When he was a high school student growing up in Central New York, Steve Barnes ’82 did what a lot of kids that age do when they want to earn some extra income: He got a part-time job at a local restaurant. Barnes quickly proved himself to be a smart, hardworking leader, and in his senior year, Friendly’s restaurant offered him a spot in its manager-trainee program. But he had other plans.
Barnes has always had bold ambitions, and he has proven time and again that he has the skills and tenacity to achieve them. Today, Barnes is an internationally successful corporate executive, serving since 2000 as a managing director at Bain Capital, one of the world’s leading private multi-asset alternative investment firms with more than $75 billion in assets. Since joining the company in 1988, he has headed up several of Bain Capital’s portfolio companies, in the process making a name for himself as a shrewd and entrepreneurial leader with a unique capacity to grow and build great companies. He also has been a deeply engaged and generous backer of organizations and institutions around the world that spur opportunity for others to advance their own dreams.
Chair of the Syracuse University Board of Trustees since 2015, Barnes counts Syracuse University among those institutions. Over the years, he and his wife, Deborah, have provided leadership support for numerous prominent University initiatives, including a gift for the planned renovation of Archbold Gymnasium into a comprehensive health and wellness center. He does it, he says, because he recognizes the role Syracuse University played in helping him achieve his own dreams of succeeding in business and seeing the world. “At Syracuse we like to say, ‘Step onto campus, step into the world,’ and that was really what it was like for me,” Barnes says. “I was a local student, and suddenly I had friends from all over the world. I was exposed to all different kinds of courses, and I listened to all kinds of different viewpoints. It really opened my eyes. And I think that ultimately afforded me the confidence to take on greater challenges.”
He was the first in his family to attend a four-year college. His father had been accepted to Syracuse University, but the unexpected death of his own father derailed those plans, and he would spend three decades working as an electronics technician for General Electric instead. Barnes’s mother worked as an administrative assistant to the principal at an area elementary school. “My parents were great role models in their commitment to hard work, their entrepreneurial spirit, and in giving back,” Barnes says.
Gregg Marcellus ’82, a close friend and former classmate, remembers much the same spirit in Barnes. “Steve was always ambitious and a really hard worker,” Marcellus says. “But he was really funny and easygoing, too. And he never gets flustered. He’s always been able to see the big picture and live life with a positive attitude. It’s a special quality—and a trait that I think has helped him succeed.” But Marcellus says Barnes also proved himself to be a serious student. “He was clearly very smart,” Marcellus says. “He was studying accounting and finance, and he was extremely quick with concepts. He just had all the earmarks to do really, really well.”
Turnaround Expert and Global Traveler
Barnes landed a job with PriceWaterhouse LLP directly out of college, and a few years later he was tapped to help a client with a troubled acquisition. The client was an emerging Boston-based company, Bain Capital, and its partners were so impressed with Barnes’s work that they offered him a position.
Over nearly three decades with Bain Capital, Barnes was the CEO/president of several of the firm’s portfolio companies, including Dade Behring Inc., Executone Business Systems Inc., and Holson Burnes Group Inc. His turnaround of that company prompted Inc. magazine and Ernst and Young in 1995 to name him one of the top entrepreneurs in the country. A few years later, Crain’s Chicago Business named him to its annual list of Top 40 Under 40, which highlights leaders under age 40 who are considered to be among the best and brightest in the Chicago business community.
Barnes now heads up Bain’s North American Private Equity business, which currently owns or invests in more than 40 companies around the world. Previously, he co-led Bain Capital’s European Private Equity business and founded and led the firm’s Global Portfolio Group. The Central New York youngster who once longed to see the world now has a passport thick with stamped pages, and deep connections and close friends around the globe. “Most of the companies I ran were very international,” Barnes says. “So I would spend about a week in the U.S. and a week outside of the U.S. I was just constantly traveling. Dade Behring, for instance, had operations in 20 countries.”
His love for travel extends into his affinity for service work as well. For the last 10 years, he, Deborah, and their children have traveled abroad to support the work of international nonprofits in communities of critical need. Much of their focus has been on Kenya and the work of WE, an international nonprofit that advances sustainable development and education in several of that country’s Maasai and Kispigis communities. They have helped build schools and hospitals in the Maasai Mara, supported educational scholarships for girls, taught in classrooms made of sticks and mud, and funded farmland development to promote sustainable solutions to food scarcity. Beyond Kenya, they have volunteered in an AIDS orphanage in South Africa and taught in rural schools in Mumbai, India.
