Matt Barr, CEO and chairman of Carolina Color Corp., has his dream job.
Oh, he wouldn't have minded playing professional football if that had been an option, he said, but “I was about 4 inches too short and 40 seconds too slow” in the 40-yard dash in college.
“There's really nothing else I'd want to do,” he said in a recent phone interview. “I'm fortunate to be in the position I'm in. It's very rewarding.”
Barr, 51, graduated from Columbia University in New York in 1987 with a bachelor's degree in history. To make the transition from a liberal arts degree into the world of business, he took executive education programs in publishing and worked in sales at such big names as McGraw Hill, Time and Sports Illustrated.
“I started in the magazine business right out of college,” he said “My first job was in New York City in 1987. By the time I came back to Manhattan in 1994, I had lived in five cities in seven years and had four different jobs.”
Those stints included working as an account manager at Time magazine, as San Francisco sales director for Sports Illustrated and as publishing director for Sports Illustrated Presents. (He describes his time at SI as the most interesting/unusual job he's ever had, “next to being a bouncer at the Palladium in NYC during college.”)
He found all the experiences rewarding. “So I encourage young folks today to say ‘yes' to opportunity. It is amazing how much of a career accelerant simply saying ‘yes' can be when you are just starting out.”
After meeting and marrying Gwin Carter, “the woman of my dreams,” Barr said, he was drawn into the plastics business several years later by her father.
“She was the baby of seven,” and her siblings were older and already-established. The business “had no obvious heir-apparent” and her father wanted to retire.
And Barr was looking for a change. “This was an opportunity to turn the page and see if it would provide a different kind of challenge, something less predictable.”
That's just what he got. “Boy, did I,” he said. “I was surprised how fast-paced it is.”
He's been with the Salisbury, N.C., colorants maker since 1998.
“I came in [to the company] in a marketing role so I could learn to understand the business. It was a natural role for me to step into and gave me the ability to sort of digest the industry,” Barr said.
It was also a way to prove himself: In a sales role, “there's nowhere to hide” if you can't do the job.
After about 18 months, he moved into a direct sales supervisory role, then became president for about 10 years. He was named CEO four years ago.
“When I came in, I recognized what I didn't know, and hired around my shortcomings,” he said. That approach apparently has worked.
The company had 2014 sales of about $50 million, Barr said; he expects this year's total to reflect growth of about 5 percent. Carolina Color, which also has a facility in Delaware, Ohio, employs about 120 people, up from 110 in May. The firm recently bought a 20,000-square-foot building behind its Salisbury facility to boost its warehouse space.
Carolina Color practices “smart,” measured growth. Though it has more than 600 customers, “our biggest customer is probably no more than 5 percent of our business,” Barr said.
The company makes colorants mainly for durables, outdoor products, packaging and non-automotive transportation. Its patented, high-load “G2” product offers ultraviolet-light protection and is used in outdoor products like trash cans and portable toilets. Carolina Color this year began commercial production of its next-generation high-load product, G3, which takes CCC into engineering resins. Barr said the company plans to have a second line for commercial G3 production running in the first quarter of 2016.
Barr attributes his firm's ventures into new products, in part, to something he learned from a mentor at Sports Illustrated.
“Alvaro Saralegui, a legendary general manager at Sports Illustrated, mentored me in all of the right ways. He encouraged me, provided me with valuable insight and pushed me to become a free thinker with a passion for finding solutions to unique challenges,” Barr said.
Barr has applied that philosophy at Carolina Color.
“I saw what happens when you give people room to grow — the company grows along with them,” he said.
“With the support of this culture of innovation, our development team has created several new products and invented two revolutionary technologies [G2 and G3] that are legitimate paradigm-shifters for the entire industry.”
He said he encourages employees to “be bold.”
“Don't be afraid to make mistakes. Don't be afraid to raise your hand and question the status quo. Collaborate with your team members because we can't do anything alone.”