Originally published in Texas A&M Foundation
Inspired by his mother’s journey from a share-cropping farm in Georgia to running a business in Houston, Barnett “Barney” Gershen ’69 knew he could go anywhere in life if he put forth the effort. “When my mom Margie was 17, she took every penny she had and bought a one-way bus ticket to Houston for $18.50,” Barney said. “She wanted to escape the poor life she had lived in Georgia, and when she left, she knew she was never going back.”
Once she arrived in Houston, Margie found a job, rented a garage apartment and began building a better life for herself and her future family. She eventually met and married Louis Gershen, and the two started a family. Louis worked full-time selling cleaning chemicals while developing his business, XGI Janitor Services, named for his service in the United States Army.
Growing up in the 1950s, Barney’s family struggled to keep themselves afloat. After a sudden heart attack, Barney’s father passed away, leaving the family without a source of income. To support her children, Margie took over the budding janitorial business and began cleaning buildings at night with seven-year-old Barney working alongside her. “It was rough for a while, but my mother was smart and determined,” Barney said. “She kept the family together. We cleaned buildings while my little brother and sister slept in our old station wagon, and that’s how we kept body and soul together for a long time.”
Barney continued working for the family business during middle school, high school and even college, choosing to attend Texas A&M University for its affordability, quality education and proximity to home. “When we were looking at colleges, I found Texas A&M offered a good and complete education at a price we could afford,” he said.
The path to possibilities
During his time at Texas A&M, Barney saw where life could take him. “I can recall a handful of moments in my life that made me stop and think, ‘Wow, I learned something here,’” he said. “Texas A&M was definitely one of those moments for me. My overall experience showed me that life offers an abundance of opportunities if you work for them, and after all the sacrifices my mom made, I wasn’t going to go somewhere and not give it my all.”
Learning from his experiences in the Corps of Cadets and Mays Business School, Barney took his lessons home on the weekends and applied his knowledge to their growing company, now called Associated Business Services. “Sometimes my new ideas worked out, and sometimes they didn’t,” he said. “No matter what happened, we just kept forging ahead.”
After graduating as a distinguished military student, Barney was commissioned into the U.S. Army. A small scholarship to The University of Texas’ graduate business school, however, took him to Austin instead of Vietnam. Once he had earned his Master of Business Administration and fulfilled his military obligation, Barney returned to Houston to head up the family business and then to purchase it.
Starting with just 22 employees at that point, Barney used his skill set to develop the company into the ninth largest janitorial service provider in the United States reaching sales of $230 million and 13,000 employees at that time. “I had done every job you could think of in terms of cleaning, so it was only natural for me to take over the business,” he said. “Texas A&M and the army taught me that you lead from the front. I kept that in mind as we worked to create an innovative company that allowed our employees to learn and grow. Anything that’s worthwhile takes hard work and dedication, and I think we did something special with our company.”
Paving new roads
About a decade ago, Barney sold the company to a persistent buyer. Now, he manages a small consulting company helping others develop their business ideas with his wife, Sam. Together they have four children and six grandchildren, several of whom are Aggies including David Patchett ’89, Karen Cole ’87, Connor Cole ’18 and Riley Cole ’22. In their free time, they volunteer in their community as founders of the Holocaust Museum in Houston, among others.
Thinking of future Aggies exploring possibilities for their own lives, Barney and Sam established endowed scholarships to support the business honors program and the Corps of Cadets. “Barney and I both feel the same about Texas A&M,” Sam said. “You just can’t explain the spirit you find here unless you experience it yourself, and we want to give that opportunity to others.”
Texas A&M provided Barney with a foundation for paving his own path, and he hopes it does the same for their scholarship recipients. “Life is a journey during which you have the opportunity to make decisions based on your character and life lessons,” he said. “Texas A&M gives students a roadmap for this journey, and it’s important for them to use it as they navigate their way through life.”
To support students in Mays Business School, contact Brian Bishop ’91 (979) 862-3615. To support cadets in the Corps, contact Tom Pool ’96 and email@example.com or (979) 862-9154.