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MAY 9, 2000


From Tragedy to Small-Biz Triumph

Georgia Berner learned about business on the job, when she inherited her husband's plant



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Five days after her 44-year-old husband, Christian, died in a small-plane crash in 1984, Georgia Berner walked into his manufacturing company and took over.

The sensible thing would have been to sell New Castle (Pa.)-based Berner International Inc. or hire an industry veteran to run it. The 42-year-old mother of four school-age children had no business skills. She had worked as an English teacher and was a leader in local charities. But, she recalls, her late husband, a Swedish engineer, recognized she had a talent for organizing and selling her causes. He often told her: "You would be better at this than I am. If anything ever happens to me, you run it."

That memory gave her courage. "Because of his belief in me, I just did it," she says. "I think it was a lifesaver. Truly, with a death of that type, you need things to do."

Berner threw herself into running the then 15-employee company, which makes "air curtains" -- fans that blow air across doorways to maintain indoor temperature. Within a year, she was turning the operation inside out. Since taking over, she has tripled revenues, to $6 million, and the company has vaulted from third place to industry co-leader, with 40% market share.

FRAYING STEREOTYPES. With $7.5 million in revenues projected in 2000, Berner plans to double the size of her current plant. New customers include Federal Express, Starbucks, Costco, Toys 'R' Us, and Super Kmart. Berner was even runner-up for the Small Business Administration's Small-Business Person of the Year award in 1997.

Berner's situation -- and success -- have been extraordinary in many respects. Yet her story sheds light on reasons many American women have embraced entrepreneurship so enthusiastically -- and the ways they've gone about it. (See Business Week frontier Online, 5/3/00, "Yes, Women Do Run Businesses Differently".) The odds of Berner succeeding as CEO of her own company may have been slim, but few employers would have given someone with her background a satisfying -- let alone well-paying -- job.

Berner's rise in the traditionally male industrial world also fits another trend. The number of women-owned manufacturers rose 54%, to 294,800, from 1992 to 1999, according to the National Foundation for Women Business Owners, a Washington (D.C.) research group. That reflects better access to credit, greater technical knowledge, and a fraying of old stereotypes. "Women are realizing that the full spectrum of options are open to them," says NFWBO spokesman Bruce Rosenthal.

"DIFFERENT MEANINGS." Berner wasn't a complete stranger to the company, which her father-in-law had founded. "If you're married to the owner of a small business, you're married to the business," she says. She had rewritten the company's product documentation, so she knew how the equipment worked. She also knew that Berner International had a looming problem: Its core business was "a cash cow" that supported a heat-exchanger subsidiary that consumed most of her husband's time and energy. All she knew was she had to sell it. Otherwise, she was ignorant of the plant's financial, personnel, and production issues. All she had to fall back on as a manager were her instincts.

"I'm good at communicating, networking, keeping my ear to the ground, and paying attention to the marketplace," she recalls. So that's what she relied on. She spent the first year "wandering around and asking questions until people begged for mercy." On the factory floor, she'd ask: "What are you doing? What is that? Where does that fit?" In the sales office, she'd ask: "What kind of unit are you going to sell there? Why?"

She quickly realized that her ignorance of finance and accounting was a problem. "The words you're using are English words, and I know their meanings," she told her banker and her accountant. "But you have different meanings." A one-day SBA course gave her the basics of cash flow. She attended meetings of the air-curtain manufacturers' trade group. She devoured business magazines, newspapers, trade journals, and management books.

POWER TO THE WORKERS. After a year of listening, she made her first moves. She started a weekly no-agenda staff meeting. "People shared those little pieces of information that seem minuscule but that really make a difference," she says. She held annual planning retreats. She realized that the company's weakness was marketing -- it never interested her husband. At one point, she recalls, the purchasing head of a major restaurant supplier told her flatly, "I've been buying air curtains for years, and I've never heard of you."

"Point well taken. Thank you," she replied. She marketed aggressively, attending trade shows and wooing clients personally. She got the Underwriter's Laboratory label on the company's small commercial units. They easily passed the tests, opening up sales to boutiques and mall shops.

She put more responsibility in the workers' hands. Berner fired an authoritarian plant manager and didn't replace him. "I gathered up all the plant people and said, 'The truth of the matter is that you all know very well what you're doing.' After they got over the terror, we all worked together, and we all worked hard." Later, as staff increased, she hired a production manager, but employees still make many decisions. Four years ago, faced with a 26% rise in health-insurance rates, she asked employees to explore alternatives. A committee more than offset the increase by cutting costs elsewhere.

INTUITION. Five years ago, to Berner's surprise, the unaffiliated plant union, the Independent Air Curtain Workers, gave her a 10-year contract, leaving annual salary increases to her discretion. (They've run between 3% and 5%.) She recruited two waitresses as front-office workers. "You know what kind of person someone is from the service they give you," she explains.

She hasn't forgotten her community-service roots. When a local women's shelter called her about a penniless Yugoslav family, she let the wife fill in as a receptionist for a few weeks. "It turned out to be amusing because her English was weak, but once I explained it to people, everyone was fine with it," she says.

Her aversion to hierarchy and open, consensus-oriented management style are often considered traits of women entrepreneurs. Ironically, Berner attributes only one of her traits -- intuition -- to gender, though "women's intuition" has historically been a dismissive cliche. She recalls watching engineers struggle over a door configuration in her first year. "I looked at the sketches and said, 'You could do this and this.' They looked at me totally stunned. I was right!"

She's less of an oddity these days in the manufacturing world. Her words of advice to other women who might join the fun? Don't be intimidated by the heavy metal. "Anybody who makes cookies can make anything else," she says. "It's not that big a deal." Modest talk. You may not need an MBA, but you sure do need a good head for business.


By Meg Lundstrom in New York

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