Beyond the Trenches
January 7, 2008
Georgia Berner, of Berner International and Berner Energy Recovery, stepped into a new position as president in 1984. The company has expanded, diversified, and achieved its goals under her leadership which is anything but ordinary. One of her first suggestions was a Tuesday morning meeting to find out what everyone was doing. The meeting format changed the way the entire company worked together. The NEWS wanted to find out more about this dynamic industry leader.
NEWS: How did you decide to go to Japan as an educator?
Berner: My husband’s father, Erling Berner, was a Swedish entrepreneur and had bought the right to do business in Japan at the end of World War II. He offered Christian and me the opportunity to start a business in Japan selling large industrial air driers. I got a job teaching English literature at Sacred Heart University in Tokyo. In Japan, that is considered a very impressive fact because Empress Michiko attended that university. Her father-in-law was Emperor Hirohito.
In 1972, we turned the company over to Japanese management, as we had always intended to do, and then moved back to the States. Christian took over the air curtain company, which his father had brought over from Sweden in 1956.
NEWS: Prior to your husband’s death, did you ever expect to be working at Berner in any capacity?
Berner: When you’re married to a small businessperson, you’re also married to the business whether you work in it or not. Christian was an engineer’s engineer, and he wrote like one. I actually did understand the technology because I would rewrite all of his technical papers for him so that a layperson could better understand what he was trying to get across. He once said, ‘You should run this company, you would do a better job than I do.’
NEWS: What is your day like?
Berner: I’m not a morning person; I wake about 7:30 a.m. and go to bed about 11:30 p.m. The office is about 30 minutes away, and I spend two days a week there. The other days I work out of my home office. When I’m not working, I spend a lot of time reading and cooking. My mother was a true gourmet, and I love eclectic foods.
NEWS: When we first met, you were making a run at Congress; any other elections in your future?
Berner: I lost that May 2006 primary, but I learned so much from the whole experience. If I was younger, I would definitely do it again, but I’ve found that there really is not a political position available for me at this time. I’ve been asked to run for county commissioner, but it’s actually not the kind of process in which I would be most effective.
NEWS: Why did politics catch your interest?
Berner: It was my feeling that this country is going in the wrong direction. I had reached the level where I felt we had to make a difference. My opponent in the primary, whom I publicly endorsed in the general election, eventually defeated the incumbent. There is a movement in western Pennsylvania that is keeping up the pressure on our elected officials. It’s a good thing, and I like being a part of that.
NEWS: What is the single biggest issue that keeps you involved?
Berner: Respect for the Constitution and respect for the separation of powers between legislative, judiciary, and executive branches. Our founders were so visionary. They far surpass many of today’s leaders who are focused on personal careers and issues of much lesser importance.
NEWS: What is it like to run a successful, growing company?
Berner: I believe very strongly in team management. Each individual brings wonderful strengths and knowledge to the team. When I first started, I initiated the Tuesday-morning meeting for two reasons: I didn’t know what anybody else was doing, and I actually found that nobody knew what anybody else was doing.
There is no agenda at these meetings (which have moved to Monday), we simply talk about projects we are individually working on, and how they affect other members of the team. It was a way of breaking down silos. The most counterproductive thing in a meeting like that is an agenda that can stifle open communication. It’s a time when we can all communicate the details and move larger conversations to a separate meeting.
NEWS: What’s going on at Berner International?
Berner: We have been energy conservation missionaries for our entire 51 years. This country is starting to understand what many other countries discovered years ago - that energy is finite. Berner has always been on the conservation side, and I think that is one of our greatest contributions.
Our second company, Berner Energy Recovery, is really growing. It is about a seven-year- old company that builds desiccant wheels that use a silica gel. Munters is our primary supplier and we’ve been thrilled with that relationship, which dates back to our days in Japan. Bringing fresh air into buildings at very close to internal temperatures is important both for energy usage and employee health. When people tightened up buildings, limiting fresh air intake in order to reduce the energy load, they created Sick Building Syndrome. Berner utilized energy recovery technology developed by the Swedes to supply healthy climate-controlled buildings, at reduced cost to the building owner.
Publication date: 01/07/2008