Businessman, philanthropist and sports club owner

Born: March 12, 1939;

Died: November 8, 2019.

BILL Barr OBE, FICE, who has died after a long illness, was a towering figure in the life of Ayrshire and the South West of Scotland. He ran the family building and civil engineering business for some 35 years; he was a generous philanthropist, helping out many a struggling sports team in particular, before finding a national profile as chairman and owner of Ayr United and through his company’s work building football stadia.

He completed one sporting new-build in Ayr, when he took on the stalled Centrum project from a fellow Ayrshire businessman, completing the building then overseeing success for the ice hockey team, Ayr Scottish Eagles, who played there, but, to his lasting regret, he was unable to complete his dream venture, to re-locate Ayr United to a brand-new stadium on the town’s outskirts.

Bill Barr had a lovely self-depreciating turn of phrase; he would often talk about the major construction and civil engineering companies that had repeatedly been outbid for contracts by “That one man and his wheelbarrow based in Ayr.”

There was no secret to his success. It was down to hard work, establishing and maintaining trust with his customers, then delivering a good job, on time and on budget. In many ways he was a quiet man, but when he spoke, people listened. He could command a room, and he established loyalty in his workforce. His core staff were all long-serving, well-regarded employees.

His occasional angry eruptions were, however, volcanic. One veteran Ayrshire sports writer recalls being pinned to a wall by an angry Barr, after a fall-out over Ayr United, but, as he said: “Once he had calmed down, Mr Barr’s apology to myself and my Editor was gracious.”

William James Barr's father and two uncles operated a small family building firm, which had been established in Barrhill, south Ayrshire, by his grandfather and grand-uncles in the late 19th century. Barr studied civil engineering at Paisley Technical College (now the University of the West of Scotland, Paisley) and Glasgow University. He did his National Service, specialising in land survey work, with the Royal Engineers, then honed his hands-on experience with various civil engineering companies.

By the time he took charge of the family firm, which employed eight men, in 1969, he was ready to put his master plan into operation. He believed civil engineering work could be better and more profitably managed if a single firm had as much control as possible. When he put in a contract bid, they did the design work; the stone came from one of 14 Barr-owned quarries, the concrete from a Barr plant. The company had its own steel-fabricating business. All of the earthmoving plant and the cranes were Barr-liveried.

Gradually Barr Construction moved from its heartland in South Ayrshire and Dumfries and Galloway, becoming a truly national player. Barr built motorways, including a massive £250 million scheme for part of the M74. He built sewerage and water treatment works, and eventually expanded into design-and-build schemes as diverse as distilleries and supermarkets.

Barr designed buildings were not merely functional but were elegant, too.The firm won several awards for the aesthetic and durability of some of their design-and-build projects.

Bill Barr was always been keen on sport. He first dipped his toe in the waters of sports sponsorship with Minishant Amateurs. He had a short spell sponsoring the Cumnock-based Barr Construction basketball team, but is best-known for his relationship with Ayr United and the Ayr Scottish Eagles teams.

He took over United in 1994, having previously sponsored the side, and ran it until 2003, enjoying considerable success, but, sadly for him, he was never able, for various reasons – mostly political – to deliver the replacement for Somerset Park that he longed to build.

With the Eagles, he completed the dormant Centrum project, which had bankrupted another businessman. This was a difficult task, as there were few plans available when Barr took over, but he and his team got the job done. He then backed the Eagles to become the first team to do British ice hockey’s Grand Slam of Superleague, British Championship, Autumn Cup and Express Cup. But Centrum was too small to be viable, so the team moved to Braehead Arena, under new management, but soon folded.

Barr’s Ayr United connection saw him gain high office: he was on the SFA Council, and vice president of the Scottish League. He became the go-to man for new stadia and stadia improvements, with Barr Construction designing and building some 35 new venues across the UK, the best-known of which are probably Southampton’s 36,000-capacity St Mary’s ground, and the rebuilt Rugby Park (Kilmarnock FC) in Ayrshire.

By 2002, Barr Holdings employed some 1,500 people and had an annual turnover of £200 million, making it one of the largest companies in the UK in its field. However, ill-health was starting to affect Bill and, in 2004, Barr Holdings was sold and he retired. This enabled him to concentrate on his considerable philanthropic projects in such areas as cancer research and care, where he was founding Chair of Ayrshire Hospice.

He became a visiting professor at the University of Strathclyde; was a member of court and governor at Paisley University, and Chairman of the Board of Management at Ayr College and National President of the Association of Science Education. He was heavily involved in the Institute of Civil Engineering, chairing its Health and Safety and Finance committees, and he was a major player, as founding chairman, in establishing an ICE commercial subsidiary which restored the Institute’s finances. ICE awarded him its prestigious Garth Watson medal in 2000, eight years after he was made OBE by the Queen.

A keen Burnsian, he combined a healthy knowledge of the Bard’s works with an ability to deliver a very good Immortal Memory as well as the subsidiary speeches which are such a part of a Burns Supper.

Bill Barr always believed that, had fate dealt him a different hand, he could have survived “on the tools” in the building trade. He had a healthy respect and duty of care towards his workforce.

He is survived by Marlean, his wife of 45 years, children David, Gordon and Jane and grand-daughter Alice. They have lost a doting father and grand-father, Ayrshire has lost one of its finest sons. The funeral takes place at 11.30am tomorrow at Kirkmichael Parish Church, in South Ayrshire.