Barber, Jean Bartell (b. 1953)

  • By Phil Dougherty
  • Posted 7/05/2013
  • Essay 10411
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Jean Bartell Barber currently (2013) serves as vice chairman and treasurer of the Bartell Drug Company, which was founded in 1890 by her grandfather George Bartell Sr. (1868-1956). She spent the early years of her career in banking, first with Seattle's Seafirst Bank and later with North Carolina National Bank. She joined Bartell Drugs in 1993, and has used her banking experience to help improve the company’s operations and contribute to its success.

Early Years

Jean Louise Bartell was born in Seattle on March 17, 1953, the daughter of George Bartell Jr. (1916-2009) and Elizabeth "Betty" Bogue Bartell (1911-2003). She was the second of three children, between her older brother George (b. 1951) and younger brother Robert (b. 1954). She grew up in Seattle's Magnolia neighborhood, and was active in Campfire Girls for most of her childhood and high school years. 

She later remarked that she never thought about working for Bartell Drugs when she was growing up. "People forget, but growing up in the '50s and '60s, women weren't supposed to have careers. People didn't talk to girls about that ... girls weren't encouraged to be leaders then, at least not leaders of corporations," she explained (interview, November 28, 2012). But she excelled in math, and took accounting and bookkeeping in high school and enjoyed it.

She also took inventory for Bartell Drugs when she was in high school, and became curious to learn more about the company. The summer after she graduated from high school, she worked as a retail clerk in the basement of Bartell's downtown triangle store under the tutelage of the store's manager, Sanford Barnes (1910-1998). (During the 1960s and 1970s, Barnes trained many Bartell employees who were expected to advance to management.) She excelled in cashiering and enjoyed working with the store's customers. She also did some relief work in the cosmetics department, an experience she laughed about, admitting she then knew little about cosmetics.

College Years

She made a seemingly unusual choice of colleges when she went to Albion College, a small, private liberal arts college in southern Michigan, in the autumn of 1971. She picked Albion for a couple of reasons. Her parents suggested that she attend college somewhere outside of the Northwest for at least a year. She also wasn't sure if her high school education at Queen Anne High School had sufficiently prepared her for a top college. She liked the Albion campus, and she also liked some of the other degrees it offered in the event her chosen major, business, did not work out.

Once she arrived at Albion, she found she wanted more out of a business curriculum than the college had to offer. "But I liked it [Albion] well enough," she added (interview, May 9, 2013). After a year, she decided to return to Seattle. She enrolled at the University of Washington (UW) and joined the Delta Gamma sorority. She graduated magna cum laude in 1975 with a degree in Business Administration. But she did not return to work at Bartell Drugs during her college years. Instead, she did part-time work as bookkeeper for the Henbart Company, a commercial real estate company founded by George Bartell Sr., perhaps a better fit given her natural aptitude for math.

Seafirst Bank

She began interviewing for a job after she graduated from the UW. It was 1975, and women were only beginning to be considered for professional positions that previously had been the bailiwick of Caucasian men. Bartell experienced this reticence firsthand. "It was still not a level playing field for women then. I felt that some of the interviews were perfunctory ... . I felt like I was not being taken seriously because I was a woman," she recalled (interview, May 9, 2013).

She began work for Seafirst Bank in the autumn of 1975. She found Seafirst more progressive, with several women there already in management positions. After completing the bank's management training program, she worked as a loan officer in the Alaska division of Seafirst's correspondent banking department. Seafirst participated in loans made by Alaska banks to companies in the state. The Alaska banks had smaller lending limits and needed to partner with larger banks such as Seafirst to be able to complete their loans. Bartell's job was to analyze the loans so Seafirst could better determine whether to participate.

She also worked directly with Native Alaskan corporations pursuant to the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, or ANSCA. ANCSA, enacted in 1971, was the result of long-standing Alaska Native claims against the United States for title to Native lands. It was a wide-ranging act that paid $962 million to Alaska Natives in exchange for their claims. The act also transferred approximately 45 million acres of federal land to 12 regional and some 200 village corporations in the state (a 13th regional corporation was later added) that were formed to manage the lands and to create business ventures.

Sage Advice

In 1979, she left Seattle to pursue an MBA at The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. She described her two years at Wharton as a turning point in her life. "I'd been in Seattle most of my life ... [but this] was a totally different experience. I went to school with people from all over the world. It gave me much more of a world view than I otherwise would've had if I'd stayed in Seattle," she explained (interview, November 28, 2012).

She graduated with distinction from Wharton in 1981. She briefly returned to Seattle and resumed working at Seafirst, this time in the bank's asset management liability department. She was there for only nine months, but it was long enough for her to provide some sage advice to the bank. Seafirst was asked to increase its participation in loans to energy companies. But Seafirst had in place a limit on funds it could provide for energy-related loans, and the bank had reached this limit. In order to make further loans to energy companies or participate in such loans made by other banks, it would have to increase the limit. Bartell was asked to analyze the risks of doing this.

Oil and gas prices had soared in the years immediately before 1981. Bartell was wary of increasing the limit, recognizing that if oil prices dropped Seafirst would suffer loan losses. But her recommendation that the limit stay in place was not followed, and Seafirst increased its participation in energy loans. The bank also dramatically increased its participation in loans made by Penn Square Bank, an Oklahoma City bank that was making high-risk energy loans. Within a year, oil prices had dropped and Penn Square had closed. Seafirst's losses were extensive, and largely contributed to its acquisition by the Bank of America in 1983.

By that time, Bartell had moved on to other pursuits. She'd met Dave Barber at Wharton, and they became engaged in the summer of 1981. They were married in Seattle on April 17, 1982, and settled in Charlotte, North Carolina, where Barber had a job with North Carolina National Bank (NCNB), then one of the Southeast's leading banks. Jean Bartell Barber likewise joined NCNB, though in a department different from that of her husband.

