S.9, E.7: From Coffee Can to Paint Pail

Learning for Life @ Gustavus host Greg Kaster interviews Gustavus alumnus and inventor-entrepreneur Mark Bergman '79.
Posted on May 19th, 2021 by

Inventor-entrepreneur Mark Bergman ’79 talks about his less-than-straightforward path to Gustavus graduate, creating the Handy Paint Pail and founding the paint accessories company, Handy Products, that grew out of it, turning an idea into a viable and successful product, the business side of Handy Products, and philanthropy in his company and life.

Season 9, Episode 7: From Coffee Can to Paint Pail

Greg Kaster:

Hello, and welcome to Learning for Life @ Gustavus, the podcast about people teaching and learning at Gustavus Adolphus College and the myriad ways that Gustavus liberal arts education provides a lasting foundation for lives of fulfillment and purpose. I’m your host, Greg Kaster, a faculty member in the department of history.

Imagine you’re an entrepreneur and venture. Every time you walk into a mega home improvement store with a couple thousands US locations as the immense satisfaction of seeing the product you invented for sale on the shelves. My guest today, doesn’t have to imagine since the painting accessory products, he and his company have created, or in hardware stores, home improvement stores and retail paint stores nationwide. Mark Bergman, class of 79 invented the handy pink pale, which many of us have not only seen, but purchased and used. And it became the basis for handy products. The current name of the company he founded 20 years ago, he still reads.

In addition to the pale, the company produces numerous other paint accessories, like the handy paint, pail liners, handy paint grids, the handy pro pale. And the one I wish I’d had years ago, long before it even existed. The handy ladder pale. Mark’s path to successful entrepreneur and business person, like his path to college graduate was not straight forward. And that makes this story a lot more interesting, compelling, and especially for younger listeners instructors. Moreover, and not incidentally he and his wife, Debbie and Alum as well are generous donors to their Alma mater. And giving is also very much a product of handy products mission, topics we’ll get into that debt. Plus, as you will hear, Mark is a quite engaging fellow. And for all these reasons, I’m delighted that he can join me for this episode of the podcast. So welcome Mark. It’s great to have you on.

Mark Bergman:

Thanks for having me, Greg. It’s nice to meet you.

Greg Kaster:

Likewise, my pleasure. Let’s start in the present. So you are… where are you in an office… is there an office or do you… does your company work out of the home?

Mark Bergman:

We’ve been in the Chanhassen area pretty much the whole time, 20 years. This is our third building because of growth and needed more warehouse space and hiring people, but still in the same vicinity. I live in Minnetonka on the West side of town, right by the offices, right very close to a prince’s Paisley park.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah, sure. That’s neat. You’ve been there? You’ve been in the Paisley Park?

Mark Bergman:

We were over there after he passed away and we keep talking about getting a company deal over there and going through and just having… then with the way the world went we will do it. Can’t wait to go through it.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah, that’s cool. I’ve actually never been, I really want to go on, although a colleague podcast with Misty Harper, she did a January term there about Prince and escalators. Cool. One day. With COVID what has it been like for you and your employees? Is everyone just working from home?

Mark Bergman:

Yeah, well it’s been interesting. There’s just nine of us here, including me. So I say it’s really eight because I haven’t been working much for a few years really. But we were all set up to work remotely prior to COVID. So with that change, we just watched the schedule for everybody. So we weren’t all in here at the same time. What made it a little challenging is both my kids and daughter-in-law work here with me and they each have two kids. So four grandkids for me, Each have a boy and a girl. And as they started getting ready to go to daycare, Jeff, who has been with me here for 15 years, who’s the president came up and said, why don’t we just build out a daycare and hire a teacher here?

Well, that’s great by me. And I’m sure it will be for the kids. So for the last two years now, we’ve had a daycare with… it’s just those four. They’re the only ones that have kids here and the teacher has just been amazing and she’s celebrating two years with us right now and has grown to be part of the family. So we just wiggled our way through it, like everybody and been able to avoid anyone really coming down with any symptoms or sickness. The only few people that have needed to come in regularly are Mike and Matt in the back, the guys that run the operations and unload and load all the trucks and ship the freight and all that. You can’t do that remotely.

So tip of the cap to them, they’ve been staying very safe and observe all the safety protocol with the truckers coming in and out and with COVID, it was an extremely busy year for anybody, any products and home improvements. So yeah, we had and who knew that would happen. I certainly didn’t. Mid March I wrote a list of what my biggest concerns are and they were all on the negative side, nothing was on the positive and it completely flipped. We knew we were going to be busy as soon as May came around.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah, that’s been really interesting to me. What you just mentioned. A home improvement. We are part of a community garden right here, the condo building here in downtown Minneapolis and the gardening too, that has taken off like seeds and it’s like… that’s so interesting. I want to… we’ll come back more and talk about the operation itself, which I’m interested in. There and where you currently are. I’m curious about when you mentioned you were… you would already made plans or I don’t know, exactly what you said a minute ago to be online. Was that independent of COVID do you mean? Or you just, you thought it’s coming.

Mark Bergman:

It really was independent of COVID. For whatever reason, I’ve never been a person that felt like everyone needs to be in here so I can physically see them working or they’re just at home doing nothing. I’ve never thought that in my life. We all in the past, there’s three or four of us that are traveling all the time. So we’d be gone more than half the time anyway. So, everyone was set up, even the accounting people, data entry, whoever was doing that, they could all do it remotely. And then when the kids started having kids to have the ability to stay home, when the babies are young or someone might be sick or whatever, it was just a day working from home once a week, people just really liked. And so we’ve been doing it a long time.

