Fred Berry, former CEO of Berry Companies and AED's 1971 Chairman, has had lifelong involvement in the creation and success of his family’s business in the industry. Berry’s story is inspiring, as he played an essential part in helping his family business to grow to the size it is today. He became active in the Association shortly after purchasing the company with his brother in the 1950s. Since that time, several family members, including his son and grandsons, have joined the business, and today Berry Companies remains an active member of AED.
As to how Berry got involved in the heavy equipment industry, he explained the trials he and his brother, Paul, went through to find a company they could purchase that aligned with their interests. They had a background in farming equipment because that was their father’s business. "He sold farm equipment but did not have personal relationships with the customers because he had dealers doing the interactions," Berry stated. On the other hand, Fred said that he liked the idea of a more personalized relationship with customers, and he kept this in mind while he and his brother were on their search. Berry noted that while the heavy equipment industry is different from agriculture and farming, the mechanics were similar enough to farming equipment to provide them with a sense of familiarity.
Although they were briefly tempted to get involved in the Cessna business (the Berrys are still avid flyers), in 1957 the Berry brothers purchased Sam Denney Road Machinery Co. and renamed it Berry Tractor and Equipment Co.
As soon as Berry immersed himself in the industry, he began to seek mentors who would help him learn enough to turn around the business he and his brother had purchased. It became apparent that being an active member of AED was essential to creating lasting connections; Paul attended his first meeting in 1957. As Fred and Paul remained active in the Association, it was natural that chairmanship was soon to follow.
Fred began his journey to chairmanship with AED in 1967 and served as chair in 1971. He noted that becoming active in the industry early on helped him achieve this position; he spent time on different committees in the ’50s and ’60s as his business grew.
He fondly remembers his time as chairman, describing it as “great fun” and “an opportunity to meet and, to a degree, bond with successful dealers around the country.”
He recalls being inspired by Jimmy Waitzman, an active member of AED and CEO of Tractor Equipment Co. in Alabama. As their friendship developed, Berry learned to run a dealership successfully.
Berry mentioned that, though there were many fun times to be had during his chairmanship, it did not come without challenges. Specifically, OSHA became effective in 1970, and making changes in the industry to adhere to new requirements within just six months, as required by the new law, proved to be difficult. As a result, Berry took action to seek a resolution. His actions included conducting a meeting with the U.S. Secretary of Labor and attending a meeting between the contractors’ association and the dealers’ association to discuss the challenges presented by the new OSHA law. Aiding in the efforts to solve the OSHA dilemma was AED's Executive Director, Bud Herman, who, Berry noted, played an essential role in this process. Berry’s continual efforts to tackle industry issues head-on is undoubtedly a critical factor in his business success.
Another memorable time from his chairmanship was when the board was at a crossroads, divided on the issue of whether AED would allow company dealers to be part of the Association. Berry remembers this debate well, as it resulted in the rare scenario in which members were asked to vote their opinion on the issue since the board could not reach a decision. We all know the outcome; AED is proud to welcome company dealers into the Association today. But hearing about debates in times past certainly spurs appreciation for today’s Association and helps us look back with a new perspective.
Berry’s family has continued to play a part in the company over the past several decades. His son, Walter, became AED chairman in 2005, and his grandson Jonathan recently became a member of The AED Foundation board. Working in the industry is a popular choice for Berry’s family, but he notes that family members aren’t hired immediately; they must work outside of the industry before they take on a role at the company. Fred says, “As we say in our family here, you're neither entitled nor obligated. So you can't say, ‘I can automatically join the family business, whether I am qualified or not.’ That’s not true. Nor do you have to join the family business, if you’re not interested.” This strict rule was put in place for the good of the company, of course, but also to allow for personal development of the individual. Berry noted that it is essential for family to experience what it’s like to work for a company outside of the family business. He explained that the individual could discover their likes and dislikes during this time and if working for the family company is something they would actually enjoy.
When asked about why he feels it is important for generation after generation of dealer members to be involved with AED, Berry answered, "Well, it goes back to learning from and connecting with a diverse group of individuals. We respect what AED does for us, as dealers and the industry. We're not joining because we think it's our responsibility to support the Association; we join because we get a lot out of it, professionally and personally." AED is always facilitating relationships between members; a key mission of the Association is to enable the growth of individuals and businesses alike.
Berry provided valuable advice for young people considering a career in heavy equipment. He noted that not only do positions pay well, but the rewarding feeling that comes from working on equipment is equally important.
He explained, “People are dependent on the machine for their own livelihood … and you can get it going and get it fixed up. You’re doing a service … It’s a great feeling to have a broken-down machine that you fixed.”
What is Berry’s advice to those new to the industry who have a desire to grow? He says, “Take every opportunity to learn from the folks that have already been there and done that … involve yourself, get on committees or do something to be exposed to how other people are running their business, so that you get the benefit of other people’s experience and also get the benefit of sharing and developing your ability to lead.” His advice seems to come from his own experience, as he has dedicated himself to learning from others and being an active AED member throughout his career. While he hadn’t had much prior experience in heavy equipment before purchasing the company, it is clear that his work ethic and willingness to learn helped to shape his success.
Berry was also involved in the beginnings of The AED Foundation (AEDF), founded in 1991. He expressed that a large part of the reasoning for starting AEDF was realizing that there was a lack of adequate technician and management training in the industry. He noted that college programs did not present the opportunities for technician training that the industry needed in years past. Berry, among others who played essential roles in starting the Foundation, saw a gap that needed to be filled, and they found their solution in the Foundation, which is still offering these services today.
Berry also helped to create AEDF’s Legacy Pledge Campaign, to which he himself has donated. As described by Bob Henderson, The AEDF Legacy Pledge is a multi-generational campaign and a project that stands the test of time. This campaign is a great reminder for all to focus on the overall goals of the Foundation that remain relevant through the years. Berry said that his reason for wanting to leave money behind for the Foundation was his great belief in the benefits it provides to the industry.
“It’s so important that your trade association is doing these things, because it’s to your benefit, and you need to participate in campaigns and programs like these, you’ll benefit by it … And it’ll be good for you and good for the industry to become an active supporter. But then also use those services, get your people involved … do give, but don’t stop there, give and participate. You’re going to benefit, because you’re going to get training at a bargain. It really is. And know your people really appreciate it and love it.”
AED and AEDF are grateful for the support of industry thought leaders like Fred Berry and others who have advocated for the Association through the years. Member support is essential to fund the services AED provides, and the Association would not be the same without its members’ devotion to industry improvement and progression. We hope you enjoyed this look into AED’s past through the eyes of Fred Berry.