Clayton A. Barnes - Veteran sales executive confronts a quarter- century of challenge

By Rosalie E. Leposky

In an industry full of large egos demanding to be stroked, veteran timeshare-sales executive Clayton A. Barnes, RRP, is renowned for his honest and forthright demeanor.

"Clay always has been a guy who comes straight at you and lays all the words on the table -- direct and to the point," says Robert M. Richey, east regional director for The Shell Group, Inc. "He doesn't mince words. Some people like to be smooched and have trouble with this style, but when Clay says something, you can count on it. He has a terrific work ethic."

Barnes was The Shell Group's first employee at Vistana Resort in Orlando, Florida. "Clay was involved in all aspects of Vistana -- administration, sales, marketing," says Raymond L. "Rip" Gellein, Jr., current chairman of Vistana's board. "He made sure everything was done right. The work was hard, but he believed in our product."

Ginsburg recalls the difficulty of finding premiums to offer to sales prospects in Vistana's early days. "Clay took me out to see a street vendor who was selling cypress-wood clocks. Being a midwesterner, I had never seen one before. Clay called me a country bumpkin."


    Clayton A. Barnes, RRP

Perry J. Snyderman, RRP, president of The Shell Group, recalls that Barnes started Vistana's off-site broker sales program. "Clay always has been a team player, a man with strong integrity who has the ability to take good and bad news, and be upright. He's a man with a lot of intellectual depth," Snyderman says.

"From Vistana, he accepted a good opportunity with Lawrence Welk. We kept in touch, and later we did a joint venture with Clay and Lawrence Welk, the 58-unit Maui Schooner in Hawaii. When Welk sold out, we followed Clay and ultimately asked him to come to Chicago to centralize our opening of new products."

Barnes' wife, Susan, says her husband is "the most brutally honest and ethical person I know. It has cost him jobs because he speaks his mind. He may ask people if they want a cotton-candy answer or the truth. Then he will share his thoughts."

A Degree in English

Barnes, 55, is a native of Woonsocket, Rhode Island, and the oldest son of Harold and Cora Barnes. "Both of my parents are now deceased," he says. "My father worked 43 years for Whitens Machine Works, a tool-and-die company that served the textile industry. My mother, Cora, worked for a US Rubber factory that made children's Keds sneakers. My brother, Brian, who is nine years younger, lives in Connecticut and is a quality-control supervisor for the Northrop Corporation, a high-tech aerospace company."

Clay and Susan met attending an after-school dance class in the eighth grade. "Clay used to carry my books home from school, and we would stop at Brown's Drugstore for a snack," says the former Susan Frechette. "Now he carries the beach chairs."

In high school, Barnes liked to play ice-hockey. After graduating from Woonsocket High School, he worked full time from 11 PM to 7 AM for Franklin Dye House in Woonsocket while attending Rhode Island College in Providence. He earned a Bachelor of Science degree in English in 1964 and a Master of Science degree in English in 1966. Susan graduated from Rhode Island College with a degree in French and math in 1964. They were married a few weeks after her graduation.

"Susan was the honor student in our family. I was the pretty one." says Barnes. "When I worked for Lawrence Welk, she volunteered at a center for abused women and their children in San Diego, and for Welcome Wagon." Susan is an avid tennis player and gourmet cook. She reads three to four books a week. Clay likes to read biographies.

While studying for his masters degree, Barnes taught at Blackstone High School, across the Massachusetts border from where he and Susan lived. "While I was in college my parents had moved to Blackstone," he recalls. "My brother attended Blackstone High School, where I was chairman of the English department and taught all three senior English classes. Brian was a good student, and my teaching his English class did not faze his classmates."

Clay and Susan have two children. Their son, Kevin S. Barnes, 33, is an auto-insurance appraiser who lives in the Orlando area. Their daughter, Sherry L. Fox, 30, is a supervisor of contract administration and escrow for The Jupiter Beach Resort in Jupiter, Florida, a Shell Group resort where Clay was vice president and project director in 1996 and 1997. In mid-September of 1996, Clay and Susan moved to Jupiter so he could establish a timeshare-sales organization at the resort. Once a 200-room Hilton hotel, the nine-story oceanfront building is being converted to a 117-suite timeshare property, which The Shell Group is marketing.

