Wilbur B. Larkin:
Combined business acumen and passion for product improvements
2016 Metal Construction Hall
Wilbur Larkin's impact on
the metal construction industry is seen today in the types of
products produced and how they're brought to market. He held
multiple positions at Kansas City, Mo.-based Butler Manufacturing Co.
from the early 1930s to 1967 including chief engineer, project
manager and vice president and manager of the buildings division.
Larkin, who passed away in 1989, began contributing to the metal
construction industry immediately after graduating high school as a
draftsman at Butler at the beginning of the Great Depression in
Dr. Janice Larkin, Larkin's daughter, practices clinical
psychology in Denver. "College was not an option," she says. "So he
got an entry-level job at Butler as a draftsman, and gradually rose
within the company."
Don Pratt worked at Butler Manufacturing from 1965, as an
industrial engineer, until 2001, as chairman of the company. Pratt
was a product developer alongside Larkin during the late 1960s. "I
consider him one of the founders of the industry," Pratt says.
"When he joined Butler they had just started making a few buildings
for garages out of angle iron trusses and press-formed panels."
Larkin put forward a business model with local representatives
that proved to be highly effective. Pratt says Larkin was one of
the first people in the metal construction industry to articulate a
business model for metal buildings based on local representatives
to provide erection and general contracting services.
"[Larkin] wrote a letter to the senior management of Butler
saying it was obvious to him that making buildings was what they
ought to be doing as a manufacturer, but they really needed local
representation to provide at least steel erection services, if not
full general contracting services, to get the buildings built
properly," he says. "It was the beginning of the idea that you
needed local representation and local builders selling your
Larkin was very influential in the rapid growth of Butler
Manufacturing's builder network following World War II. Butler
appointed the first two Butler builders to its network in 1945. The
network grew at a clip of about 20 builders per year for the next
four decades, so it reached 750 builders in the 1980s. "The
business grew 10-fold," Pratt says.
There was a great amount of pent up demand for buildings in the
U.S. after World War II, Pratt says. "Butler got real busy
following [Larkin's] earlier suggestion that they needed local
representation and started appointing dealers all over the
country," he says. "They were selling these 40- by-100 buildings as
fast as they could make them."
In addition to Larkin's influence on the structure of the
business, he also contributed to the development of metal buildings
and metal building products that expanded markets.
Larkin hired Kenneth Larkin, his older brother, who was an
engineer, to join the research team with Norm Rimmer (inducted in
the 2014 Metal Construction Hall of Fame) and others who would
develop a rigid frame structure for a straight, side-wall building
with a clear interior space in the 1940s.
Janice Larkin says while Larkin and his brother were both
licensed engineers, Kenneth Larkin was able to complete a college
degree and Larkin highly valued his input. "He always wanted to
make it clear that the concept was a joint development between him
and his brother," she says.
Butler Manufacturing produced Quonset hut-style buildings for
the U.S. Navy during World War II, which the Navy wanted to augment
with a 40-foot-wide, 100-footlong, 14-foot-tall, straight,
side-wall building, which could be transported on one truck and
shipped anywhere. Butler received the contract from the Navy and
produced the buildings with its first application of a rigid frame
structure to metal buildings in the early 1940s.
"If a few words could
sum up Wilbur Larkin's career in the metal buildings industry,
those words would be enthusiasm and creativity. He especially loved
being in the field at a time when exciting new concepts and
products were being developed on an almost daily basis. Wilbur and
his wife, Nellie, viewed his colleagues in the industry, and
especially his co-workers at Butler Manufacturing Co., as beloved,
--Dr. Janice Larkin,
The research team at Butler Manufacturing with Larkin, Kenneth
Larkin, Rimmer and others researched, developed and brought to
market components that greatly expanded the use of rigid frame
buildings. During Larkin's tenure, Butler Manufacturing began
producing rollformed panels, rollformed purlins, girts and
secondary structural members and roll-coated panels.
"He spearheaded the whole idea of rollforming panels and
rollforming secondary structural members," Pratt says. "He was the
one who suggested we needed a matching trim and gutter system to go
all the way around the building so they would look better. He was
just a real stickler for details and he was always focused on how
we can make our products better."
Pratt says Larkin was a self-taught engineer. "He was involved
in each step with the development of those technologies and the
applications of Butler Building Systems."
Larkin was one of the founders of the Metal Building
Manufacturers Association (MBMA) in 1956, which focused on
technical initiatives including design specifications and building
codes that improved the efficiency, performance and acceptance of
metal building systems, efforts that continue today. "[Larkin] got
them all together and was instrumental in getting the trade
association going," Pratt says.
Larkin worked to gain acceptance of metal buildings among
building code officials and acceptance of the metal building in
general, Pratt says. "He recognized the industry was having trouble
gaining acceptance by local code officials," he says. "And so he
and a group of the other general managers of other companies got
together and formed the MBMA."
"These folks [at MBMA] were the moving force behind [Larkin's]
dedication, and I know that dad was always so very proud of his
ongoing affiliation with that organization," Janice Larkin
Janice Larkin says Nellie Larkin, her mother, who was a
secretary at Butler Manufacturing when she and Larkin met, took
part in the company's culture and contributed to Larkin's success.
"Wives back in those days truly were a part of the Butler family,
and also partners in the long working hours needed during the
development of the innovations," she says.
Janice Larkin says she recognized extended family company
culture at Butler Manufacturing when she was a child. "I know that
he loved his work, looked forward to it every day," she says. "I
know my dad would want to stress that it was in large part Butler
culture that allowed the degree of creativity that all those guys
had back in those years."
"If a few words could sum up Wilbur Larkin's career in the metal
buildings industry, those words would be enthusiasm and
creativity," Janice Larkin says. "He especially loved being in the
field at a time when exciting new concepts and products were being
developed on an almost daily basis. Wilbur and his wife, Nellie,
viewed his colleagues in the industry, and especially his
co-workers at Butler Manufacturing Co., as beloved, extended