Greg Kaster:

That’s interesting. You’re maybe part of the cutting edge of change here. We’ll see what happens with office work. But the other thing I want to say is, wow, what a socially responsible company, you have a daycare on premises for your gran.

Mark Bergman:

Yeah.

Greg Kaster:

This is great.

Mark Bergman:

I know, I feel selfish there’s people will ask me, well, how many kids are there? Well, no, it’s just my four grandkids, that’s it. But if other employees had kids, they would be welcome. But no one does, so that’s just the way it works out.

Greg Kaster:

I’m imagining those growing rank has working for your company and they literally worked their way up from daycare.

Mark Bergman:

It is funny to think about kids. So it goes down four down to one years old right now, and the exposure they have to a working environment already. And they know everybody they’re in all the offices and delivering mail and it’s just, it’s a wonderful opportunity for everybody and that’s all I can say.

Greg Kaster:

I actually think that, as I mentioned before we started recording. My parents were hairdressers and often all their own salons and my brother-in-law have one sibling, two years younger. We were the cleanup boys, but young age, certainly what was illegal, I suppose, except that they would be with their kids. But man, I don’t regret that. I’ve learned so much being around adults at that age where they made a difference. I think it’s terrific.

Mark Bergman:

I agree.

Greg Kaster:

So tell me a little bit about your own background. Where’d you grow up?

Mark Bergman:

I grew up in white Zetta. Both my mom and dad are from Minneapolis. Dad, Northeast. Mum, North Minneapolis. And my dad always loved the white Zetta area. So right before I was five, we moved out of North Minneapolis to white Zetta. My mom’s still living in the same house today. She’ll be 92 this summer. So yeah, and we may as well just touch on that. Well, it’s interesting because both of my parents went to Gustavus and my wife’s dad went to Gustavus and they were actually friends when they were there. So they did things after graduation with other couples all the time. I just never had met my wife until down at Gustavus.

And her side of the family. Debbie side of the family, her father went there, her grandmother went there and her great grandfather graduated from Gustavus. So when my… excuse me, when our two kids graduated, they were fifth generation gusty’s, which… it’s about as early as you could hit that because Debbie, his great grandfather was class of 18 something.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah, because the college went from the… before it moved to St. Peter DHS.

Mark Bergman:

Yeah. It’s just… you know, people ask about the connection and everything else. And I say, well, it’s the only place I was ever going to go. Most of my parents’ best friends were from Gustavus and it’s just, it’s the only place Deb and I even applied.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah. That’s in your metaphorical BNA.

Mark Bergman:

Yeah.

Greg Kaster:

I’m always amazed though. That’s one thing I’ve learned about Gustavus and maybe this is true at other schools too. I just don’t know. Maybe it’s true in places like Harvard, but I… the extent to which there are these generations of gusty’s. Going in on Deb, maybe Deb’s fam is at the extreme end of that, but it’s incredible when I talk to people. And I’m old enough to be teaching the children of parents.

Mark Bergman:

Yeah, exactly.

Greg Kaster:

But it’s pretty cool. I do like that. So, what’s your dad do?

Mark Bergman:

He graduated. When the service, right? When he was 18 out of Edison High School did his two years so he could get the GI bill and interestingly enough, his parents immigrated from Sweden. So they came over with absolutely nothing. My dad always talked about remembering moving from one apartment in Northeast to the next, with just nothing more than his wagon to move whatever belongings they had. So yeah, for him to get to Gustavus, was a pretty big deal. And then he went on and got his law degree from William Mitchell. And it’s funny we’re having this conversation about entrepreneurs and everything else because I never really thought of my dad as an entrepreneur, but here he and his buddy Howard Knut son graduated from William Mitchell and decided to just hang up a shingle and open a law office. So, there’s not much more gutsy than doing that. You don’t have any clients, you’ve got no business to start with and where you go.

Greg Kaster:

That’s right, that’s entrepreneurial.

Mark Bergman:

Yeah, so that was my dad and my mom graduated. She was going to be a fired teacher, but ended up really getting… starting to have kids right away. And she was a homemaker. And it was funny, I talked to her this morning just to confirm this. I still think this is interesting that she was all set, signed up, ready to go to St Olaf’s and just right before she was going to head down there, her freshman year, they notified her that there were no more dorm rooms and she’s got to find someplace else to go. And that’s what steered her, from there she went straight to Gustavus and I think of the serendipity and in life. My mom and dad would have probably never met and I won’t be sitting here. It’s weird sometimes.

Greg Kaster:

It’s weird.

Mark Bergman:

Yeah.

Greg Kaster:

[inaudible 00:13:56]. Sarah and me and we historians refer to contingency in the past. Things could easily bond the other way. It’s chance. That’s amazing. Looking for Gustavus to that single. There wasn’t really any question about you going to Gustavus. It sounds like…

Mark Bergman:

No.

Greg Kaster:

When you arrived, did you have a sense of what you wanted to study?

Mark Bergman:

Yeah, pretty much from the beginning. I thought I would just get a business degree. I had no other real direction and always pretty much knew I wanted to be an entrepreneur, start something, do something. And it goes back to, and I’ve talked about this before with people, cutting lawns in the neighborhood when I was 10 and having a morning paper out when I was 12 know, things just went from there. I never really liked it working for people. I’d rather be on my own and try to do it that way. Always, I don’t know why. That’s just the way, just the way it went.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah. Same here. Actually. I did the paper, I think… In fact, I may have, I don’t know how many people have been fired from the paper I actually was fired because I used the wrong list by mistake. I think I might’ve been rehired. I don’t remember, but I did the paper out of it. It’s such a young age too. I remember going out early in the morning with my sled in the winter.

Mark Bergman:

Exactly. In today’s world that wouldn’t even be… well, I wouldn’t be allowed. Out on Monday through Saturday, every morning at 6:00 AM, what rain shine 20 below. And you were then going around door to door to collect the money as well.

