar to Buy Supplier, Post and Courier, January 12, 1999, p. B7.

McJunkin-CamBar Deal Start of a Trend, Industrial Distribution, July 1994, pp. 9-10.

Parker, Jim, Software Specialists, Post and Courier, January 24, 1994, pp. Dl, D10-D11.

Resume of the History of Cameron & Barkley, Charleston: Cameron & Barkley, C. 1965.

Williams, Charles, Barkley states Top Businessman, Post and Courier, November 13, 1995, p. C2.

Frederick C. Ingram