Barb King gave capitalism a good name.

King, who died last week of cancer at age 61, treated all the stakeholders fairly in Landscape Structures, the playground-equipment manufacturer she started in a garage with her husband, Steve.

"She was a very cool person," said Dan Carr, president of the Collaborative, a business-support organization. "It is a very successful company. She was a leader who was making things better and safer for kids and the environment. It was not about the money for Barb."

King died at home with her family after a seven-month battle with cancer. She will be memorialized by a few thousand folks at 3 p.m. today at the company's headquarters in Delano that employs about 325 people. There will be pictures of her and employees, kids, customers, friends and others who make up the human saga of a company that will manufacture about $100 million worth of playground equipment this year.

Barb, a food science graduate, and Steve, a landscape architect out of Iowa State University, quit jobs to start building next-generation playgrounds from their garage in 1971. They had a better idea, drive and a willingness to work hard.

"I made them a $40,000 loan in 1973 or 1974, the first of several, when they were still operating out of the garage," recalled Dave Cleveland, the retired president of the former Riverside Bank of Minneapolis. "They had some problems and went through some tough times, but you couldn't say no to those people.

"Steve was the designer and Barb ran the show. I was on their board in the 1980s. They were absolutely loved by the employees. I can remember once she complained to the board that they couldn't keep up with sales demand. We told them to increase prices. It didn't slow sales at all. I've been involved with lots of new companies, but they were the best."

The company pays profit-sharing bonuses and the employees are owners. The Kings rejected offers from outsiders in favor of a gradual sale to employees, whom they credit with their success, through an employee stock ownership plan.

"One of the bigger items for us was our legacy, and not selling out to somebody who would completely change the culture," Barb King said in an interview last summer. "We've got a really neat culture here and we'd like to see it continue."

Gene Keck, a plant worker for 29 years, called King "a great lady."

"She and Steve are down-to-earth people," Keck said. "She was a great listener. She had a cubicle like everybody else in the office. I told Barb one time that she should have assigned parking close to the office and she said, 'The earlier you get here, the better spot you get, including me.' She was just one of us."

Continuous play

Landscape's signature style of space-saving, interconnected playground components stems from a "continuous play concept" that Steve King developed as a landscape architecture student 40 years ago at Iowa State University. The company evolved from redwood to steel, plastic, aluminum and other materials. It built sales of systems that average about $30,000 apiece and can handle 30 kids at once around health, safety and environmentalism.

Barb, an accomplished marketer and operations manager, also was a conservationist who pushed the company to incorporate more recycled content and consume less energy through a continuous-improvement process in manufacturing and plant upgrades.

Landscape Structures joined an international tree-planting organization to offset its pollution emissions. It was "green" ahead of the curve.

"She was the inspiration," said Pat Faust, a 13-year Landscape Structures executive who said the company has a management-succession plan in place, to be discussed later.

"She encouraged calculated risks, innovation and the power of an idea," Faust said. "I have been an operations manager in more-traditional environments. It was refreshing to see management treating people right and being fair. We listen to people."

Indeed, Barb King credited line employees with lots of innovative and money-saving ideas.

She shared the wealth with employees and those in need. A recent project was the Sajai Foundation, into which Barb King had invested more than $1 million to combat childhood obesity.

"She always had time for people," Faust said. "Your story seemed to be the most important thing she heard that day."

Barb King is survived by her husband, two adult children and two granddaughters.

Neal St. Anthony • 612-673-7144 •