Greg Kaster:

Right. That’s how it had been.

Mark Bergman:

Doing the banking and the payment to the paper company. So you learn at a young age, just like you’re saying, Greg. It’s a good start.

Greg Kaster:

You remind me of the little brown envelope is I can picture that. We use to collect the money. I am like you and maybe I get that from my dad who as I mentioned, opens a hairdresser in an open salon, work for a company now and then… but also was mostly on his own and his career. And I love that autonomy. One of the things I love about being a college professor.

Mark Bergman:

Yeah.

Greg Kaster:

You have a fair amount of autonomy. I joke sometimes for the last uncontrolled labor force. We have a lot we’ve worked on, which I cherish. Especially at this stage where I get to develop courses that are maybe not an expert in the teacher course. So did you have… So you majored in… you know what you’re going to major in when you came. And you did have the usual array of liberal arts courses, including a history course, at least one with Kevin Byrne. A friend, a colleague, I considered a friend who hired my wife, Kate and me. I’m just curious in general. I know where this is going to head listeners don’t quite hear, but it’s just your reflections on your time at Gustavus, both academically and non academic.

Mark Bergman:

It goes back to… My whole life, I went through school, but I never really liked school. I’d much rather be working, making money, doing something and anything outside will fit my personality far better than sitting inside. So, getting down there, moved into a room with my high school buddy on second floor of Sorenson with all these amazing sophomore juniors and seniors, it just took us in. And you know what? I don’t know college in the mid seventies. It was far more geared towards, at least in my world, the social aspects rather than the academics.

Greg Kaster:

Right.

Mark Bergman:

So going to class was an option, doing the work was an option. So I just kept scraping by and got in some other trouble as well with my good friend, Bruce Gray, who was the Dean. And halfway through sophomore year, they asked me to move off campus and not returnto a campus situation or dorm situation, excuse me. And then halfway through my junior year, they said, you’ve got to go away for a while and suspended me. So right then before Christmas, junior year, I moved to Aspen where I knew people already, I’d skied my whole life and I had a place to live and a job. I took off right before Christmas and I was dating Debbie at the time. We’d been dating for probably almost two years by then.

And she said, I don’t think I’m ever going to see you again. You’re never going to come back. And I said, I’ll be back. And was actually there one month, six weeks and it was touring week and some buddies of mine from Gustavus came out to visit. They said, why don’t you come back, come back and visit. So two of us hitch hiked back from Aspen in early February and surprise, dear Debbie sitting at the Nicollet house bar when she walked in and then I flew back and worked for the year and then let them know that I was coming back to school that following year. And they said, no, I don’t think so.

So, you and I touched on this a little Greg. John kettle was the president at the time and a classmate of my dad’s. And we just… I said, well, there’s enough people that will pull for me to go back. And I was serious going back knowing that I needed to get a degree. So it was a different, it was a different Mark Bard who went back for the last year and a half to get a diploma, which still feels good today that I did because it would have been a lot easier to say, screw it, I’m not going back to that. And it would have been a big mistake.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah. I’m so glad you said that. I couldn’t agree more. I tell people that all the time, people… like young people I knew who dropped out or think they don’t want to continue now it’s worth it. Even if you know you wait a year or two years, whatever. It’s a great story of Bruce Grey, of course is one of the greats and Gustavus is history.

Mark Bergman:

Yeah. We see each other. We get a good, we smile and laugh and shake hands and chat and think back fun memories. So it’s just the way it was at the time.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah, it’s a great story. What were you doing when you said you had a job out in Aspen? What were you doing?

Mark Bergman:

Yeah. We knew a friend who owned a condo out there that we had painted a year before I drove out there. So we knew the individual that owned the condo, the entire complex, right at the base of Aspen mountain. He and his mother owned it and they had housing for people that would work there, whether it was cleaning room, shoveling, taking care of the pool, anything that needed to get done. And we did laundry so it was a simple phone calls. The name was Lee Miller. And I was the first gusty to go there. And if I had to guess, there’s probably been, for sure more than 10, it could be close to 20 Gusties that have been out there in Aspen. Some are still there working.

Greg Kaster:

That’s [inaudible 00:22:03].

Mark Bergman:

Yeah.

Greg Kaster:

That’s another podcast episode.

Mark Bergman:

It’s interesting when you could move to a place like that and have a job and housing. That was huge, great. All I have to do is get there and it was very fair and I think I was one of the first Minnesotans that he had hired. He had a lot of young kids, young guys, girls from California. And he told me many times, he said, “no, you guys from Minnesota, you have got a different work ethic than kids from California.” And he just kept hiring anybody that wanted… anyone from Gustavus or Minnesota connection he’d hire. So it was good for everybody.

Greg Kaster:

The quarterly, rather talking to Tim Kennedy, the quarterly audit due to a story of you. That’s interesting. By the way, I caught that you mentioned painting that you had painted for them. So the painting was in your background.

Mark Bergman:

Yeah. Well, it’s like we talk all the time to almost everybody has painted something at some point in time. Not everyone likes that and not everyone’s good at it, but almost everybody has grabbed a brush and thrown paint on something.

Greg Kaster:

That’s right. I was not good at it. I didn’t like it, but I did have it as a, as a business.

Mark Bergman:

Yeah.

Greg Kaster:

My dad who… My last name is Kaster, K.A.S.T.E.R. My dad just fell off for his business, K.S.T.A.R and he called us Kasters, elves. And we had the one, my brother and I called the Elmo Biola banged up, beaten up Carmi. We did the same thing. You did so many young people, mowed lawns, painted houses, you had your products. And like, God, I can’t even imagine, especially that ladder falling off a ladder and with the paint, with a bucket of paint. Anyway, so you did graduate. Congratulations on that. We’re glad you did.

