Editor’s note: Mr. Howard Bernstein was honored with the Lifetime Achievement Award at the 56th Annual MHEDA Convention in May. Ten years ago this month, Mr. Bernstein was featured in Material Handling Wholesaler’s “Your Business” column. To celebrate Mr. Bernstein’s Lifetime Achievement Award and recent “unemployment” (he hates the word “retirement”), join Material Handling Wholesaler as we take a look back…
"The best part is the gratification of finding your way in the world on your own," Howard Bernstein said. "It's more fun to start something yourself than to take over something started by your father or somebody else."
Bernstein started something himself that now employs 275 people, another huge gratification, he said.
"That's better than playing golf," said Bernstein, 78, who has no plans to retire. "I find it very rewarding to continue to create" jobs that support families.
Atlas has eight companies: Atlas International Lift Trucks, Atlas Bobcat, Atlas Lift Truck Rentals and Sales, Atlas Lift Truck Chicago, Atlaslift West, Atlas Material Handling, Mid-Continent Forklifts and Mid-America Propane Co. Atlas sells, services and rents lift trucks, pallet trucks, bobcats, and storage equipment.
It is, according to company brochures, "the power of one source." Together, the companies form the "Atlas Solution Center." It means everything customers need for their warehousing operations.
Choosing the name was easy. "Number one, we wanted it to begin with A, so it would be near the beginning of a directory or list," Bernstein said. And because it focused on material handling, he wanted to indicate strength. Who better than Atlas?
So on April Fool's Day, 1951, Atlas was born in Chicago. He knew "nothing" about the business when he started, he said. He was a salesman for a lumber company, and while selling wooden pallets came into contact with lift truck people. They shared leads for accounts, and as they talked he learned there was a void in the industry - nobody rented lift trucks. With low capital investment, he started his business.
"I was lucky I found it. I came upon it. There was a lot of luck involved," Bernstein said. But there was also a lot of hard work, and diligence in developing a good reputation. Especially dealing in used equipment, but in all facets of business, it was vital "to have the highest integrity, so people would have confidence," Bernstein said. "That was very important."
The honesty is a two-way street between sellers and buyers, and between employer and employees, he said. "I take everybody at face value," Bernstein said. "There are charlatans out there, but most people - 99.9 percent - are honest." Would you want to buy a used lift truck from someone you met over the telephone, he asked? That's when the company's credibility is crucial, he said, because much of the work is done by telephone, nationally and internationally. And "there's not that much difference between my lift truck and somebody else's."
The difference is the people at the company. His sister, Cleo Hagenson, worked for the company for more than 30 years. "It was very important to her. She was a widow with little children." The job provided for her family. Pallets became her niche. The company handles pallet racks, pallet rack decking, wire mesh containers, conveyors and shelving.
"I had the experience of pallets, and I turned over pallets to her. She had the benefit of my experience." And he had the benefit of having a trusted family member working with him.
Growing up, his mother, father, sister and Bernstein were a tight-knit family, he said. "We had complete trust and confidence in each other," he said. Whatever he wanted to do, his parents backed him, sometimes despite normal parental fear for his safety. His mother didn't want him to become a naval aviator in World War II.