Q&A with Stephen Bernhard

Editorin Best of the Rest

One of the industry's leading ambassadors has finally decided to let go of the reins of Bernhard and Company, the successful mower sharpening solutions business he set up thirty-eight years ago.

bernhards 009.jpgDuring that time, the company has grown from a small enterprise into the organisation it is today, providing a range of innovative sharpening tools and educational support for practising greenkeepers and groundsmen.

In 2008 the company were awarded the prestigious Queens Award for Industry, a great achievement for a company of their size and a highlight of Stephen's career.

Our editor caught up with him at the company's Rugby headquarters.

Q: What are your reasons for stepping down?

A: Regrettably, I am not getting any younger and I have to look to the future development and growth of the company. Over recent years we have developed a strong management team, led by Peter Wood, who has managed us through the current challenging period of recession. During such periods it has always been my policy to be bold, dynamic and creative.

With this in mind, it is now the right time to implement a carefully planned and progressive exit strategy that reflects the interests of employees and of the company, whilst also providing me with a lifestyle change as I move toward retirement.

Who will be taking over your role?

Bob Buckingham will present the external face of the business as Chief Executive Officer, while Peter Wood will continue to manage the business as Chief Operating Officer. This management duo will be a powerful and reliable combination of talent and experience. I am confident that, under their new leadership, we have an excellent foundation for continued growth with a bright and successful future.

What made you choose Bob?

He brings with him more than thirty years of experience in our industry, having held positions with Toro, where he was responsible for business development in Europe, the Middle East and Africa. We both have very similar backgrounds and ideas on how to promote and take our industry forward.

What role will you now have within the company?

I shall become Executive Chairman of the Bernhard Group, continuing to be active in many areas of the business as a resource and as an advisor, remaining in touch with our many business partners around the world, fostering education and promoting our interests where needed.

Do you have any regrets about standing down?

No, I am looking forward to seeing some fresh ideas and opportunities brought to the table, along with the bonus of having more free time to pursue some of my hobbies and pastimes while I am still fit and able.

What, do you consider, have been contributing factors to the success of your business?

Hard work, networking and acquiring committed dedicated staff but, above all, listening to the needs of the customer.

How did it all begin?

My affinity with the industry started when I left school, working at my father's nursery and landscaping business. I also went to college and gained qualifications in horticulture.

After some time, I decided to leave the family business and strike out on my own. I had already started an export business, and one of the products I featured was Atterton and Ellis mower sharpening machinery - and some mowers too - Horwool is a name some may fondly recall. I also started a greenhouse manufacturing business. The export company grew and we opened a major distribution centre in Mannheim - Germany.

How did you develop the mower sharpening side of the business?

I sold the greenhouse and garden product wholesale business in Germany so that I could concentrate on the growing business of mower sharpening machinery. By this time, I had forged particularly strong links with Atterton and Ellis from Haverhill, Suffolk.

I was encouraged by their directors, Ken Boardman and David Smith, and became involved in their designs and corporate development. Our export sales grew and I became their Export Director. Then, little by little, I acquired a controlling interest in Attertons and, eventually, became the sole and outright owner of the company under the banner of Bernhard and Company Ltd.

What was the catalyst for success of this new business venture?

Simply, my contacts in America. I worked with Dick Nelson and Phil Taylor from Jacobsen, in 1973, to develop a non-contact (spin) sharpening programme and, by the mid 1980s, we had become the main name in spin grinding in the USA. This culminated with Bernhard's being one of the first UK companies to exhibit at the prestigious GCSAA Show.

When, and how, did your famous blazers first appear?

They came about when Ulrich Kayser and I used to make greenhouses and sell to the European garden industry. We always traded on what was special in the British garden. One day Ulrich, who is quite eccentric, arrived in a British boating blazer and suggested we should all wear something similar to make us stand out in the crowd as being really British. I agreed and contacted my friends at Rugby School. They had their own boating colours which were no longer used. They agreed to allow me to buy the cloth and have jackets made.

They have definitely been a good talking point over the years and, to be fair, have helped portray the companies image of being smart and sharp.

What are your concerns for the industry?

Industry fragmentation. There's not enough coming together of like-minded businesses and institutions. We need to bring some common goals to the table and raise the profile of greenkeepers and groundsmen to a new level.

Our practitioners should be seen in a better light, and represent the industry more professionally, and be appropriately qualified and educated to represent their facility in the best possible manner, and not to be still seen as a grass cutter with flat cap.

In a perfect world, member associations would combine their resources and work together to take our industry forward. This would also create the opportunity to create a 'one single show format' on a two year cycle, of which one year is trade orientated, whilst the other is based on educational seminar and conference style workshops.

We need to encourage new blood into our industry, It is surprising how many youngsters are not aware of the opportunities our industry brings in terms of work satisfaction, diversity and high profile facilities.

Many schools and colleges do not promote our industry in the best light. We also need to change that and the perceptions of many employees who, again, still have a notion we only cut grass. Education is the key to changing these perceptions. It is the duty of all who work in our industry to do just that.

What advice would you give to someone starting out in our wonderful industry?

Be respectful, honest, hardworking and loyal to your employer, ask questions and listen to advice when given. Be willing to take on responsibilities and learn from your mistakes.


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