Mark Bergman:

Thanks a lot.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah. What did you… what was the next step? What did you do?

Mark Bergman:

Right after graduation, I was still bartending at the Niccollet House. Right downtown St. Peter, building’s still there. And Deb and I got married just a couple, three months after she graduated in 1980 and I’m class of 79, but really graduated in 80 because of my year sabbatical, but they kept me on the list at 79. And that’s where all my buddies are my classmates. So I just… I didn’t fight it. I just left it. But after that, Debbie and I moved together to Aspen and I worked at Aspen savings and loan for a year and a half. And she worked at the athletic club. We had a great place to live. And Debbie wasn’t really a skier and her sister started having babies. Her friends were getting married and she said, Mark, we can’t stay out here. We got to move back home

So with that being said, we moved back to Minnesota. And my first job back here when we moved back was with IDS as a financial planner. And actually it was another Gustavus connection through Deb’s dad, Peter Erickson, who was a Lutheran minister and wife of a minister Marietta Johns had a very successful career going at IDS and got me connected to a young manager that was looking for new bodies. And so I did that for a few years and started the first company in 86 with a buddy. That was a financial planner too. He and I… I had patented a spoon for kids in the shape of an airplane, trying to open the hanger here comes the airplane. My now, what is he? 37 year old was not a very good eater.

So we were doing anything we could to get them to eat. So that was the first pattern back in ’86. And, Dan Harrison and I started the first company. We didn’t… we talk about not knowing anything. We knew nothing. And two of us survived and started another company in ’95, along with that. And then, that was a bindery dye cutting business. And he liked that end of it, I didn’t. I kept the accessories business. He took the bindery dye cutting business and moved to Brooklyn park. And then, the handy paint pail came around in 2000 and I put the accessories in that business to bed and then history is made right now. So that’s a story.

Greg Kaster:

I want to ask you about… I want to go back to the spoon, which I’ve seen online and I even think some people I know with kids… is that still around or would have been around like 20 years ago?

Mark Bergman:

Yeah, you know we still have some around here. But different companies have made different models through the years, but… and we still talk about and why don’t we build it again? I don’t know. We have enough stuff on our plate right now.

Greg Kaster:

I am just curious to the extent that you can remember talk about this. So you’re with IDS and your son isn’t a great leader. And so you get the idea, right?

Mark Bergman:

Yeah.

Greg Kaster:

You get the idea, but how do you move? This applies even to the handy pale. How does one move from idea to, okay, I want to actually make this thing. How does that happen? How did it happen?

Mark Bergman:

That’s a really good question and starting out that way to get to where I am, where we are here today, people think it was really easy for us to get the pail launched and here we are. Well, it’s not quite that easy. But in ’86, after just the concept, I remember sitting in the kitchen saying to Debbie, I think if you had a spoon that was shaped like an aero plane, I think kids would like it and parents would buy it. So, she looked at me and I’ve had goofy ideas before and she said, that might be a good one. So sketch something out and made one out of clay actually, just to get an idea of how big it would be. And then because my dad was an attorney, I talked to him in the weeks following that. And I said, do you know a patent attorney that I could go talk to? Because, I never even thought about that before.

And he knew a great older patent attorney downtown by the name of Fred Lang, who I was probably mid 70s when I talked to him. And he did the patent search. He did all the patent work. And from there, I just got lucky talking to the right designers that could get me to the right manufacturers and the toolmakers and Brady and I pooled whatever money we had and paid for the tooling and started contacting stores that would carry it. You had a little mom and pop kids stores, and we sold that thing all the way to Target, K-mart, Toys“R”Us, pretty much anybody that dealt with kids products.

Greg Kaster:

When you say you got lucky. I actually… a couple of things. One, you’ve mentioned the connections already in a couple of contexts, and I want to stress for listeners, especially young listeners, just how important that is. I think sometimes connections has a bad odor about it. But no, they’re incredibly important whether it’s family connections or people you’ve met. Connections really, really matter and luck to you. I’m curious, when you say you got lucky and you met designers, et cetera. How did… for example, how did you meet these designers? Do you just look up in the phone book?

Mark Bergman:

Yeah, the best of my recollection, Greg, it would have been word of mouth. I think Fred Lang a patent attorney knew industrial designer that could help with the drawings and the actual, because what I’ve learned through all the years now, it’s one thing to have a concept for a product, but you need to early on get the industrial designers involved because they’ve got to be designing something that you can actually make, produce affordably. So that’s where I made lucky and just ask the right people and they had the right connections and Minneapolis is… Minnesota too, for that matter is really a mecca for plastics, injection molding, plastics, thermal from warming plastics and the design work that goes along with it. So, got lucky that way that we just happen to live here.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah, no, I didn’t know that. That’s interesting. Come back to that in a little bit. The other thing really what you’re saying too, which I think is important to stress is, we talked when you’re an entrepreneur clearly, you’re critical to the success of that product, but also that it takes so many people, right? To make it happen. The designers, the people who are going to produce it, and then it sounds like you get involved again, you’re involved in all those stages, I realize but do you really… what about the marketing of that first product? Is that something you and your partner basically did on your own?

Mark Bergman:

Yeah. That was down in the days and in ’86, there were no computers. We didn’t even… we didn’t really even have a fax machine. So it was all… we were in his basement in St. Louis Park, tripping out of his garage on an alley. And it was just pretty much going through yellow pages back in the day, trying to get phone books from all over different cities and call and stores and sending samples. And, that’s the only… that was the only game in town. That’s the only way you could create business. Seems amazing, doesn’t it? When you look back, it’s not just a long-term goal, but that’s a long time ago.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah. It’s so true. Actual phone books.

