Marketing, education propel company's growth
The second-largest manufacturer of air doors and air curtains has new digs in Shenango Commerce Park.
By CYNTHIA VINARSKY
VINDICATOR BUSINESS WRITER
NEW CASTLE, Pa. -- Twenty years ago a tragic plane crash killed her husband and thrust Georgia Berner into the helm of Berner International, a small family business in Western Pennsylvania.
Most of what she knew about the company she'd learned from her husband in dinner table conversations, but she decided to shoulder the top job rather than turning it over to someone else.
"I knew nobody would care as much as I did about the company, about the children and myself and our future," she said. "I figured I could learn whatever I needed to know."
And learn she did. Sales at Berner International have increased 400 percent since Berner took over the top job. That includes a 31 percent increase in 2003 and a 34.5 percent increase in the first six months of this year.
Its work force, now at 56 employees, has nearly quadrupled during her tenure.
The company also moved recently into new headquarters, a 60,000-square-foot facility in New Castle's Shenango Commerce Park that is more than triple the size of its former location on Wilmington Road.
Berner International's main products are air doors and air curtains, engine-powered fan systems installed above windows or doors to blow a controlled stream of air across the opening. When activated, they create an air seal to keep out insects, dust, dirt, fumes and hot and cold air.
Berner calls itself the second-largest and oldest manufacturer of air doors and curtains in the United States. Only one competitor, a California-based company, is larger.
Stores, restaurants, casinos, factories and distribution centers use the door- and window-mounted systems to keep their facilities dust- and insect-free and to conserve energy.
Most air curtains are custom made to meet buyers' specifications. Berner's customers include large corporations like General Motors, Toys "R" Us and Kmart, as well as small and medium-sized businesses across the country.
Rising energy costs and more stringent environmental standards, especially in the food service industry, have helped to fuel Berner International's recent boost in sales.
Georgia Berner said her emphasis on marketing the company and educating consumers about its products have also been a key factor in the company's growth.
"The market is maturing," Berner said with a satisfied grin. "We've finally reached the point where people know what our product is, that it works and that they need it."
But that wasn't always the case.
Lacking a market
Air curtains were commonplace as an energy-saving device in Europe and Japan when her father-in-law, Erling Berner, immigrated from Sweden and founded the company in 1956.
The technology was tough to sell in the United States, however, because Americans weren't concerned about saving energy.
"For a long time it was very tough to convince business owners that they needed air curtains," she said. "The general way of thinking was that energy was endless; there was nothing to worry about."
The business was still small but had earned a national reputation by the early 1970s, when Erling Berner retired and turned his company over to his two sons.
Christian, Georgia Berner's husband and an engineer, was offered the air curtain part of the business; his brother, Rolf, took another division that designed machinery for rolling out polystyrene board, also known as Styrofoam.
Georgia Berner and her husband were living in Japan at the time. She, with a bachelor's degree in political science and master's degrees in social psychology and English literature, was teaching at a university in Japan, while Christian Berner ran a company he had founded there.
They decided to sell the business to a Japanese buyer and moved back to the States to concentrate on their new enterprise.
With four children at home, Georgia Berner was focused mainly on rearing her family at the time, but she found herself serving as an unofficial consultant, advising her husband on marketing and personnel matters.
"He was an engineer, and he built the sales contacts and worked on the quality of the product," she said. "What I brought was marketing. I just naturally understood that you can make the best air curtain in the world, but it doesn't matter unless customers know about it."
Two years later, when Christian Berner crashed in the single-engine plane he was piloting, she decided to take over the company herself. Just five days after her husband's memorial service, Georgia Berner, then 41, showed up at his former office and went to work.
Since then, the company has added more advanced types of air curtains and other technology to its product line. Its aggressive marketing efforts brought more contracts in the food service market, which now makes up about 30 percent of its sales.
Berner recently organized a a sister company, Berner Energy Recover, which manufactures air recovery ventilators to bring fresh air into large buildings. The ventilators, some as large as a two-car garage and costing tens of thousands of dollars, are placed on the roofs of schools, hospitals and other large institutions.
Launching the ventilator company was risky, she said, but the business seems to be taking off, and production is taking up larger and larger sections of the company's production floor.
"We're jammed at the moment," she said with a grin, predicting that the company will probably have to start planning another plant expansion soon.
Berner's office walls and shelves display a number of awards she has received over the years recognizing her entrepreneurial efforts, and she was recently presented the Ernst & amp; Young Entrepreneur of the Year award in the manufacturing category for Lawrence County and Western Pennsylvania.