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The story of Bernhardt Furniture Company embodies the American pioneer values that forged an industrialized nation out of a wilderness. The people responsible for the early success of Bernhardt recognized the value of hard work and perseverance. They also recognized the value of loyal employees and customers who would respond to fair treatment and a commitment to quality. The history of Bernhardt Furniture Company is a saga of opportunities recognized and realized in spite of obstacles and challenges. Today this thriving enterprise is one of the oldest family businesses in America.
John Mathias Bernhardt, founder America was beginning to take shape in 1860 when the Bernhardt family moved to the western North Carolina town of Lenoir. John Mathias Bernhardt’s rural lifestyle became even more challenging at age 13 when both of his parents died within 60 days of each other. Left to face life as orphans, John and his older brother, Lynn, eventually went to work at a local general store. But unlike his brother, who stayed in the retail trade, John was destined for adventures out west in territory that became the state of Oregon. He secured a job as a government surveyor assisting settlers in the wild frontier, a post that nearly claimed his life. Had it not been for an Indian guide who saved him from a winter bout of pneumonia, J.M . Bernhardt and Bernhardt Furniture Company would not be known to us today. As it was, he survived this and other frontier ordeals and returned to Lenoir after three years to begin an enterprise that would become one of the country’s leading manufacturers of residential and commercial furniture.
J.M. Bernhardt was a man with imagination and drive. His legacy includes not only a thriving family enterprise, but also a heritage of perseverance and social responsibility. After working as a surveyor in the Oregon territory, J.M. Bernhardt returned home to the mountainous region of western North Carolina, where he went to work as a logger. He spent much of his time in the densely forested foothills of Grandfather Mountain.
The early days were not easy days Upon returning to Lenoir, John found work as a logger and timber cutter-a hard way to make a living. Yet, his diligence paid off, and he became supervisor at the Caldwell Land & Lumber Company. Back when horses, mules, and oxen moved all supplies into this remote region, John was able to convince his company to build the first railroad to reach the slopes of Grandfather and Grandmother mountains, so that it would be easier to harvest and transport the timber abundant in the area.
An eye for opportunity
John Bernhardt saw and acted upon the opportunities around him. First, he started his own sawmill and began buying timber. Then in 1889 he organized a company to manufacture furniture out of the native white oak. Bernhardt’s vision ultimately led him to connect with distributors and merchants in large cities such as Chicago and New York City in order to supply sturdy oak bedroom furniture to people who lived as far away as the Rocky Mountains. This eager North Carolina entrepreneur began making an impression on the urban businessmen who would ultimately come to know his reliability and integrity.
Bernhardt’s grasp of possibilities outside his locality and his willingness to work hard enabled his young company to survive and grow. As Bernhardt’s fledgling enterprise built facilities and honed the skills of its craftsmen, the company earned a reputation for making high-quality furniture that was both durable and beautiful. Known for intricate oak-grain finishes, Bernhardt sold thousands of sturdy chests and tables costing less than $4 each. Cabinets and cases were stacked like bricks and loaded into freight cars for transport to cities across America. Before entering the furniture business, J.M. Bernhardt made his mark on the lumber business, constructing a 20-mile log flume; water filled troughs on which boards floated from the sawmill’s location down to the drying and storage yards. It’s acknowledged as the longest flume ever built in America. J.M. Bernhardt recognized an opportunity. He convinced Caldwell Land & Lumber Company to build a railroad to access hardwood forests.
J.M. Bernhardt’s legacy continues
The trials and experiences of his youth shaped J.M. Bernhardt’s character. His pioneering spirit and personal fortitude are reflected in his legacy-today’s Bernhardt Furniture Company. The company still places high value on old-fashioned intangibles such as perseverance, loyalty, social responsibility, and environmental stewardship.
Four generations of Bernhardt family members, who have been responsible for the success of this American enterprise, no doubt learned from J.M. Bernhardt’s experience and example. The first Bernhardt furniture was constructed from quarter-sawn white oak. This sturdy furniture was stacked and shipped by train, without protective cartons.
Trial by wars, fire, and a depression
After the turn of the century, the company expanded its product line from the dining room into the bedroom, and managed to deliver furniture in spite of severe labor and materials shortages during both World Wars.
When World War I ended, J.M. Bernhardt’s son, George, returned from service as a U.S. Naval officer to operate the company. His management skills would be tested in 1926 by a catastrophic fire that destroyed everything except the factory’s dry kiln and boiler room.
George and his loyal employees met the challenge and built a new plant by 1927. More trials followed during the Great Depression when banks closed. The company overcame this obstacle by using “script” or promises to pay employees after banks re-opened – and these promises were honored. This was just one of many instances that reinforced the company’s commitment to its employees. As generations of Bernhardts strove to grow the family business, generations of Bernhardt employees continued to work alongside them. This working partnership continues today. Bernhardt family values include dedication to those people who are responsible for the company’s success. Through wars, economic downturns, and other hardships, the company has honored its commitment to factory workers, salespeople, and customer. Bernhardt Furniture Company turned to women to operate factory machinery so that the company could stay in business during wartime.
