John Murdoch Harbert III
John M. Harbert III John Murdoch Harbert III (1921-1995) was an Alabama businessman and civic leader in the Birmingham, Jefferson County, area. He developed Harbert Corporation, one of the largest construction businesses in Alabama and in the Southeast. The company’s worldwide reach included building military bases and pipelines in the Middle East as well as bridges and highways around the globe. He would become one of the wealthiest men in Alabama and a noted philanthropist in the state.
Harbert was born on July 19, 1921, to John and Mae Schooling Harbert in Greenville, Mississippi; he had two siblings. The Harbert family moved to Birmingham when John was a child and occasionally lived out of state for his father’s construction work. He attended Phillips High School in Birmingham for three years but spent his final year at a high school in Gulfport, Mississippi.
Harbert entered the civil engineering program at Alabama Polytechnic Institute (API: present-day Auburn University) in Auburn, Lee County, in 1939. He was drafted into the U.S. Army when the United States entered World War II, having completed all but five hours of his degree. After serving from 1943 to 1946, Harbert returned to API, graduated with a civil engineering degree in 1946, and became a licensed professional engineer and land surveyor in Alabama. He used the winnings from playing dice on board a troop transport ship and the sale of some war bonds to start Harbert Corporation in 1949 with his brother Billy L. Harbert and two other engineers. His first project was the construction of a bridge near Prattville in Autauga County financed with borrowed money and constructed from surplus war equipment. He headquartered his new company in the Riverchase area of Birmingham and Hoover in Shelby County. In 1951, he married Marguerite Jones, the Birmingham-born daughter of an insurance executive. The couple had three children.
In the post-World War II era, Alabama experienced an economic boom, and Harbert’s new construction company took part in and helped generate much of the economic prosperity in Birmingham. During the 1960s, Harbert Corporation looked to diversify its business operation to help moderate the cyclical nature of the construction industry. The company purchased coal reserves in Kentucky and Tennessee, eventually acquiring the mining rights to 240,000 acres for an estimated investment of $150 million. The company also built pipelines, highways and bridges, and water supply systems and pipelines in the African nation of Angola and in the United Arab Emirates in the Persian Gulf.
In 1962, the Harbert Corporation began construction on the Elton B. Stephens Highway in Birmingham, known locally as the Red Mountain Expressway. The highway was blasted through Red Mountain, and the resultant cut revealed millions of years of geological history as well as important fossil discoveries. (It was designated as a National Natural Landmark in 1987.) In 1969, Harbert Corporation began purchasing land in the Riverchase area along U.S. Highway 31 and Valleydale Road. In the 1970s, the corporation created a subsidiary named Harcon Barge Company to manage a network of barge transports that operated on the Ohio, Tennessee, and Mississippi rivers.
In the 1980s, Harbert Corporation began divesting itself of the barge-towing business, coal mines, mining operations, and coal-related properties for more profitable ventures. After most of the coal-related properties were sold to Standard Oil Corporation, Harbert looked to oil exploration and purchased the Plumb Oil Company of Houston, Texas, forming Harbert Energy Corporation. Harbert joined oil magnate T. Boone Pickens in an unsuccessful takeover bid for Gulf Oil Corporation. In 1984, Forbes magazine listed John M. Harbert III as one of America’s wealthiest 400 people. His holdings in Gulf Oil alone were worth millions when it merged with Standard Oil to form the Chevron Corporation in 1985. By 1987, Harbert Corporation had expanded into securities and investment banking and later into small power plants such as Harbert Cogen, Inc., GWF Power Systems, and Combustion Power Company.
Harbert also expanded his real estate holdings with the construction of the 3,000-acre planned community of Riverchase, a Birmingham subdivision that was largely annexed by Hoover in 1980. In 1986, Harbert completed construction of Hoover’s Riverchase Galleria shopping mall, one of the largest malls in the United States at the time. As the Birmingham area expanded, so did the need for more meeting space for civic organizations. Harbert and Tennessee-born Hall W. Thompson led a fundraising effort to build a meeting space known today as the Harbert Center. Brasfield & Gorrie General Contractors of Birmingham managed the construction of the Harbert Center. Harbert’s firm also constructed Hoover Metropolitan Stadium, a minor-league baseball park that opened in 1988. The following year, Harbert Corporation and AmSouth Bancorporation formed a partnership to construct the 32-story downtown Birmingham AmSouth-Harbert Plaza, now known as the Regions-Harbert Plaza. In 1990, Harbert passed leadership of the company to his son Raymond J. Harbert, who would become successful in financial management.
Harbert received numerous awards and recognitions for his contributions to industry and the state. In 1967, he was named Marketing Man of the Year and was recognized by Engineering News-Record as one of ten outstanding construction men of the year. He was also honored as recipient of the first Silver Hard Hat Award by the Construction Writers’ Association. He received an Outstanding Engineering Alumni Award from Auburn University in 1975; the Women’s Committee of 100 for Birmingham made him their Citizen of the Year in 1976; the University of Montevallo in Montevallo, Shelby County, awarded him an honorary doctor of laws degree in 1978; and the American Society of Landscape Architects awarded him the Holly Mitchell Award in 1979. Auburn University awarded him an honorary doctorate of science in 1981. He was inducted into the Alabama Academy of Honor in 1980 and the Alabama Men’s Hall of Fame in 2005.
He and his wife were supporters of education, the arts, and other endeavors in the Birmingham region and beyond. In 1969, he endowed a writing center at the University of Montevallo and also provided financial contributions to his alma mater, Auburn University, most notably the Harbert Center, which opened in 1986 in the Samuel Ginn College of Engineering. In 1988, Birmingham-Southern College dedicated the Marguerite Jones Harbert Building in honor of his wife, a 1944 graduate; the Harberts contributed generously to the college over the years. At the 50th anniversary of the Birmingham Museum of Art in 2001, Marguerite Harbert endowed a curatorship known as the Marguerite Jones Harbert and John Harbert III Curatorship of Decorative Arts. Harbert served on the Executive Committee of the Birmingham Area Council of the Boy Scouts, was a director of the YWCA, and served on the vestry of Saint Mary’s-on-the-Highlands Episcopal Church in Birmingham. He served as chairman of the Alabama Governor’s Energy Advisory Committee from 1973 to 1977.
John Murdoch Harbert III died on March 31, 1995, in Houston, Texas. He is buried in the Marguerite Harbert family plot at Elmwood Cemetery in Birmingham. In 1998, a sculpture of Harbert by Brad Morton was erected in front of the Regions-Harbert Plaza.
Atkins, Leah Rawls. John M. Harbert III: Marching to the Beat of a Different Drummer. Birmingham: Tarva House, 1999.