Barrow Construction (Pty) Limited is the oldest construction company in South Africa. SA Builder speaks to John Barrow, Managing and Contract Director, about the company’s 122 years of existence and its long-standing ties to what is now the Master Builders Association North (MBA North). The first John Barrow came to South Africa in 1897. Johannesburg, at that time, was a small mining town. He and his son were carpenters from Barrow in England, and that’s really how the business started, as a small carpentry shop. My great grandfather was one of the first Presidents of the MBA as it was known then. Subsequently, my grandfather, my father and myself have been Presidents ̶ I was President in 1997 and our relationship has evolved over the last 20 years. Since then, the company has steadily grown in size and scope, and there have always been Barrows at the helm moving the business forward.
It was John’s great-grandfather Albert Barrow that grew the family’s carpentry business into a prominent construction company. He befriended a famous South African architect named Herbert Baker and quickly became his favourite builder. Many of Johannesburg’s early iconic buildings were designed by Sir Herbert Baker and built by my great grandfather, including the Institute for Medical Research, on Hospital Hill in Johannesburg as well as the arch that is the feature of the Hartbeespoort Dam Wall. Later Albert’s son, John was also responsible for institutional buildings such as Wits University and St. John’s College. The South African construction industry in general has become fragmented and the need for a “Builders’ Club” has declined because the world has opened up. As we’ve grown, our needs for services has diminished, unlike the days when there was a Building Industry Council and we were heavily involved in wage negotiations.
Training in the industry has also fragmented and the fact that companies don’t employ massive numbers of people anymore, due to the tough economic environment, has also factored into the changes. We still employ a fairly large labour force, however.
Barrow is engaged in major construction activities in Sandton, Rosebank and Waterfall and we’re in joint venture with Attacq with the Waterfall project, which is on the west side of the Mall of Africa; we’re busy with an office block and a hotel on a super basement. We also have a project at Menlyn on Maine but most of our work is in Rosebank. And we are moving now more into property development.