Mark Bergman:

Yeah, phone books.

Greg Kaster:

[inaudible 00:33:15] and those computers, yeah. Some of you remind me, I sometimes ask students to look… I say, go to the library, look at a phone book, an actual phone book, and look under, let’s say, it’s from the 70s. You can look under, see for computers and see how many, see what you thought and come for other books.

Mark Bergman:

Yeah.

Greg Kaster:

That’s amazing how fast things have changed. So at some point you realized that that product takes off so to speak. I think to the airplane car takes off. And then you… did you decide to sell it? Is that what you did?

Mark Bergman:

No, we kept adding to it. We had a race car spoon, train spoons, bowls, bibs, and kept that growing, but it was all just lower end retail items. So like the spoon had a retail or a cost, wholesale cost of 80 cents. Well, you have to sell a lot of those to make any kind of money and then retail for a buck 99. So, that’s when Dan and I decided, what else could we do? And we talked to some people in town, a friend had a large printing operation, and he said, we could use some more dye cutting hand assembly. And Dan and I knew a little bit about that because we’d have… we would have people come in to help us package and do things like that. So we thought, why not?

So that’s where the die cutting business came on. And that, like I said, it was 95 and ran that to about 2000 when Dan took that and I was still doing kids accessories, got into hair accessories for girls and women, sold to salons like… then your dad’s shop. And then the serendipity of life, it comes home here big because in the year 2000, we were redoing our basement because we were creating another bedroom because we were going to China to adopt, we have four kids, two older ones are birth, and we have a 27 year old daughter from Korea and the 23 year old daughter’s from China. So, I was painting because we were going to get her and that’s where the Folgers can and the duct tape came in from.

I’ve said this a thousand times, if we wouldn’t have been adopting, we wouldn’t have been redoing the house. We wouldn’t have been adding a bedroom and I would not have been painting.

Greg Kaster:

No handy pale.

Mark Bergman:

Yeah, it’s just bizarre and I know we’re going to talk a little bit about philanthropy and why I’m touching on this timing of all this. When we were over in China to pick her up and we were just launching the pale. Debbie and I said, if this thing is the success that we hope it’s going to be, we are going to… we are going to give back and we really hadn’t made enough money prior to be, we’d always given things to people and church and this and that, but not in any major way. So that was a promise we made each other and hopefully we can continue because that’s been a big joy for both of us being able to keep that promise.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah. That’s interesting. We’ll come back to that. It’s interesting that you’re already making that promise before you even made any money out of that.

Mark Bergman:

Yeah. Almost a threat.

Greg Kaster:

[inaudible 00:37:05]. And the other thing again, is that the role in serendipity contingency, the way in which… We’ll say we’re an entrepreneur, Mark Bergman invented, all that’s ma… that’s all we have to say, right? But there’s so much that is behind that, as you’re saying, and I want to talk about that based on painting job with you here. So you’re painting and what, you’re frustrated because you’re… you’ve got the gallon of paint open or whatever, and it’s not.

Mark Bergman:

Yeah, I would say I probably did as much painting as most people, my age at the time. And, I was doing all the trim work and I always liked pouring out of a gallon can into a regular sized coffee can, and then holding that and walking around the room, cutting in with a brush before I’d roll because I’ve been doing it now for days, we were doing the whole basement, all the trim and my hand was getting tired of hanging out it as can. So there was duct tape right there. So just grab some duct tape and made the soft strap covered up the adhesive that would hit the back of your hand. So it was… my mind, it went to the old camcorders, a big old camcorders where you’d slide your hand under that gray, you could adjust and then you weren’t really holding on to anything.

It was just pressing your hand against the camera or in this case, pressing your hand against the can. That was really it. I used it for a couple of weeks. My son was old enough. He was using it. My wife said, what do you think? And they said, this, I really like this. So, the next move was going down to the patent attorney again and Fred Lang has now retired, but I was still using Kenny and Lang the same firm and Jim Yong, I’ve been using now for years and still use today. And he did the patent search and came back and said, it looks pretty clear. I think you can get the intellectual property you need for this. And that’s where that started.

Greg Kaster:

And for listeners. This is really important, right? Because, when you’re doing the patent search, you’re really… you’re trying to find out whether this thing has already been invented, right?

Mark Bergman:

Yeah.

Greg Kaster:

The good news is no. I just can’t imagine. I’m not sure I would have thought of that even if the duct tape and coffee cans have been there, I definitely would, but I don’t want to load the stamp down the paint around the other one. When did you decide on, whatever you want to call it, the magnet or whatever it is to hold the brush?

Mark Bergman:

It was all going. Yeah, I was going through the process of the size, the shape, the strap, the adjustability, how do we design something that would hold the brush? We tried clips, we tried manufacturing all kinds of different things. And then the whole magnet and tools. It’s interesting when you look back because people abused magnets and tool shops for a long time to hold screwdrivers and whatever on to their workbenches.

Greg Kaster:

Sorry.

Mark Bergman:

No one had ever mounted anything inside the pale and Matt, that was kind… that was unique and that was a real strong selling feature and the adjustable strap. And then within the first year we heard enough, mostly professional painters asking for liners that would fit inside so that they wouldn’t have to clean the pale every time they change colors or at the end of the day. So, that’s been huge. Everyone says, well, that’s the razor blade handle and the razorblades, because…

Greg Kaster:

Yeah, no kidding. You think like why didn’t anyone think of [inaudible 00:41:30] that’s brilliant. You, again, this is all, it’s mostly if it’s not all plastic, right? The products.

Mark Bergman:

Yeah. It’s pretty much all plastic.