"We were delighted to return to Florida to live close to Kevin and Sherry and our three grandchildren," says Susan. "When our children were small, we made the personal decision to sacrifice my salary so I could stay home and raise them. Clay came home from school, took off his tie, ate a quick dinner, put on a white lab coat, and went to work at his second job as a Star Market meat-cutter." Barnes, who stands 5 feet 10 inches tall, weighed about 140 pounds at that time. Today, to keep his weight down, he has given up snacking and desserts.

Barnes is a patient and effective teacher, says H.M. "Bud" DeSantis, CPA, CHA, a former Vistana and Welk executive who is now vice president of finance for the Shell Group. From 1981 to 1988, DeSantis was Vistana's chief financial officer. "We were living in Orlando, and my daughter Caroline was about 18 years old," DeSantis recalls. "I bought her a new Toyota Tercel with a five-speed manual transmission. In school she had learned to drive an automatic. No problem, I thought. After half an hour I was so frustrated, I asked her to switch seats with me. We came home to find Clay and Susan there, and Caroline told Clay how impatient I was. Clay offered to show her how to drive her new car. I said, "Good luck!" An hour later they returned, with Caroline driving the stick-shift car like a champion."

To Make Money

Barnes left teaching "to make money." In the mid-1960s, beginning teachers typically made less than $4,000 a year. "I considered working for a newspaper," he says, "but I quickly discovered that writing was the only job that paid worse than teaching."

From 1967 to 1969, Barnes worked as a copywriter for Fram Filters in Providence. Fram, which made air, gasoline, and oil filters for airplanes, boats, cars and industrial equipment, now is owned by the Bendix Corporation.

The Barnes family left Rhode Island in 1969 on a career-enhancement odyssey that took them initially to Miami, Florida. "I had a contract to work for James A Ryder, founder of Ryder System, Inc., and later Jartran. Jim was a very charismatic individual who described himself as the -- the highest paid truck driver in the United States,--" says Barnes, who frequently traveled across the country with Ryder to visit work sites and talk with the firm's employees. "I was always amazed that when we arrived at a Ryder location, instead of going to talk with the managers, Jim would talk first with the mechanics in the garages who were servicing and washing his trucks. He knew almost all of them by their first names. Ryder employees were extremely loyal to Jim Ryder." /p>

Four years later the Barnes family left Miami. The city was growing up around them, and they wanted to raise their children in a smaller community. Moreover, Ryder System moved its headquarters from Miami's laid-back Coconut Grove area to a larger building near the Doral Country Club in northwest Dade County. "I did not enjoy my commute on the Palmetto Expressway," Barnes declares.

First Taste of Timeshare

Near Ft. Myers on the Gulf Coast of Florida, Harry Powell, Jr., president of Lehigh Corporation, was developing Lehigh Acres, a 67,000-acre mixed-use community. In 1973, Barnes joined Powell's firm.

First as director of marketing and later as a vice president, he supervised a 30-person in-house advertising agency.

"Powell raised the question of the potential of vacation ownership for his product line," Barnes explains. "Part of my responsibility was to prepare the feasibility studies that led to Lehigh's entry into the vacation-ownership business with the Lehigh Resort Club in 1974. Initially, we built 18 units along a golf course. Some of the units sold for $795 a week. There was no exchange."

Lehigh was one of the first companies to affiliate when Jon de Haan created Resort Condominiums International (RCI). Today Lehigh Resort Club has more than 100 sold-out, purpose-built studio and one-bedroom vacation-ownership units.

A Giant of Horticulture

"In Lehigh Acres we had a half-acre lot covered with pine trees, where Clay built his own greenhouse and slathouses," says Susan. "He air-layered and propagated and shared plants with our neighbors, and our children fed wild rabbits and watched them grow." One weekend afternoon in Lehigh Acres, a passer-by was so impressed with Barnes' yard-maintenance skills that he offered him a job.

