By Matt Warnock

Mark Bernhard must have sawdust in his blood. His father, Pius Bernhard, founded Bernhard Woodwork, and although Mark spent a couple of years outside the industry after college, he came back to woodworking in 1991 and has been at it full-time since.

Bernhard says the wood products industry is “a business unlike so many others. You actually create something, as opposed to just pushing paper around. This is what makes it so rewarding.”

Bernhard’s company creates high-end architectural woodwork, as well as store fixtures, which Bernhard says are not easy markets to compete in, particularly when trying to maintain quality in a market that is very cost conscious. Wood & Wood Products recently caught up with Bernhard to discuss his career, his business influences and his goals for the company.

Did you always envision having a career in this industry? What steps led you to this point?

I grew up in it. I always knew I would be working in architectural woodwork. There was a time after college where I went to work outside the industry, but I came back in 1991 and have been full time in it since.

It is a business unlike so many others; we actually manufacture a product that is high quality and custom. You actually create something as opposed to just pushing paper around, and this is what makes it so rewarding. Architectural woodwork and store fixtures are not easy markets to compete in, particularly when you want to maintain your quality in a market that is very cost conscious.


What experiences have helped you to be successful?

We were always lucky to have true craftsmen working for us; these were primarily European cabinetmakers that had tremendous pride in their work and a strong work ethic. These cabinetmakers were not stuck in the past, but were open minded to explore new methods and processes that others may have considered risky. It was a wonderful way to learn the business. There were several folks that actively took me under their wings and exposed me to many different facets of the business. Your people in the business are the core of what makes you successful.

The timing of entering into the business during the recession of 1991-1993 was a good lesson in the value of not overextending yourself financially. It was a baptism by fire as companies I looked up to closed. Many firms cut their prices in a down economy to focus on taking jobs at any price; it not only put them out of business, but hurt the industry as a whole for a long period afterwards. You don’t want to be a commodity, but something your customers pay a premium for.

You need to constantly challenge yourself and expose yourself to a variety of different methodologies, including those from other industries. Involvement with your peers is also critical — associations such as AWI and NASFM (now A.R.E.) are incredible resources for networking and benchmarking. I have made many friendships through these and other organizations



What has been your proudest achievement as it relates to the industry?

There are many individual awards that I am proud of; anyone that visits our office can see we have a hallway full of awards for woodwork excellence, including Target’s Vendor of the Year Award and an ISP International Grand Prize. My proudest accomplishment is that we are profitable and I am able to share that profitability with our employees who make it all possible. I try to give back to our team as much as I can in bonuses to have them share in our success.



What has been your greatest challenge and how have you overcome or are overcoming it?

It is an ongoing challenge not to be treated as a commodity. Unfortunately, we have done this to ourselves as an industry by participating in online reverse auctions and the whole low bidder mentality without focusing on quality or differentiating ourselves from our competition. Bernhard Woodwork constantly tries to educate customers on why we offer more value even though we might be more expensive. It is a long term proposition and extremely hard to hold yourself to this course in an economy like we have now.



What key strategies have helped you improve business? Please elaborate.

We not only invest in keeping our plant modern and purchasing the newest technologies, but also in our people and processes. You can learn so many things from others if you keep an open mind both outside your business and especially internally from your own people.

You need to focus on what you are good at — quality, low price, design, etc. — and differentiate yourself.

You need to be proactive in attracting young people into our industry and growing the skilled labor for the next generation; it is not going to happen on its own. I fear that 20 years from now we will be sorely lacking on woodworking talent in our industry as a result.

What would you like to see President-elect Obama do in his first year in office to help your company?

Streamline the government and keep it out of our way. Keep the value of the dollar low so manufacturing stays competitive here in America and stop sending good jobs overseas. Level the playing field between firms that are paying fair wages and benefits versus those that are not, particularly importers that are not playing by the same rules as we are and have an unfair competitive advantage.



What are your goals for the company over the next five to 10 years?

Like everyone we need to grow the business. We expanded our plant to 100,000 square feet back in 2000; it was the wrong time with the downturn at the time but garnered us more efficient processes and throughput. We need to streamline production further and leverage technology to compete more effectively while maintaining the quality we are known for.



Who is the one person you’ve tried to emulate in business and why?

My father, Pius Bernhard. He came penniless from Germany and built up a wonderful business and was well respected in the business. He risked it all again and again. When I asked him how he could stomach all these risks he always said “I never risked anything, if you start with nothing you have nothing to lose."

Most impressive to me was how he allowed people to work independently; too often you see an entrepreneur micromanage their firm. He really was able to stand back and let people run with things even though he might think they were making a mistake. Sometimes they would fail, but more often than not they would succeed and he would work in the background to make that success possible without taking any credit for it. He surrounded himself with good people and treated them with respect and trust, never allowing the compromise of the quality of what we produced.

Mark Bernhard

President

Bernhard Woodwork Ltd.

Educational background:

BS- Boston College



MBA- Northwestern University- Kellogg School of Management



Number of years at the company:

18 years



Number of years in the industry:

Lifetime!



What one word or phrase can be used to describe you?

Candid

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