Greg Kaster:

That’s where this… which I didn’t know. You said earlier that Minnesota’s been the center of forefront for that. What is it called? Injection?

Mark Bergman:

Yeah, the pales and all the buckets and the cops are all injection molded and then the liners, which are a thinner material are thermal formed. So it’s two different. Usually that’s two different companies doing both those. And so we use… Right now, we have six different manufacturers in Minnesota and Wisconsin that either do injection molding or thermal form.

Greg Kaster:

Okay. Now, did you… So once you have the prototype, then did you turn to designers again to actually design what to produce?

Mark Bergman:

Same guys. The people we’ve been using almost forever. And they’ve grown to be good friends after all this, and they still keep working or they’re working on stuff right now for us. So it never really ends.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah. I’m going to come back to that in a second because that is so interesting to me, that part of it. But they’re aerodynamic, they’re all kinds of positives about these products. Again, anyone who’s painted… certainly for com… by the way, is your business mostly for commercial painting?

Mark Bergman:

Not really. That’s another fortunate thing for us because a lot of times paint, sundry items, paint accessory items can be geared pretty much for the DIY home owner or for the contractor. And this really… our product line really has a good crossover. For an example, one of our best accounts is Sherwin Williams and their customer base is 80% contractor, 20% DIY and it’s one of our best accounts. So it all depends what store you’re shopping, if you’re a contractor or a DIY.

Greg Kaster:

But yeah, that’s where that crossover appeal. That’s a Newport.

Mark Bergman:

Yeah.

Greg Kaster:

The thing is made and then are you… at that point, are you still doing the marketing, you’re going out? And how does that work?

Mark Bergman:

Absolutely. We started out with one of the companies that was a manufacturing for us. We just started with one company and they would ship it to us in a small little warehouse and even pairing at the time. And then we would ship it and we had our hit list of who you’re trying to sell to. And that included home depot, Lowe’s, Sherwin Williams, Ace true value, do it best, and just kept scouring anybody that sold paint and Me nards to get one item into a store, a lot of buyers or merchants would say, we’re not really interested in setting up a new vendor for item. And we heard that over and over and over again, and just kept banging on the door and banging on the door until they finally had to try it and test it and it never failed. We never tested somewhere where they said it didn’t sell, we don’t want it.

Greg Kaster:

That’s great.

Mark Bergman:

So, again, got lucky with all that.

Greg Kaster:

So you’re meeting. I’m trying to hear. Say a little bit more about the marketing. So are you… you’re meeting with, let’s say you’re trying to market it in home Depot, you’re meeting with representatives of a particular store of the whole cooperate.

Mark Bergman:

Yeah. In the very beginning, back in those early 2000s home depot had some regional buying ability. So the first contact we had success with that home depot was out of the Chicago area. And he put it in that region first. Nowadays, everything goes through Atlanta for home depot. So I would spend, I’d be there once a month for a long time to see that buyer. And Lowe’s was the same. Everything had Sherwin Williams comes through Cleveland, so spent a lot of time in Cleveland at that buying office. So, it was just playing. Don’t take no for an answer and keep pushing.

Greg Kaster:

That’s what it sounds like. And it’s occurring to me that when were saying entrepreneur. In your case, you’re money, I don’t know as much, but certainly marketing is a big part of what you have done personally. And not all entrepreneurs are good marketers necessarily.

Mark Bergman:

No. And we’ve heard that through the years, there’s been a lot of good products that have been invented, but for whatever the reason, the inventor wasn’t able to bring it to market for a couple of reasons. And that again is being lucky enough to hire the right people and get the right sales reps working with us. And most of the people, most of the individual sales reps out there are the ones we hired back in ’02 they’re still with us.

Greg Kaster:

What about now? How extensively are you personally involved in marketing and travel?

Mark Bergman:

Me personally, not much really at all. So, I do a lot of the financial stuff still and sit in on marketing meetings and whatever, they always invite me if I’m around and some I’m really happy to be a part of, as far as meetings and others, I’m thrilled that I don’t need to be there anymore. Everyone can relate to.

Greg Kaster:

Good. Did you… As you invent something, you’re an inventor to them from your entrepreneurial, as I said in the intro, but do you get… is there a point at which you get tired of the product you’ve invented? You want it to succeed at succeeding. You want to… you get an itch to do something different, whether it’s a different handy product. And how does that…

Mark Bergman:

Yeah, right now we have, along with the original pale, there’s probably 12 handy products all for painting. So the key to growing the business that we learned early on is you have to keep creating new products. You just can’t sit back and think one or two items is going to carry it forever. So we broadened, we went through a rebranding a couple years ago. The company name is still basically Bergcon, but we’re… we rebranded the handy products company. And that’s really our logo. That’s our name. Red is our brand. So that’s been interesting.

That was a fun process to go through. We did it with a company in Minneapolis called Little and company. They help us rebrand, did some focus groups, which was fun actually behind mirror. They knew we were there, but to find out how they responded to our products and our company name and what they thought of us, what they thought of the products. It was fun. We’d never gone through that before.

Greg Kaster:

The branding works. Two students know, I love to shop. I love to buy. Actually, I tell them actually, I’d love to buy. I don’t know the process of shopping. I want to get through that as quickly as possible. But you’re in this… I’m not saying this just because you’re an alumni, you’re on the podcast. I really are visually they grabbed your attention. I honestly looking at them, I can almost feel like I’m holding them. They have that the photos, it does effect on me. But yeah, I wonder about you’ve answered it. I wondered about the breath brand. A lot of this isn’t just in house, right? You do rely on other firms to help you with again.

Mark Bergman:

Absolutely.

Greg Kaster:

You know when we… we’re tired. Is that, is that something you…

Mark Bergman:

For advertising?

