They say there’s no place like home, sweet home.
But for people whose jobs take them to remote, often hostile environments, the next best thing to home may be a shelter manufactured by Berg, a privately owned Spokane Valley business with a long history and seemingly bright future.
The company traces its roots back to 1883 – the year Spokan Falls added an “e” to its name (and eight years before it dropped the “Falls”). Founded by Fredrick Oliver Berg, it originally supplied tents and other camping equipment to railroads building tracks throughout the Northwest.
In 1889, when flames leveled most of downtown Spokane Falls, F.O. Berg tents sprang up around town and remained throughout reconstruction.
The company changed hands in the mid-1990s, and in 2009 Don Myers joined Andy Barrett and Craig Dolsby as co-owner, president and CEO.
Myers travels upward of 150,000 miles a year to meet with clients – mostly military officials – but paused long enough to discuss his company’s evolution and where the industry is headed.
S-R: Berg Cos. and its precursor, F.O. Berg, together constitute one of the state’s oldest businesses. Do you feel connected to that pioneer enterprise?
Myers: Yes, because our DNA has always involved remote shelters. (Fredrick Oliver) Berg even had a Model T with an awning on it for camping. So we’re proud of our heritage. You see that in our new logo (which prominently features the year 1883). But we’ve evolved from manufacturing shelters made of fabric to hard-sided systems that offer more comfort.
S-R: What are the advantages of a company having a 130-year history?
Myers: It reminds folks that you’re not going away.
S-R: Any disadvantages?
Myers: A potential disadvantage is that you might be viewed as old and stoic instead of modern and hip. But that hasn’t been a problem for us.
S-R: Even though you’ve dropped “F.O.” from the company name, do longtime residents confuse you with the tent maker they grew up with?
Myers: Yes, and we get calls from people asking for awnings. That company still exists, but it has a new name: Vestis Systems ( www.vestissystems.com).
S-R: What did you do before joining Berg four years ago?
Myers: I managed the Kimball furniture factory in Post Falls, as well as other factories in the Kimball organization. Before that, I was with Boeing.
S-R: Was the switch from furniture to remote camps an easy transition?
Myers: Whether it’s building furniture, assembling airplanes or manufacturing shelters, the basic management skills are the same.
S-R: Did you have a mentor?
Myers: When I was in Japan with Boeing, I spent time with the Shingijutsu (consulting team), and most of my operational philosophy was generated from that.
S-R: What’s the most useful lesson you learned?
Myers: Probably how to get more with fewer resources and less bureaucracy.
S-R: What’s your management style?
Myers: I want to know everything that’s going on, but I let the smart managers underneath me run the company.
S-R: Do you have competitors?
Myers: Other companies do portions of what we do, but none does everything we do. Our 10-year goal is to be able to build, deliver and service complete 600-man camps.
S-R: Who are your customers?
Myers: The U.S. military accounts for 80 percent of our sales. But we also work with FEMA and Homeland Security, and have sold to Egypt, Peru and Israel’s Ministry of Defense.
S-R: What’s your range of products?
Myers: Everything needed to sustain a remote workforce – from command centers, kitchens and billeting to pumps, electrical connections and fuel bladders. We sell our products a la carte, so contracts range from a few thousand dollars to in excess of $10 million.
S-R: What’s your bread and butter?
Myers: Our E2S2, an 8-by-20-foot container that expands to a 20-by-20 hard-sided shelter, and can be used for anything from a medical unit to a church.
S-R: In terms of camp size, what’s your sweet spot?
Myers: Right now it’s the 100-man camp, which sells for $3 million, plus or minus.
S-R: In what remote areas are Berg camps deployed?
Myers: We’ve done stuff for the North Slope up in Alaska, rainforests, and obviously the Middle East desert.
S-R: How’s business?
Myers: We’re growing. To put it in perspective, when I joined the company in 2009, our annual sales had been stuck in the $8 million-to-$10 million range for 10 years. Since then, we’ve been around $60 million to $70 million.
S-R: What drives sales?
Myers: Military demand, of course, but not just war. In peacetime we still have troops overseas training people. And after a conflict the military has to restock its shelves, so that drives business. We also provide shelters for remote oil and mining sites. There’s a ton of work out there right now.
S-R: How has technology changed your product?
Myers: The camps we produce today use less fuel, less water, and take better advantage of solar and wind power than they did even two years ago. That’s the direction we continue to push.
S-R: With clients scattered all over the world, what keeps your company in Spokane?
Myers: The workforce. I’ve managed factories in Malaysia, Mexico, Kentucky, Indiana and the West Coast, and I strongly believe that the productivity of our workforce is top notch. It’s also easy to draw people here. And the ownership has strong roots in the community, so we have no intention of leaving.
S-R: How much of your typical remote camp is made here?
Myers: Eighty percent, either by our company or by vendors. The more we can make or get from local sources, the better.
S-R: Do you get unusual requests?
Myers: We’ve helped support Doctors Without Borders (with hospital facilities), and we built an ecotourism facility for penguin watching in Antarctica.
S-R: Has anyone requested a remote hunting camp?
Myers: We’ve had several inquiries. And our product would be perfect for that, because you could lock it up when you leave, and no one could get inside. But to my knowledge we haven’t built one yet.
S-R: If your product were a hotel, how many stars would it get?
Myers: Relative to our industry, I would say five stars. Our E2S2, which stands for Energy Efficient Shelter System, has high-R-value walls and water reuse systems. People who have used our product in theater have compared it to the Ritz-Carlton. Remember, a lot of these troops have been sleeping on the ground or on the fender of their Humvee, so when they have a soft mattress and hot showers, it’s very much appreciated.
S-R: Have you ever spent a night in your own product?
Myers: I haven’t yet, but I want to.
S-R: When you joined the company in 2009, how would you characterize its culture?
Myers: It was a typical small business. They’d had relative success, but they also understood that the next step required another level of intensity. When the other owners invited me to join them, we talked for months about how we could take the mom-and-pop idea to the next level – a professionally-run company with an HR manager and a rule book. We wanted to keep the positive, people-first culture, but with a lot more discipline. That caused folks to say, “What happened to the good ol’ days when we could crack a beer on Friday afternoon if we got a good sale?” We don’t do that anymore, and that’s been a tough change. But the results have been very positive.
S-R: You’re now two years into your 10-year plan. Where do you hope to be in 2021?
Myers: Our goal is to be a very profitable, well run small business in the $100 million-to-$200 million (annual revenue) range. And then keep it that way.
S-R: Are you hiring?
Myers: We’re constantly hiring.