North Carolina National Bank

She explained why she took such a different career path in her early years from that of her father and her brother George, who both were working full time for the Bartell Drug Company by the time they were in their early 20s. She'd always gotten good reviews when she worked for Bartell Drugs and Henbart in the 1970s. But those were her father's companies, and she wondered if she was being given preferential treatment. She wanted to make her own mark.

She was provided with a unique opportunity to do just that at NCNB when she became involved in the vanguard of interstate banking. NCNB had always been aggressive in acquiring other state banks, and by the late 1970s, it was looking to expand outside of the state. But it had a problem: Interstate banking was prohibited. However, in 1981 NCNB discovered a legal loophole that allowed it to purchase a bank in Florida, and in January 1982 it bought its first bank in the Sunshine State. It was the first out-of-state acquisition by any bank, and it was only the beginning.

Barber arrived at NCNB in the spring of 1982 and went to work in the bank's balance sheet management department. A few months after she arrived, NCNB acquired two more banks in Florida. Her job was to review these banks' financial statements and make income projections based on contingencies such as interest rates. The banks didn't have the detailed data readily available that Barber needed to fully evaluate their financials, which required her to extrapolate from the limited data that was available.

She found the job interesting and rewarding. "It was fun ... . I had access to information that no one else at NCNB had. I got to meet with the [NCNB] executives to talk about my analyses. I enjoyed watching them make decisions," she reflected (interview, May 9, 2013). She rose to become assistant vice president in her department before leaving NCNB three years later.

In 1985, the Barbers moved to Durham, North Carolina. Dave and a partner, Nick Tennyson, had opened a home building business there in 1981. Barber helped manage the business, named Barber and Tennyson, from Charlotte for the first few years, but in 1985 became more fully involved in the company. Jean worked as treasurer for the company, cutting back to part time after her daughter, Evelyn, was born in 1987. A son, Hugh, followed in 1988. Another son, Neal, arrived in 1991, a year after the Barbers left North Carolina.

Barber Joins Bartell Drugs

Barber and her family moved to Seattle in 1990. She concentrated on raising her growing family for a few years, but by 1993 she was feeling restless. She began part-time work for Bartell Drugs that year, handling the company's risk management and property/liability insurance program. She also served as a one-person technology department for Bartell Drugs, buying new computers and getting them serviced as needed. In addition, she became manager of Henbart in 1993, and served in this position for about 15 years.

In 1997, she was promoted to chief financial officer of Bartell Drugs. Her duties broadened to include handling the company's financial analyses, its treasury functions, and its cash flow projections. Her experience from her banking years also prompted her to bring more diversity to the company's financial plan. "I knew that the Bartell way wasn't the only way. Things change, our marketplace evolves, so we need to evolve with it" ("Finding Her Way Home ..."). Her duties later expanded to include heading the company's strategic planning. She also took on oversight of Bartell's human resources department. In 2006, to better define her role in the company, her title changed to vice chairman and treasurer.

Barber Today

Barber had recently celebrated her 60th birthday when she was interviewed by this writer in May 2013, and cited several accomplishments during her career with Bartell Drugs that she was especially proud of. First, Bartell Drugs had (with a few exceptions) for most of its history typically promoted its employees to managerial positions rather than considering outside talent for these positions. Barber pushed for a fresher approach and encouraged the company to begin recruiting outside talent when appropriate. She started a management training program for store managers and head pharmacists to help train them to progress to more senior positions within the company. She also implemented more sophisticated methods to better prepare the company's financial analyses.

While aware of the march of time, she had no immediate plans to retire. She conceded that she might not be working full time in the next three or four years, but added that she intended to remain active and relevant in Bartell Drugs for many years to come, particularly in the company's strategic planning.

Barber enjoys yoga, gardening, cooking, traveling, and occasionally, hiking. She's also been active in various civic activities. She sits on both the board and executive board of the YWCA, is a member of the Executive Advisory Council of Seattle Pacific University, and is a former board member of their Center for Integrity in Business. She also was named one of the Puget Sound Business Journal's "Women of Influence" in 2008.

Keeping It Here

Similar to her brother, she considers her work at Bartell Drugs to be the ultimate civic engagement. "I like to tell people the biggest charitable contribution I make is I employ 1,700 people," she said, adding more seriously, "The company provides a great way that we can support local charities in ways other people can't. We have a platform that we can share with charitable partners that's different than what I could do as a citizen" (interview, May 20, 2013). For example, each year Bartell Drugs holds chain-wide events on behalf of various charitable organizations (such as the Salvation Army and Seattle Children's Hospital) and makes its stores available as drop off points for donations.

She added, "By being just in this region, everything we do is reinvested in this community. The people we employ are all here, the work we do stays here, and the money we make is spent here. That's always been important to us" (interview, May 20, 2013).


Martin Wolfson, Financial Crises: Understanding the Postwar U.S. Experience (Armonk, New York: M.E. Sharpe, Inc., 1994), 93; Aaron Ragan-Fore, "Finding Her Way Home to the Family Business," UW Foster Business Magazine, Spring 2005, pp. 40-41; Sandra Gallagher-Alford, "Once Upon a Time, Sonny, We Had Seafirst Bank ...," Puget Sound Business Journal, April 29, 2007, website accessed May 20, 2013 (; Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture, "Penn Square Bank" (by Lynne Doti), (website accessed May 18, 2013); Phil Dougherty interviews of Jean Barber, November 28, 2012, December 11, 2012, January 11, 2013, May 9, 2013, Seattle, Washington; Jean Barber email to Phil Dougherty, June 5, 2013, in possession of Phil Dougherty, Sammamish, Washington.

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