Greg Kaster:

Yeah.

Mark Bergman:

We used to do a lot in trade magazines when we were just starting, but that’s a dying breed as well. So, we work with the… we’ve worked with a couple of different PR companies. The one we have now, we’ve been with for a long time now, McCabe, right downtown Minneapolis smaller firm. And then my daughter-in-law Meg does all the social media. So she’s connected to these bloggers and influencers and all these things that I don’t know anything about, but it drives business. So that’s where she fits in and really enjoys it and is really good at it.

Greg Kaster:

That’s very cool. Yeah, just the whole way. That’s right influencers play a role in the movie products and the… I find… we’re going to turn to philanthropy here in a second, but let’s do the serves of your company. And again, I’m honestly not just saying that. I hope listeners really can appreciate this, but just looking at the website as I’ve done in preparing for that, our conversation, a couple of things stand out to me. The first is the, I think you’d call it a company spirit of work hard, if I got it right. Work hard, live these and that… I wonder if you could say a little bit about that. What that means, and then people might think, what does that, let me work hard. Yeah, work hard at sure. Of course live easy. Why is that the company spirit.

Mark Bergman:

Well, half of us are family and the other half feels like it. So it’s been real easy that way because of our size and people need to just dig in and do whatever’s necessary that day. We’ve all unloaded containers that have been shipped here from China. We’ve all helped load trucks. We bought throughout all the years. We’ve all done pretty much everything. And, Jeff, the president built a bar in the office now. So we always have keg on tap for when we’re having a good afternoon and job well done. And we’ve got a full workout facility back where the daycare is with Pelotona equipment. So we’re all about, living as best you can. And we appreciate what we have here and don’t take anything for granted.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah. It sounds like your company should win some award for best company to work at, but seriously the… I think what comes across to me is that you’re a serious company, right? And it’s about making money obviously, but it’s also about having fun too and having a life and maybe this… I don’t know, I’m just psychologize or maybe I wonder if that spirit comes out of your own background, where you wind up at Aspen.

Mark Bergman:

I like to think so. I don’t know. I really like to have fun there’s way more to life than just work, for sure.

Greg Kaster:

You’re right.

Mark Bergman:

To have the kids on board now for as many years as they have been, what some of their contemporaries are going through, working for bigger companies and dealing with the pandemic and dealing with kids and dealing with daycare and all the above, it’s extremely unique that way. And that’s just something that happened. And I always say I’m a lucky boy, that’s all I said.

Greg Kaster:

Necessarily. You’re lucky in that with that. I’ll say that. Just quickly before we turn to philanthropy here, one other… I want to come back to something early on, just to see a little bit more about that actual setup, where you are. So you’ve got the whole office and is that the warehouse for the company where you are?

Mark Bergman:

Yeah, yeah. We’ve been lucky enough here that December was, I think our eighth year in this facility, in this space, but we’ve been able to, because next door neighbor, tenants in the building have moved to other spaces. We’ve been able to expand twice with warehouse, extra warehouse space and more doctors. I think the total right now between office and warehouse is about 35,000 square feet and it’s nice we have eight doctors now because on busy days there’s a lot of trucks bring in product and a lot of trucks taking product away. So, that’s been good. And right now we look at… I don’t have to move. We’re pretty comfortable, at least looking down next two or three years with growth pending that we should be all right.

Greg Kaster:

Okay. What about… I wondered what… so the companies that make the products, they then shipped to your warehouse and then from there out, why not just straight from the manufacturer to home?

Mark Bergman:

We did that almost initially when we were down to like one or two products, but there’s a lot, there’s a lot to it with the orders coming in, electronically from all the big players. For an example, right now, home depot drops two empty trailers every Monday, I believe. And then they’re filled up over the next couple of days and then they send the tractors with another empty and they pull those two full trailers away and drop two new ones. So there’s stuff that goes on that we really need to monitor. And it comes from a multiple of manufacturing sources now.

So in other words, we’ll get all 12 items in here and then someone will order eight of them. So we need to coordinate that and pelletize and ship. So, it’s hard for any one of that. It would be impossible for any of them to do that.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah, now that makes sense. And the trucks, I assume, are not… you don’t need to own the trucks that are coming.

Mark Bergman:

Yeah. That’s another beautiful part of the business structure is we don’t have any real equipment. We have a couple of forklifts and some other warehouse stuff, but we don’t own any injection molding machines, thermal forming machines, trucks, people that study business, they sit with me and they’ll look at our business model and think this is the darn, this is the best business model I’ve ever seen.

Greg Kaster:

You’re literally speaking words out of my mouth. Amazing business model.

Mark Bergman:

Yeah. We formed into your question a little earlier, Greg we… There’s other companies that will, they’ll take a PR person in-house, they’ll take a graphic designer in-house and we’ve been the exact opposite. No, we have… we’ve got great people outside that this is all they do. And we can just get whatever sources we need covered, whatever we need is out there. We just have to find it.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah. And I think that, I don’t know if you feel that way, but I think that speaks confidence, you’re confident, you’re able to find good people, people you can trust.

Mark Bergman:

Yeah. It’s good to change. With a designer let’s… not an industrial designer, but maybe it’s a graphics person or a marketing person. Let’s get a different perspective here and see if that’s any different.

Greg Kaster:

Yes. This is actually, this is a tangent, but actually something I’ve long thought about Gustavus. And I think we’ve gotten better. There are great people at Gustavus, but everything can’t be in house necessarily, right? You have to have the ability to go outside and look outside and find good people who aren’t part of the fold, so to speak. So back to the company, the other… so I was impressed with that slogan are working and we’ll call it work hard, live easy. That sounds good to me. It reminds me of my mother saying her… she grew up on a farm and her dad, she would say, I knew him when I was very young and he passed away. But anyway, she would say about him, he worked hard, but like to play as well, something like that. Relate to that spirit.