Years later, living in Southern California and still growing plants, Barnes was personally shaken when Robert "Bob' Diaz, vice president and general manager of the Welk Group, severely injured a leg while using a cultivator to dig up his yard. Soon after Diaz's accident, this writer called Barnes for a quote on some subject long forgotten and heard first about his concern for his co-worker.

When the Barnes family moved east from San Diego to Jupiter, the moving van transported Clay's collection of huge house plants. "Clay babies and names our plants, and talks to them as he waters them," Susan says. "Fortunately our rented house in Jupiter has high ceilings and a loft." The plants that moved include Dracula (a seven-foot Dracaena; Trident, a fishtail palm; Kent, a Howea palm (the scientific name has been changed, but the palm's trade name remains Kentia); Ralph, the Rhapis palm; and dozens of orchids."

The Vistana Years

In 1978, Jerry Cohen became the board chairman of Lehigh Corporation. Cohen relocated Lehigh's corporate office from New York City to Fort Lauderdale, and asked Barnes to move back to southeast Florida to be vice president of marketing. "Susan, the children, and I moved to Ft. Lauderdale," he says. "For two years I drove the Florida turnpike from home in the Inverrary section of Ft. Lauderdale to the office on Northeast 125th Street in Miami. Ft. Lauderdale was growing, and our concerns were the same as in Miami. We wanted to raise our then-teenaged children outside the Miami area, so we jumped at the lifestyle and business opportunities in Orlando.

"Art Zimand approached me about working for Perry Snyderman and Shelly Ginsburg. After Perry and Shelly purchased Vistana, we both were hired." Barnes was Vistana's vice-president of sales from February of 1980 to June of 1985.

Susan and I still own two weeks at Vistana -- our wedding anniversary week, June 27; and the Fourth of July week," he says. "Our son was married in a gazebo on the lake at Vistana, and our daughter on the golf course at Lawrence Welk."

When Barnes arrived at Vistana, the original 98 units already were built. They were in three-story buildings with two-bedroom, three-bath villas on the ground floor; and two-story townhomes with three bedrooms and two baths in the upper stories. Today Vistana has over 1,000 units.

In 1983, Barnes was awarded the American Resort Development Association's Off-Sites Sales Award for overseeing Vistana's off-site sales. The operation that year generated more than $7 million in sales through brokers in 10 U.S. states, Europe, and South and Central America.

"We left Vistana for two reasons," Barnes recalls. "One, our children were grown and on their own. For the first time, Susan and I had the flexibility to move wherever we wanted without having to worry about the children's schools. Two, it was just a short while before Vistana was sold to General Development Corporation. I had the opportunity to go to San Diego to join the new Lawrence Welk organization."

The Welk Years

With The Welk Resort Group, Barnes was executive vice president and chief operating officer from 1985 to 1992. He reported to David R. Clifton, managing general partner for The Welk Resort Group, who now is based in Singapore as group managing director for RCI Asia Pacific.

"At Lawrence Welk, Clay was the first experienced timeshare professional I hired," recalls Clifton. "I remember in the interview process asking Clay if he would rather have a world-class resort or a world-class team. Clay responded, -- A world-class team, because a world-class team can sell a mediocre resort, but a mediocre team cannot sell a world-class resort.--"

Three days after Barnes came to work for Welk, Clifton was on vacation and playing golf when Barnes appeared on a golf cart to report that his son had broken his back in a motorcycle accident and was in the Orlando Regional Medical Center. Barnes caught a red-eye flight back to Orlando. "When he left, I was not sure if or when Clay would be back," Clifton says. Bud DeSantis met Clay's flight. Kevin's condition improved, and Clay returned to California.

A mixed-use resort encompassing about 1,000 acres, Lawrence Welk Resort includes 420 lots in Champaign Village (a mobile-home park for residents over the age of 55 years), 286 timeshare units, a 132-room hotel, two golf courses, the 320-seat Lawrence Welk Theater, and retail shops.

