I love talking about people who are able to remake themselves, and Barrett is one of those people. His Montgomery County deck-building business grosses more than $1 million a year, allowing Barrett a comfortable, $80,000-a-year living.
Barrett has gleaned important business lessons along the way, including the importance of financial checks and balances, but he is most proud of reinventing himself. The key, he said, pulling a page from the Nike playbook, is to Just Do It.
He learned about taking initiative early on in his father’s basement laboratory, where Barrett, the third of four children, tinkered with ham radios, stereos, computers and color televisions at their Indiana home. His first car was a junker that he spent two years rebuilding before it would run.
“My dad was a scientist, and he got me excited and involved in technology,” Barrett said.
After graduating from Purdue with a degree in electrical engineering, Barrett started at Motorola in the spring of 1974, earning $11,500 a year while working on improving the battery life of walkie-talkies.
The computer junkie eventually worked his way into developing some of Motorola’s early cell-phone technology. But all the while, he harbored an urge to run his own business.
In 1983, after turning down a transfer to Malaysia, he took $85,000 of his retirement savings and invested in the budding computer retail chain called ComputerLand. He liked the company for several reasons — and it had only 20 stores, so there was growth potential. With its big sales floors and wide computer selection, ComputerLand was a bet that the appeal of the personal computer would expand beyond the geeks and become the Silicon Valley version of Henry Ford’s Model T, with one in every household. (A fellow named Bill Gates thought the same thing.)
“I was doing my due diligence, and I can remember talking to other store owners in Silicon Valley. I asked one store owner, ‘Am I jumping of a cliff?’ He grabs me and says, ‘If you are thinking of doing it, just do it. Spend the money and get into the business.’ ”
The Small Business Administration guaranteed his $250,000 loan, which funded his first store in Virginia Beach. Sales were tepid for a few months, then rocketed once the IBM PC came to market.
“I had people coming up to my store from North Carolina to buy IBM PCs for their hamburger chain,” he said. His store was soon grossing a couple of million a year, producing a $200,000 profit, which Barrett used to expand into five stores in the Tidewater area.
When Best Buy, CompUSA and then Dell, with its direct-distribution model, came along, his profit margins shrunk from 45 percent to 15 percent. At one point, he was saddled with hundreds of computers that he couldn’t sell, which taught him another important lesson: sell them at a discount — fast.