But the other thing that impressed me, and again, this is just honest reactions. I was really impressed with the way philanthropy is part of your company’s web presence. It’s very clear and you not just you and Debbie individually, but the company giving to a whole range of… I found the mix of groups really interesting. I don’t know if this is still true, but the HCLU American Civil Liberties Union groups, like second harvest St. Stephen’s around homelessness and food. I’m just curious. So you mentioned earlier how you and Debbie and you made a promise to one another. If we make it, we’re going to work with the kids back, how do you determine as a company where are your philanthropy is going to?

Mark Bergman:

That’s really a good question because where the diversity started with the giving was a good friend of mine is Paul Bots, another gusty alum who started his operation 10 years ago go called good leadership. And he sponsors and puts on seven breakfast every year. And he didn’t get anywhere from 200 to 250 people at these breakfast. And there’s a handy paint pail on every table. And people are asked to donate money, after cash or IOUs and put their card in there. And then there’s going to be a card withdrawn from the bucket at the end of the breakfast. And whoever that person is, gets to decide which charity or foundation they would like the money to go to. And we match it whatever. And this has been going on 10 years.

So that’s why you get this diverse. It’s been fantastic and we’ve done it here just as a company, especially since COVID hit, we said, well, we need to do something because we’re having a really good year. And a lot of people aren’t. So every Friday we designated as donation Friday and Britta, my daughter made up the list. So everyone got a Friday and it just kept cycling through. And that individual here got to pick a charity or several that they wanted, and that’s where the weekly donation would go. So that’s been a really… it’s been really fun for all of us knowing that yeah, we’re working and we’re doing fine, but there’s a lot of people that aren’t, so we can do something. And a lot of that was for homelessness and trying to feed people just last year.

Greg Kaster:

Which God knows when you… I just think it’s terrific. That answers my question about that diverse group of organizations that you’re going to do. That is really cool. I love that grassroots. It allows for diversity. That’s really neat. What about you and Debbie personally in your… How do you, obviously, you’re both incredibly generous to say this. We’re all grateful for that. Without getting into specifics. What is it that motivates you?

Mark Bergman:

It’s been interesting. I think a lot of it goes, a lot of it comes from basically the less fortunate because we know we’ve been dealt a good hand and a lot of it goes to kids. We have a good relationship with boys and girls club and started there years and years ago and hope to continue for a long, long time. And it just feels good and when you talk about the stuff on the website for a long time, we didn’t want to our own horn or whatever, but it’s like, no, this is what we do. And if this encourages anybody, any other company, any other individual to say, yeah I should do more than I’m doing. Then it’s worthwhile. Then it that’s why we’re doing it.

Greg Kaster:

We couldn’t agree more with that. I know what you mean about tutoring,[inaudible 01:03:50].

Mark Bergman:

Yeah, because we were always… we didn’t say any for the longest time I said, well no, we should do this. And all the PR people said, no, you should do that. It’s good for business. It’s good for your exposure. It’s good for everything. And then the bottom line to me was always, if we can encourage, if we get anyone to give anything more, anything that maybe wouldn’t have, then we need to keep… we need to do it. So that’s where I’m coming from.

Greg Kaster:

I couldn’t agree more. I think I told you before we started recording, but I got to serve on the boards. All the Gustavus is advancement committee for time and Tom young for advancement and alum talking about creating a culture of philanthropy and what that involves and surely being an example is critical to that, right? Whether it’s, other individuals or companies see that. So I just think it’s terrific. I think… and I actually think that’s… I don’t know whether that model you use could work for a big corporation. I think it’s so neat to have that hand detail and then the people you choose and that’s the person gets to choose.

Mark Bergman:

I think you can use it at all kinds of ways, honestly. And when to get everybody involved, I’ve got other friends with companies and they love the idea of sharing and let employees pick where they would like to see a donation go. It’s great fun. And some people put a lot of time and energy in the why, they chose what they did.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah. I like to throw about a little bit of business lingo around that I have around. I like to scale it up.

Mark Bergman:

Right, right.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah. Well, this has been a pleasure. I know you like and I like the show of the national public radio show, how he built this and this little version of that. A real pleasure. Thank you so much for doing this with me and for your philanthropy to Gustavus. We’re all grateful for that. And best of luck with… what’s next, are you going to invent more products you don’t know?

Mark Bergman:

Yeah. And Jeff here with me is really taken up the slack there. He’s a big time a handy guy. And he knows the business inside now. So he’s been instrumental with coming out with some new things and he’s working on some new things right now. So we’ll see what happens.

Greg Kaster:

That’s great. Well, I look forward to seeing you in person. I’ve certainly seen pictures in our condo. We unfortunately had a big leak and we ended up the whole place redone, but I saw them using, I didn’t know it at the time. I had no idea it was connected to you with the handy Andy pale and probably some other folks as well and Sherwin Williams sharing. So congratulations on everything. Thank you so much. Take good care. And we will get together in person. And once we can do so without being sick.

Mark Bergman:

Thanks Greg. It was a pleasure chatting with you.

Greg Kaster:

Likewise, Mark, take care.

Mark Bergman:

Take care. Bye, bye.

Greg Kaster:

Bye, bye. Learning for life at Gustavus is produced by JJ akin and Matthew Dova Sins key of the Gustavus office of marketing. Gustavus graduate will Clark class of 20, who also provides technical expertise to the podcast. And me, the views expressed in this podcast are not necessarily those of Gustavus Adolphus College.

 

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Media Contact: Director of Media Relations and Internal Communication JJ Akin
jakin@gustavus.edu
507-933-7510

 

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