"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.
"My mother didn't want me to fly. I told her that was best for me," Bernstein said. "I was underage. They had to sign permission." They did. "The main thing is they didn't need to give me advice. They gave me love. They gave me confidence."
His father worked for the city of Chicago all his life, and his mother was a homemaker. They saw his business take off, he said.
None of his children or grandchildren has joined the Atlas Companies. "That's too bad," he said. He is envious of some of his friends, whose companies are in second or third generations. "But so often it doesn't work, and causes great rifts. Plus the fact that my greatest pleasure is I found my way and I did it my way. What I told my kids is just because Dad likes lift trucks doesn't mean you have to. Their greatest choice is to find their way. If they would not have that gratification, in a way, you rob them."