The Growth Years
After World War II, employees who served in the military were welcomed back with “as good or better” job offers. While materials were in short supply, demand for furniture mushroomed as soldiers returned home, married, and purchased homes. John Christian Bernhardt assumed leadership of the company after his brother George’s death in 1947. Expansion followed with the development of a professional sales force, new factories, and diversification of Bernhardt’s product line.
In 1958 a major new product category – upholstered furniture – was introduced with the launching of the Flair division. This new high-fashion look quickly made a name for itself with some of the most sophisticated buyers in America. Flair’s creative styling and striking fabrics became a benchmark for others in the home fashion industry. During the sixties and seventies, Bernhardt continued to expand its manufacturing plants, showrooms, and offices to keep up with the increasing demand for its now broad line of furniture. Expanding production facilities in the 1930s also included benefits for factory workers, like a company cafeteria.
Entering the Global era
The 80′s and 90′s served as a period of refinement for Bernhardt.
In the mid-80s, the company dropped the various marketing names that had emerged over the years for products and lines – opting instead to undertake a national brand-building effort concentrating solely on the Bernhardt name.
In 1981 the company formed a contract division, Bernhardt Design, offering furniture for offices, conference rooms, and public spaces. This division, under the original leadership of Anne Bernhardt, has become a leading supplier and style setter in this product category.
This era also saw Bernhardt confronting the reality of global sourcing, a move that led to the formation of regional offices in four Asian countries – staffed with 50 employees to ensure the quality and on-time delivery of offshore production.
While some North American manufacturers have completely abandoned U.S. operations in favor of overseas production, Bernhardt has utilized outsourcing to supplement domestic production. The company still operates a dozen facilities in western North Carolina, employing skilled workers in jobs that blend traditional craftsmanship with advanced technology. In 1976, John Christian Bernhardt was CEO and Chairman, and his son, Alex Bernhardt Sr. (right) became President. In 1996, Alex Sr. became Chairman & CEO and John Christian became Chairman Emeritus. Bernhardt Design has its own showrooms and sales force – as well as a unique product line that has garnered numerous design awards.
Doing Business in a Third Century
Bernhardt entered the 21st century grounded in the values that sustained it in the 19th and 20th – yet fully committed to being as fresh, alert, and aggressive as companies of any age. Appropriately, the company welcomed the new millennium by opening yet another domestic factory for its growing fabric and leather business.
This was also a period that brought Bernhardt into the national spotlight when they were selected by Martha Stewart in 2001 to produce a line of licensed furniture – Martha Stewart Furniture™ with Bernhardt, a selection based on Bernhardt’s sound reputation in the trade, and its long history of integrity and quality.
The success of that licensing venture led the Smithsonian Institution to choose Bernhardt in 2006 for the production of its own licensed line – The Smithsonian(r) Collection by Bernhardt…a fitting match of two respected institutions with roots reaching to the 19th century.
The company moved in a new and unexpected direction in 2008 with the debut of Bernhardt Interiors, a substantial neo-traditional collection offering an eclectic mix of upholstery and occasional products with a relaxed yet sophisticated aesthetic.
In 2009, Bernhardt Furniture launched a new division with a separate sales force to supply stocking and custom furniture to the hospitality marketplace. Unveiled at the 2009 Hospitality Design Expo in Las Vegas, Bernhardt Hospitality offers an assortment of products for hospitality guestrooms, suites and public spaces.
Throughout the years, Bernhardt designs have garnered a host of prestigious awards from industry experts and the media. Among the more notable achievements, the American Society of Furniture Designers (ASFD) has recognized the excellence of Bernhardt’s designs with multiple Pinnacle Design Achievement Awards.
Product design is not the only area in which Bernhardt has been recognized. The company has also been an early leader in environmental stewardship with five of their facilities achieving EFEC (Enhancing Furniture’s Environmental Culture) Certification. The company is also developing programs with environmental groups such as SFI, FSC, GREENGUARD, and in support of LEED.
Across the years, this family business still thrives
Bernhardt family members continue to be involved in the direction and management of the family business.
The company’s “extended family” also includes more than 1,000 employees who work in Bernhardt factories and offices, as well as the dedicated salespeople who represent Bernhardt in the USA and more than 51 countries.
Also included as members of Bernhardt’s furniture family are a host of retailers, designers, architects and decorators who are loyal partners in this enterprise.
Bernhardt’s story is a tale of vision, perseverance, and uncompromising commitment to high standards of doing business. This story continues today with a focus: to anticipate and satisfy the needs of customers who expect the very best furniture for their home or office.
And today, with ever more appreciation for the changing needs of its consumers, customers and employees, Bernhardt is accomplishing its mission and preparing for even greater success in the decades to come. Bernhardt’s family leadership spans the generations and includes the fourth generation. (L to R); J. Rountree Collett, Jr., President, Bernhardt Ventures; G. Alex Bernhardt, Jr., President, Bernhardt Residential; John Christian Bernhardt, Chairman Emeritus (now deceased); William B. Collett, EVP, GM, Bernhardt Residential Casegoods; G. Alex Bernhardt, Sr., Chairman and CEO; Lewis G. Norman, Vice Chairman. Not pictured: Anne Bernhardt, Vice Chairman. Today’s Bernhardt furniture is transported across the country and around the world. The Bernhardt brand is recognized as a benchmark for others to