Eric Barton is leading a tour around the Villa Collina, his 40,250-square-foot Italianate mansion in Knoxville, high on a bluff above a bend in the Tennessee River. As he explains the energy improvements that he’s overseen, the art and design choices that he’s made, and the philanthropic events he’s using the house for, it becomes obvious that he is a person who knows exactly what he wants and how to get it.
His confidence is contagious:
“My mother was 13 years old when she got pregnant with me and I’m her only child… she had a tough upbringing. Growing up, she drank and did all the things she shouldn’t have been doing, but she told me I could do anything, told me I was the best thing that ever happened to her—that’s the first memory that I have. That brought me a lot of confidence. I am completely, 100 percent confident in myself and I want everyone to be that way.”
Barton was born on the 5th of December 1975 in the small town of Centralia, Illinois, and grew up down the road in Sandoval. He graduated high school in 1993 as a junior at age 17, one of a class of 31 people. He immediately enlisted in the Marine Corps:
“My father was a Marine. I actually looked at the Air Force, first. I wanted to be an electronics technician, a satellite technician, but chose the Marine Corps. I’m a little biased toward the Marine Corps. The Corps expects more from a person, you know: ‘the few, the proud.’ It’s what they hang their hat on.”
Following boot camp and combat training, Barton attended school for 13 months to be a satellite technician. Stationed in Okinawa, Japan, he was able to travel to other parts of Asia during his tour. He also began his Associates Degree in Computer Studies, through the University of Maryland’s Asian Division, finishing in 1996 when he returned to the US. It was the first of a handful of degrees he has earned, so far:
“Education is important. It makes me a more rounded person, and it sets an example…. Education is critical. It’s always been big for me, personally and professionally, so whenever I have free time, I’ll start another degree or do courses. I try to read a book a week, every week. I can’t be 5000 years old, but my mind can have 5000 years of wisdom.”
While he was stationed at Camp LeJeune, Barton began a Bachelor of Science in Electronics Management from the University of Southern Illinois, finishing in 2001, at the same University where many of his friends in Illinois completed their programs of study…and he had already been out of the country and seen part of the world. He was commissioned as a Sergeant and attended The Basic School, the Marine Corps’ officer candidates school in Quantico, Virginia. When he finished, there were four slots for Ground Intelligence, which is where he wanted to work:
“Ground Intelligence involves officers and commanders in the operating forces responsible for analyzing intelligence and planning deployment and tactical employment of ground surveillance and reconnaissance units.”
From 2001 to 2003, Barton was deployed in the Gulf of Aden with the 2nd Marine Division as an Antiterrorism/Force Protection Officer and Top Secret Control officer; then with the 1st Battalion, 10th Marines, where he was named a top lieutenant; then as Captain and Senior Analyst with the Combined Joint Task Force Horn of Africa National Intelligence Cell in eastern Africa. He spent those two years on a ship in the Persian Gulf. It was the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks in the US and it was a busy time in the region:
“We had 32 analysts and I was a Captain at the time, so I was in charge of briefings in the evenings. We would gather intelligence on transregional terrorism: people, equipment, and weapons of mass destruction, as they were moving throughout eastern Africa, across the Gulf into Yemen, the Saudi peninsula, and into Iraq.”
A Tug at the Heart
While deployed, Eric earned his Master of Business Administration in Information Technology, and he and his wife decided to adopt two boys from Ethiopia. “I got out in 2003 and I went back that next summer and brought them home to Georgia, where the family was living at the time, in November of 2004.” The boys are the youngest of Eric’s five children.
From 2003 to 2009, Eric was with the USMC Individual Ready Reserve, though not a part of the active military. “I’d been active for 11 years and I loved it, I’d had a great career, just a wonderful career. And the reason I got out—there was just a tug at my heart, something calling me to get out. It was a scary decision, to do that.” He earned a Master of Public Administration in Knowledge Management, began working as the Youth Director at Bethany Presbyterian Church in Conyers, and began attending Columbia Theological Seminary in Atlanta to earn a Master of Divinity degree: “I felt a pretty strong calling—early in 2000, really.”
