Introducing AED's 2005 Chairman, Walter BerryWritten By Mary Seaman
Article Date: 03-01-2005
Copyright (C) 2005 Associated Equipment Distributors. All Rights Reserved.
Born into the equipment industry, he learned the value of AED at an early age.
Walter Berry made his first trip to an AED Annual Meeting in 1971, when he traveled to Las Vegas with his parents, Sue and Fred, and his brother Frank to watch his father installed as AED President. At this year’s Annual Meeting January 27-29 in San Antonio, when he took the helm of AED, his father had the pleasure of conducting the installation. Only three other times in AED history has a former president had the honor of installing his son into the position.
C.G. Borchert, 1929 AED President, installed his son John in 1963; Miner Doolin, 1957 AED President, installed his son Dennis in 1983, and P.E. MacAllister, 1972 AED president, installed his son Chris in 2000.
“Like a lot of kids, I’ve always enjoyed construction equipment and the equipment my family sold,” says Walter. “That starts at an early age when you’re in this industry.”
He jokes that he actually got his start in the industry in 1972 as a compact equipment operator. His family was doing some landscaping, and he managed to tip the skid-steer loader over on its nose.
“I still have anxiety today thinking back to that,” says Walter. “I called for help and the response I got was, ‘Wait right there and let me get the camera’.”
Joining The Family Business
Berry Companies was started in 1957 when Fred Berry and his brother Paul purchased the Sam Denney Road Machinery Co., an International Harvester dealer, in Wichita, Kan. They purchased a few other companies in the area, and Berry Companies took off. Today, the company has 21 locations in five states. The company represents Bobcat, Bomag, Komatsu, Link-Belt, Gomaco and Yale, along with other brands.
Although Berry Companies is primarily family owned, the family feels strongly that members must be qualified and committed if they are to join the business. Meaningful career opportunities and stock ownership is available to non-family members as well.
Walter began working in the family business during high school. As a summer job, he worked in the parts and accounting departments. He received his bachelor’s degree from Vanderbilt University and graduated from Indiana University with an MBA in 1983.
“Growing up, there was never any discussion that I would come into the business at a specific time, but unconsciously, if the opportunity arose, I knew I would get involved,” says Walter. “I wanted to get other experience first.”
Following school, he worked as a bank officer specializing in the insurance industry for a few years.
His opportunity to join the company came in 1985, when Berry Companies was expanding in Colorado. Walter went to work for his father in the company’s Denver operations, and then in the early 90s, moved to the corporate office.
Walter’s brother-in-law and now business partner, Dan Scheer, joined the company at the same time, a time when the Midwest was going through a very difficult down cycle.
“We started at the bottom of the cycle or, in other words, at the wrong time. We were in survival mode,” says Walter.
Although Berry Companies was fairly diversified, it was not immune to the market conditions. He and Scheer began to find ways to help the company adapt to the changing marketplace.
Walter says he learned from those difficult times that the key to survival was communication, both with employees and with the bank.
“Dad kept reassuring our people that we would get through the tough times,” he says. “Bringing Dan and me into the company under those conditions showed that the family was going to see it through.
“He also kept our financial partners aware of everything we were doing to cut costs, reduce inventory, and keep our heads above water. We also made some tough decisions, closing three branches, selling our corporate offices, and selling our twin engine airplane.”
Soon, Walter began to attend AED meetings regularly, and decided to get involved. He volunteered for the Executive Development Committee, served on the Annual Meeting Committee and was elected to the Board of Directors. He also served on the Industry, Product Support and Rental Round Tables.
“Not only did I learn a lot from attending AED events, things I think helped our company, but I believe this is how we support our industry and make it stronger,” says Walter.
In 1995, Walter became president of Berry Companies. He continues to work with his father, who is corporate chairman and is supported by other key executives, most of whom are also stockholders.
During his 20 years in the industry, Walter says he has seen significant changes in equipment distribution, such as increased automation, more sophistication and the consolidation of dealers, manufacturers and rental companies.
“Our industry has certainly seen the trend toward a concentration in ownership, as can be seen in the reduction of our membership over the last 10 years,” says Walter. “But, I think it’s a challenge to run a business, any business, on a national scale when personal relationships are important to the success of that business. In other words, I think it will be incredibly difficult to have widespread consolidation in our industry, as long as we are driven by personal relationships.
“I don’t see the consolidation resulting in fewer store locations or fewer points of contact with customers. We are in the relationship business and that’s done through people.”
Manufacturer and dealer relations are of the utmost importance because the two entities are interdependent, says Walter.
“Manufacturers will be more successful if they have a more professional dealer organization and vice versa,” he says. “And AED is committed to the success of its members.”
Since his father Fred served as AED president, Walter decided to revisit the hot industry topics in his father’s day. Looking back through his father’s columns, which appeared in Construction Equipment Distribution magazine, Walter found that high on Fred’s list of issues was the need for professional managers. AED met that need through training programs.
Today, says Walter, training is still critical.
“Our need for training, sharing best practices and benchmarking is extensive,” he says. “To train our parts managers, sales managers, service managers, rental managers and branch managers is an almost over- “Not only did I learn by attending AED meetings, but this is how we support our industry.” Walter and Fred Berry attend one of AED’s many education sessions during an AED Annual Meeting. Today, Walter believes AED should continue its work with the next generation of workers. whelming task.
“But this association has made more training resources available than I can ever remember, and the multitude of ways to obtain that training is impressive. This year, AED’s Annual Meeting alone offered more than 20 seminars for all types of managers.”
The Next Generation
Walter and his wife Polly have four children - Jon, 21, a graduate of Wichita State University; Adam, 18, a freshman at Vanderbilt University; Katherine, 16, a junior in high school; and David, 11, a 5th grader. During his inaugural speech, Walter explained that he is already having challenges when thinking about succession planning.
"As a parent, I'd love for my children to be interested in the business, but if it's not what they thrive on, it's okay if they don't," says Walter.
"When our youngest son David was six," he says, "he and I were driving somewhere when he looked at me and said, ‘Dad, when I'm president of the company, I'm going to do some TV advertising'. "I said to him, ‘But what if someone else is president?' He thought for a moment and said, ‘Well, we'll just get rid of them.'
"I said, ‘But what if it's one of your brothers?' And he said, ‘Oh, I hadn't thought about that.' He was stumped, but you could see the gears turning in his head as he tried to work out the details."
In the future, Walter says he would like to see AED focus more on the next generation of workers.
During his inaugural address, Walter shared a photo of his son Adam at age two. Adam had come out to the office, and a split second later he snuck into the wash bay and was instantly covered in mud. That photo illustrates something Walter says we need more of in this industry.
"If we can get young people to have as much fun as it looks like Adam is having, we can keep them in our industry," he says. "AED members need to talk to high school students, support vocational schools, mentor students and provide internships.
"We need to address those issues for our members and for our industry."
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