Bernhardt Furniture, still locally owned, reaches milestone

Year of celebration will recognize employees
Mar. 28, 2014 @ 02:55 PM

Alex Bernhardt Jr. got his introduction to the family business gradually and casually, as a pre-schooler tagging along to the office with his father on weekends, with a child’s vague awareness of what his father does.

“I thought he was making furniture, that he was here hammering legs on chairs,” Bernhardt said at the Bernhardt Furniture Co. corporate offices on Morganton Boulevard.

But he credits his grandfather, John Christian Bernhardt, with teaching him early the family philosophy, taking him each Christmas season on trips to bring gifts to people in the community who were in need.

But it wasn’t just bringing things to those who were less fortunate. John Bernhardt knew them, whether or not they worked for Bernhardt Furniture. He knew their people, and he asked about relatives by name and what they had been doing, and that made the greatest impression.

“He had such great personal knowledge about these folks,” Bernhardt said.

Bernhardt, now the chief executive officer and president of Bernhardt Furniture, and his cousin Rountree Collett, the company’s chief operating officer, both emphasize their company’s deep roots in the community – not the roots of the family that founded the company 125 years ago, but the roots of the workers, many of whom have followed parents and grandparents into the company’s factories here.

“Thinking about the thousands of people who have been involved in getting the company to where it is today – it’s humbling,” Collett said.

Bernhardt Furniture is celebrating the 125th anniversary of its founding – which was at 2 p.m. March 28, 1889 – with birthday cakes and balloons at each of its factories and its headquarters today.

But more importantly, the company will celebrate over the next year by recognizing an employee each month who has given back to the community in exemplary ways. Each employee will be featured on a special website, http://www.bernhardt125years.com/, telling what the person does for the community, and the company will make a donation to the employees’ causes.

The company sought nominations for the recognition program from other employees, but it wasn’t always easy to get people to talk about their charitable work, Bernhardt said.

“This is kind of a Southern culture, to not talk about what you give,” he said, but he was astounded at times. “Some people I had known a very long time and didn’t know what they were doing.”

And there are many employees Bernhardt and Collett know. Each worked a number of jobs in the company, starting as teenagers, mostly in the factories.

Collett’s first summer job, at age 16, was working as the second person on a wide belt sander. Bernhardt’s first, also at 16, was using an X-Acto knife to cut lengths of cane that would go into cane-backed chairs.

Neither was spared the hazing that new employees get, such as the request to go to another worker to get a non-existent tool, such as a “veneer-stretcher.”

“Tell Bob we need the veneer-stretcher,” Bernhardt quoted one co-worker, and when Bernhardt got to Bob, Bob would say another person had that tool, and Bernhardt would be sent all across the plant on that snipe hunt.

“They did that with everyone who started off, but they particularly relished doing it to the family,” Bernhardt said.

Bernhardt thinks he has worked in every plant the company has and has worked with every machine at some point. But in hindsight, the practical knowledge he gained was secondary in importance.

“I think one of the most valuable things was just the chance to meet everybody,” he said.

Collett said that as young people learning the business, those personal contacts and the kind of multi-generational connections some families have to the company may not have seemed so important.

“The older you get, the more it means to you, for sure,” he said. “You don’t internalize it the same when you’re young.”

Bernhardt, Collett and William Collett, executive vice president and general manager, are the fourth generation of the family to run Bernhardt Furniture.

The company was founded by John Mathias Bernhardt, who first rose from a job as a logger to become supervisor of Caldwell Land and Lumber Co. and saw an opportunity to supply bedroom furniture to far-off cities. After World War I, his son, George, took over the company, and it’s in this era that the company's official history first cites the strength of its bonds with its employees. A fire in 1926 destroyed the factory, but “George and his loyal employees” built a new plant that was able to open the next year, the company’s history says. And during the Depression, when many banks closed, employees continued working while being paid in company scrip, essentially a promise by the company to pay them later.

John Christian Bernhardt assumed leadership of the company after George, his brother, died in 1947, and he oversaw the company’s post-war expansion and diversification of product lines. His son, Alex Bernhardt Sr., became president of the company in 1976, then chairman and chief executive officer in 1996. And Alex Bernhardt Jr. became president and CEO on March 1, 2012.

By making it to its fourth generation of family leadership, Bernhardt Furniture has accomplished a rare feat, said Steve Miller, who teaches about family businesses at the University of North Carolina’s Kenan-Flagler School of Business. Only about a third of businesses are passed to the founder’s children. Only 12 percent make it a third generation, and fewer than half of those make it to the fourth.

And regardless of ownership, few companies ever last 125 years, Miller said. The difficulty is being able to adapt to changing times – recognizing change, being willing to adapt and looking for new opportunities.

“Bernhardt has done a fabulous job of that,” he said. “They have done a nice job of making the strategic shifts they need to make.”

Furniture, in particular, is a competitive business – about 2,500 companies are expected to come to the High Point Market trade show next month – and rewards an upstart’s entrepreneurial mindset, said Richard Bennington, a professor of home furnishings at High Point University. But Bernhardt has been “fashion-forward” and keeps up with consumer tastes.

“If you want to know what’s going on in the business, you should visit their showroom,” he said.

Rountree Collett also cited the company’s history of adaptation and seeking opportunity. Even the start in the last decade of using some imported parts, which Bernhardt was one of the first to do, has to be seen as beneficial, he said.

“By making the change to imported parts, it enabled us to avoid sending more work overseas,” he said.

Company officials express pride in the jobs they were able to preserve through the global recession, and in the local job growth the company is seeing now, most recently demonstrated by the reopening of plants in Shelby and Cajah’s Mountain. Alex Bernhardt Jr. said the pride is driven by seeing how dedicated many workers are to their work.

“I’m always astounded we’ll have departments come in unasked to work on weekends,” he said. “That makes us want to always have a large part of what we do in North Carolina.”