"Lawrence Welk Sr. (1903-1992) was a wonderful person, an idol of many people," says Barnes. "In person, Mr. Welk seemed just as he appeared on television. His wife, Fern, is still alive. His son, Larry Welk Jr., now runs the company. About three years ago his grandson, Larry III, gained national attention as a television cameraman for KCAL-TV, Channel 9 in Los Angeles. While filming a flood in a normally dry riverbed from a helicopter, he spotted a man struggling in the water and rescued him. All of the Welks are down-to-earth, nice, caring people, despite their wealth from television, their private-label recording company and music-publishing business, and their real estate in Escondido, California; Branson, Missouri; and Nashville, Tennessee.

"Lawrence Welk Sr. was smart enough to know what he did not know, and to surround himself with good people -- especially Ted Lennon, the uncle of the five Lennon sisters who performed on Welk'[s TV show. The four remaining sisters now perform in the Welks' 2,300-seat Champagne Theater in Branson."

While Barnes worked for the Welk organization, it developed two additional timeshare resorts -- Lawrence Welk's Desert Oasis in Palm Springs, California (a 350-acre, 162-unit hotel conversion), and the 56-unit Maui Schooner resort in Hawaii (a joint venture with The Shell Group). Maui Schooner sold out in 26 months for an average price of $13,500 per week.

In the Wake of Welk

In 1993, the Welk organization decided to stop developing timeshares and disbanded its timeshare team. Barnes decided to take some time off to consult and travel. He and Susan spent about six weeks in Australia, and explored Mexico and southern California.

From May to October of 1995, Barnes organized the marketing and sales program and staff for the opening of Hilton Hotels Corporation's first purpose-built timeshare project, the 290-unit Hilton Grand Vacations Club at the 3,642-room Flamingo Hilton Hotel in Las Vegas, Nevada. From June to December of 1996, he helped James Watkins restructure the marketing and telemarketing programs for the historic 54-room Gaslamp Plaza Suites in downtown San Diego. Barnes preferred the latter assignment. "Las Vegas is not my style," he says. "I'm not a gambler. When I worked with Watkins, I could go home at night. Jim's a fine man, and a lot of fun to work with."

In January of 1996, Barnes began consulting with The Shell Group. "Perry and Shelly made an offer I could not refuse, to rejoin them at their corporate office in Northbrook, Illinois. From January to August 1996, I lived in Chicago out of my suitcase while Susan stayed in southern California. I traveled between Chicago and dozens of other places, including Scottsdale, Arizona; Jupiter, Florida; and the Big Island in Hawaii." In mid-September of 1996, Barnes moved to Jupiter to set up the sales operation there.

The Industry In Perspective

Barnes sees the influx of high-end brand-name timeshare products as a source of concern for the industry, even thought they have set new standards of quality for others to emulate. "When this product first became generally available in the 1970s, it was positioned as a product for the masses, a way to vacation in luxury for people who couldn't afford to live that way 52 weeks a year," he says. "I'm concerned that we will continue to raise our prices to the point that we squeeze out a good part of the lower-middle class and upper blue-collar class."

In the last five years, he says, the industry has begun to place a growing emphasis on management of its resort properties. "The American Resort Development Association and other industry leaders are showing interest in the fact that we have to service these clients after we sell to them. It's one thing to paint pretty pictures, and another to make sure that they are not disappointed after they arrive at the properties where they have purchased or exchanged.

"In the years ahead we must become better prepared to deal with more highly educated clients. This entails continuing to improve our product and to make it an ever greater value. I also strongly believe that we must support the vacation-ownership industry through ARDA at the national and state level, and maintain a good relationship with our local community by being good neighbors in the markets of which we are a part."

Rosalie E. Leposky is managing partner of Ampersand Communications, a news-features syndicate based in Miami, Florida.

Copyright 1997 Ampersand Communications
All Rights Reserved
Published in The Resort Trades, September.

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