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Wilbur B. Larkin: Combined business acumen and passion for product improvements

2016 Metal Construction Hall of Fame

Larkin

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 1929.

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."

Local Representation

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 product."

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."

Rigid Frame

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, extended family."

--Dr. Janice Larkin, daughter

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."

Trade Association

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 says.

Company Culture

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 family."