Those service trips started when the couple’s eldest child turned 16. In honor of the occasion, they traveled to Maasai Mara, and during the trip they met the founder of WE. Barnes was impressed by the group’s vision and has been a steady supporter since. Kim Plewes, a senior advisor for WE, says Steve and Deborah Barnes have been generous champions of the organization in a number of ways. “Steve has always sought to understand the underlying root causes that are limiting the potential of communities,” Plewes says. “And he wants to look for creative solutions that will have a maximum long-term impact. He brings his business experience and expertise to his philanthropy and, as a result, everybody benefits.”
Boosting Syracuse University
The couple are also involved in numerous philanthropic activities in the United States, most of them focusing on children, health care, or education. He is a former chair of the board of Make-A-Wish of Massachusetts and currently serves on the boards of Children’s Hospital Boston, New Profit, and MV Youth. Barnes says he’s a big proponent of giving back and of trying to make the world a better place. This belief also drives his involvement with Syracuse University, where he has served on the Board of Trustees since 2008. In 2010, he endowed what is now known as the Entrepreneurship Bootcamp for Veterans with Disabilities as well as the Barnes Professorship in Entrepreneurship, both in the Whitman School of Management. He was a founding co-chair of the Institute for Veterans and Military Families and a founding investor in the Orange Value Fund, a $4.1 million student-run portfolio. The family has also provided support to the Remembrance Scholarship Fund and the McLane Legacy Fund, which supports disability initiatives and the Office of Disability Services, and they recently made an annual fund challenge gift of $500,000 to match new and increased gifts supporting the University’s Invest Syracuse $40 million campaign to increase opportunities for promising students to attend the University.
I am a big believer in a healthy body, mind, and soul. So I think that if the University can have one of the leading-edge health and wellness centers in the country, it’ll be able to attract and retain great students and allow those students to be better able to succeed.
Last May, he and Deborah gave a $5 million gift to create the Barnes Center at The Arch, a state-of-the-art health and wellness complex and a centerpiece of the Campus Framework. “I am a big believer in a healthy body, mind, and soul,” Barnes says. “So I think that if the University can have one of the leading-edge health and wellness centers in the country, it’ll be able to attract and retain great students and allow those students to be better able to succeed. There’s a lot of anxiety on college campuses these days, and creating a place where students can actually destress and find balance is a really good thing.”
As chairman of the Board of Trustees, Barnes puts those same skills that have powered his success in the corporate world to work for the University. “Steve has brought extensive experience in organization management to the chair of the board,” says Chairman Emeritus Richard Thompson G’67, H’15, who preceded Barnes as chair and now serves as a Life Trustee. “That experience has been demonstrated time and again on long-range strategic planning discussions as well as issues demanding immediate attention. Leading a board of so many professionally successful volunteers requires a variety of skills. Steve allows vigorous discussion of issues—but skillfully brings them to a constructive conclusion without shutting off different opinions.”
Reflecting on his journey from his early days in a small town to global business executive, Barnes attributes his success to several factors: a penchant for positive thinking (“It doesn’t matter how many times you get knocked down; it’s how many times you stand back up,” he says.); a capacity to relate to all kinds of people; a commitment to giving back; and a willingness, always, to dream big and believe in the possible—even when it might not be evident to others.
Barnes says his dream now is to ensure a vibrant and sustainable future for Syracuse University—a place he credits with opening his eyes to the world and launching him into it. He wants to help generate the same kind of opportunity for future generations of students. “I think that attracting and retaining great students and helping them achieve what they want to achieve is incredibly important,” he says. “And if my support for the University and service on the board can advance that objective for multiple generations to come, then Deborah and I will have succeeded in our mission to leave this as our legacy.”
This story was first published on March 1, 2018 and last updated on . It also appeared as “Counting on Success” in the issue of Syracuse University Magazine.
Also of Interest
The Board of Trustees is the governing body of Syracuse University, responsible for the institution's educational mission and fiscal policies.
The Campus Framework works in coordination with the University’s Academic Strategic Plan to shape, guide and manage the Syracuse University campus environment and its physical form in support of the University’s mission.