Disc jockey, radio news anchor, licensed plumber, sales rep — these are a few of the jobs John Barba has held in his lifetime. And, though it may not seem the most logical career path to his current position as director of training for Taco Inc., Barba said he wouldn’t have it any other way.
“I’ve been very, very lucky to work with the people I’ve been able to work with,” Barba said. “When you look at the arc of your life ... I’ve had a series of things that have just fallen in place for me.”
Barba’s industry knowledge, sharp sense of humor, and raw passion for helping others has earned him the respect of his peers and the title of The NEWS’ 2015 Best Trainer.
THE LONG AND WINDING ROAD
Barba grew up in his family’s plumbing and heating business outside of Boston and was carrying wrenches around by the time he could walk.
“My parents were first-generation Italian-Americans, and I have my dad’s 1931 Worcester Boys’ Trade High School [now Worcester Technical High School] diploma sitting in my office. He started his business in 1938, and he was the only plumber in town for a long time.”
But, Barba did not immediately follow in his father and brother’s footsteps.
“In high school, I got the bright idea I wanted to be a DJ,” he said. “I thought it would be cool. I studied journalism, got a degree, and I worked as a DJ for a while. Then I was a radio news reporter and anchor for several years, till the late ‘80s.”
Alas, Barba felt he was not cut out to be a news reporter and returned to the family business. “I was a licensed plumber doing everything imaginable in the business. I loved putting together boilers, and we started doing radiant heating in the late ‘80s.”
However, it was not long before Barba again left the family business, this time for good.
“I kind of reached the point where I had hit a wall as far as what I was really good at. I was good with boilers and heating systems, but on the plumbing end of it, I was terrible at drain waste and vent, and I wasn’t very fast. I had reached the point where there were a lot of guys out there who were a lot better than I was.”
In the early ‘90s, he landed a job with Richard Trethewey from “This Old House.”
“I saw him on there doing radiant floor heating and thought, ‘that is cool,’ and, ‘I’d really like to learn about that and deliver it to customers,’” Barba said. “I got to know him a little, and he eventually hired me to be the inside sales system designer and troubleshooter. I learned the business from a completely different end, and I watched how enthusiastically he would talk about the products, the systems, and the commitment to doing things the right way — that’s a lesson that has stuck with me ever since. He’s one of a few people besides my dad who has helped shape my career more than anyone else.”
GOOD LUCK AND FORTUNE
The turning point for Barba’s career came in 1991, when he attended his first Dan Holohan seminar.
“If there was an event that changed my life, that would be one of the key ones,” he said. “For the first time, I learned there was science behind hydronics. I never knew because nobody had taught me. I learned there’s a reason things happen the way they do.”
By 1993, Barba was working for a different Boston rep firm, which is where he first began training others. “We were trying to figure out how to boost business, and I said, ‘Why don’t we do some training seminars?’ They said, ‘Can you do that?’ I lied through my teeth and said, ‘Sure, I can do that!’”
Barba’s first training seminar was awful, he said. “There were five people there, and three of them came as a personal favor to me. I spent weeks preparing for it and had the entire presentation typewritten and double-spaced in large font in those plastic sleeves in a binder, and I was scared to death. And it was a full-day seminar. But, we were able to pull it off.
“The first one was terrible, but then we committed to doing them every month,” Barba continued. “So, the next month, I did another, and another, and we worked our way up from terrible to horrible. Then, we went from horrible to pathetic. And, eventually, in about six months, we finally didn’t suck.”
Soon after that, Barba took a training manager position at Wirsbo (now Uponor), where he stayed until landing a training job with Taco in 2007. The rest, as they say, is history.
“I can’t stress enough how fortunate I’ve been,” Barba said. “I talk for a living; my only marketable skill is the ability to talk nonstop for two or three days in a row without getting tired or bored. Being in the right place at the right time and having the right people believe in me and tell me what to do — and, ultimately, let me figure out for myself how to survive and accomplish a few things — involved a lot of luck and good fortune.”
Barba said Taco has been especially instrumental in propelling his career forward. “John White gave me the opportunity to come to work for Taco, and it was a blessing to work for a family business again and to know the owner of the company was so personally invested not only in the success of the business, but also in the people who work there. He has such a passion for the company and a dedication to American manufacturing. He’s a rarity in that he’s committed to not only keeping Taco’s 500-plus manufacturing jobs in the U.S., but keeping them in Cranston, Rhode Island.”
But, Barba stressed, his career success would not have been possible if it were not for his wife, Heidi.
“I couldn’t do what I do without her,” he said. As a step-mother, she took care of my four kids while I was out training and traveling — without her, my job would be impossible to do. She’s really my rock.”
A LITTLE RESPECT
One thing Barba strives to do at all times is treat everyone he encounters with respect and dignity. That, he said, he learned from his mother.
“Her lesson was to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes and don’t be judgmental,” Barba said. “Everybody has their own story, and everybody has their own reasons for being where they are in life, and you can’t ever look down on somebody. More often than not, you’re better off looking up to people and learning something.”
When it comes to training, Barba said he simply strives to do his best. “These people deserve the best I’ve got,” he said. “They are, every day, doing something I failed at as an installer, contractor, and mechanic. They’ve got a skillset that I don’t have, and I wouldn’t have a job without them.”
It’s important, he added, to remember that his job is to share information, not just sell a product.
“A contractor or a service tech, they can sniff out a sales pitch from a mile away. Everybody has good products; nobody is making garbage out there. To turn it into a big sales pitch is an insult to the audience,” Barba said. “It’s my hope that, if I do my job well, my audience will see that these products are really cool and can help solve the problems they run into every day. If I can share how these products can help them, then I’ve done a very good job. But I don’t beat them over the head.”
THE ‘BEST OF THE BEST’
“He’s responsible for bringing other trainers into the forefront, including myself,” Wagner said. “I didn’t know the occupation existed before I met John.”
Barba is not only a phenomenal trainer, Wagner said, he’s the standard by which others in the industry measure themselves.
“He’s the best of the best. He set the mark that guys like me will spend the rest of our careers reaching for and never making it. He’s set the bar that high. I want to be as good as he is, and I’ll keep trying, but I’ll never get there. He could win your award every year.”
Anthony Reikow, training and technical support, B.J. Terroni Co. Inc., met Barba 13 years ago when he attended his class at Wirsbo. “His teaching style changed my life,” he said. “He just keeps the class engaged and active. He’s funny. He makes it easy.
“His friendship is valuable,” Reikow continued. “I have had the honor of being able to give back to him a little bit of what he’s given to me, but guys like him catapulted guys like me. I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for Johnny Barba.”
“He’s just a solid, solid friend. You always know that if you need something, he’d help you with whatever it was,” Wagner said. “He’s genuinely a really great guy.”
PUTTING FOR PAR
When asked what his goals are, Barba, an avid golfer, jokingly said, “I want to get to scratch.” Professionally, however, he will continue working to improve his training. But, ultimately, he just wants to make sure nobody leaves his class saying it was a waste of time.
“My goal is excellence,” he said. “I’m never going to be perfect, but someday I hope to achieve a level of excellence. I want to be good at what I do. I want to be able to look back and say, ‘I didn’t suck.’”
Barba also offered parting advice for other trainers in the industry.
“You can never sit still,” he said. “The day you say, ‘I’m done learning as an individual’ is the day you should probably just hang it up. It’s the same thing with anything you do. My dad used to say, ‘It’s what you learn after you know it all that really counts.’ That’s something I’ve tried to remember.”
Publication date: 9/21/2015