PORTLAND – David Barber sighs. He pauses, deep in thought, combing 40 years of memories — time he spent on the payroll of the family business.

What lessons did he learn from his father, who started the company from the back of a truck in 1955?

“He taught me about humility,” Barber, 52, finally answers. “He led with a free hand. He knew what was going on, but he asked you to work things out yourself.”

Barber is executive vice president of Portland’s Barber Foods, a producer and nationwide distributor of frozen prepared food. He’s worked at the company since the age of 12, rising through the ranks and learning from his father as the company grew into one of the region’s largest employers.

Barber, who lives in Cape Elizabeth, is a family man. He and his wife, Dorie, have two boys — Jack, 17, and Max, 15. Barber’s three siblings, Steve, Kathy and Julie, all live within a 6-mile radius. The family, he said, gets together regularly.

Barber spends some of his spare time on his boat, a 40-foot Sea Ray express cruiser he keeps at DiMillo’s dock downtown. He also likes hiking, and in the winter he and a sister hit the ski slopes at Sugarloaf.

Growing up in the Portland area, Barber said he always knew he would end up working for the family business. In 1970, at the age of 12, he was deboning chickens on the production line.

“I got my first paycheck 40 years ago. I’ve never had a paycheck from anywhere else,” he said.

Barber left only to attend Babson College in Massachusetts, where he got a degree in business. When he returned, he became Barber’s production manager, and, later, sales manager and vice president of sales. In 2004, Barber was named executive vice president, overseeing many areas of the business, including sales and marketing.

It’s a job that sometimes lands Barber in high places. In 2009, he was among a group of business leaders who met with President Obama.

“You can put small business out of business with (too much) regulation,” he said he warned the president.

Barber Foods has come a long way since it was founded in 1955 by David’s father, Augustus “Gus” Barber.

Called Barber Beef back then, the company sold ground hamburger to Portland restaurants and markets. Gus’ wife, Marjorie, was the bookkeeper.

Gus expanded into chicken sales and changed the company’s name to Barber Beef and Poultry.

In the 1960s, he was one of the first to sell chicken nuggets, made from chicken breast trimmings. At the time, the company had roughly 30 employees.

In 1968, the company name its changed to Barber Foods.

David Barber said the idea to sell stuffed chicken breasts — the product for which Barber became known — came to his father on a trip to Texas.

“He went to San Antonio and saw a box of stuffed potatoes and thought, ‘Why can’t I do that with chicken?’ ” Barber said.

Expansion continued. A night production shift started in 1971, and the company added cryogenic freezers and packaging equipment.

Soon, Barber Foods was employing 60 staffers. Sales climbed.

Today, some of the company’s top executives are family members. David’s sister Julie is vice president of club sales, and his brother, Steve, was CEO until retiring two years ago. David’s brother-in-law Mark Dvorozniak is vice president of marketing.

The company embraces outsiders, too.

In 2008, chief operating office Bruce Wagner, a former executive with diversified products firm W.R. Grace & Co., was named Barber’s CEO.

“We always benefit from someone outside the family,” David said.

Gus Barber died in 2008 at the age of 87, leaving the business to his children.

He also left memories.

David remembers one time in the 1980s when Gus came “barreling out of his office,” screaming at him and Steve.

“Jesus Christ!” he bellowed. “You gave away $30,000 in samples this month? We’ll never make any money at that rate.”

Gus was livid, but David said the tactic worked. Incremental sales that month covered the extra expenses.

“There is a lot of his heart and soul here,” David added. “He left a robust legacy.”

Jonathan Hemmerdinger can be reached at 791-6316 or:

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