In 2005, Eric became an ordained Presbyterian minister and attended the US Army Chaplain School at Fort Jackson, South Carolina. He was also offered a one-year contract as a project manager in Baghdad, Iraq. “The offer was $250,000 for the year. I’d never made that kind of money before. It would definitely help us out, as we were trying to get out of school debt and adoption debt, and get me on track to find a more stable job in the States.” A friend told him that with his military background, he’d be perfect for the job.
“Didn’t mean to, just saw an opportunity.”
A private security team picked Eric up at the airport in Baghdad and transported him to the Green Zone to help manage an IT contract for the Forward Operating Base (FOB) Shield. “I’d been in seminary for two years and then all of a sudden, I was in a war zone.” When the job was finished, he was offered another opportunity to assist the US military’s transition to private security contracts, devising a security plan for truck convoys that were moving fuel and materials all over Iraq to and from Camp Taji, where the Iraqi Mechanized Division was located. “Two hundred and fifty places we’ve gotta deliver, it was taking tens of thousands of troops, it was dangerous, so the idea was to see if contractors could do it cheaper and more effectively. We were coming up with a methodology for doing this.”
He ran the convoys at night with a mixture of American and Kurdish personnel. “We delivered everything on time, or early, and no one was hurt. A few bombs blew up in front of us, or hit the back of the truck, but none of our people were hurt.” As a result, Eric contracted for the next three years, working with 25 teams. That experience led to Eric starting Critical Mission Support Services in Maryville, Tennessee (sold in 2010 and rebranded as RELYANT). “That set a foundation,” and in 2007, he started Vanquish Worldwide, LLC. (In 2011, Vanquish won a $985 million contract with National Afghan Trucking, delivering fuel and materials to all of the US FOBs in Afghanistan and the Middle East.) He was running multiple companies at the same time and employing about 11,000 people.
He also fell into the restaurant business, buying into Fort-Lauderdale, Florida-based Froots, and helping the company win a contract to provide a healthy alternative to fast food on US military bases.
“Didn’t mean to, just saw an opportunity,” is a statement that appears to be Eric’s business mantra. “In 2008, I was in Dubai looking for a car and I saw this magazine with these beautiful horses on it and I thought, ‘I’ve never seen this kind of horse.’ It looks like a Clydesdale, but it’s smaller.”
Gypsy Vanner horses are named after the Romany Gypsies (the name Vanner comes from “caravan”). They’re bred to be able to pull heavy wagons or vardos and to be docile enough for children to care for and learn to ride. Eric and his family bought some land and opened LexLin Gypsy Ranch in Rockwood, Tennessee, for breeding and selling Gypsy Vanner horses. “We also have a leadership course—we take police officers and executives and people who’ve never been on a horse and do a weekend leadership seminar, using the horse as a training aid.” Some of the horses are sold and some are donated to therapy centers across the country.
These are only a few examples of Barton’s business endeavors and philanthropy efforts. His companies hire lots of veterans and former military members and in 2010, he got involved with the Tennessee Veterans Business Association, supporting veterans as they become entrepreneurs themselves. He has sponsored refugees from Iraq and other countries; is a member of various philanthropic boards; and donates millions to charities, foundations, scholarships, and endowments.
He attributes his success mostly to his theological and military backgrounds. “My personal faith has helped me understand and love and cherish differences and not be, in any way, shaken by someone else’s faith.” The Marines provided him with the experience of working around people with lots of different cultural and religious traditions. “It’s the majority of the foundation of who I am. From 17 on, it was the experience and the leadership that the Marine Corps gave me. Some of it’s haphazard, some of it’s not.” Barton’s experience provided a network of people and potential business contacts, and it taught him that if something needed to be done, he should learn how to do it, himself.
“We needed weapons, so I became pretty proficient at understanding the Department of Defense trade controls and licensing process. I go to a country to do logistics, but I need security, so I find out how to do security. And I’ve gotta have good communications, so I figure out how to have a communications system, based on my background as a satellite technician. I have a trucking company [Vanquish Express] and I need drivers, so I started the school in 2009 [Peak Technical Institute in Maryville], and we graduate 50 students a month, now.” Eric himself qualified for a commercial driver’s license so that he would know what was involved. And you can call him Dr. Barton. In 2016, he received his Doctorate of Business Administration in Leadership.