Walter Berry tries to run his companies on Christian principles. But the companies, which mainly sell, rent and service construction and industrial equipment over five states, were hit hard by the recession.
Laying off a third of his work force put his ideals to the test, he said, but he has tried to balance his business decisions with compassion.
The recession hasn't been all negative. It has provided him with a chance to acquire struggling companies in other markets, making two acquisitions during the recession.
Berry took over the business from his father, Fred, who bought it in 1957. Walter Berry, 52, became president in 1995.
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He was born and raised in Wichita. He and his wife, Polly, have four children, three of whom are grown.
How's the business?
"We are flat this year with last year, and last year was off a third from the year before that, so we're down a third from where we were two years ago. We feel very good about being flat, never been so excited about flat, and we're are optimistic we will remain flat and not have a double dip.... But our gross profit is up. We have a better mix of business. We don't have as much new. We have more rentals as a piece of the mix. So profitability is up a little and our expenses are down by a third."
How do you see the future?
"I don't know when we will ever get back to the peak that we were at three years ago in the Midwest, because I don't see our housing market getting back to where it was. Maybe we will when the population catches up, but we were over-building housing, financing was easy and customers were trading in machines faster than they would have.... I don't see that repeating itself for a long time, if ever. I see slow growth, or flat and then slow growth. It will be healthier and more sustainable."
Is this a good time to buy other businesses?
"There are opportunities that will come along that you won't have at other times or where you would pay a premium. But you have to go manage those businesses so they don't become a drag. They typically are in trouble or, if not, you pay a premium. We tend to be very opportunistic. We haven't purchased many very successful companies. We've come in when we thought we could turn them around to be successful."
How big will you grow?
"We are only interested in the Midwest. We don't really want to go much further east than Missouri and a lot farther west than Colorado. It's Midwestern values — how people think, having our employees have the same mind-set we have. And, it's what we think we can touch."
You say growth and profitability aren't necessarily your highest goals as businessmen. Why?
"My father created this business and ran it on how could he put Biblical principles into practice. I completely agree with that and how not to be swayed by what the world calls success, but what would be Christian success and how that could be practiced in a business environment."
What do Biblical principals mean in business?
"Integrity and ethics, but also taking responsibility and giving back to our communities and supporting our families so that they make a living and have the flexibility so that if they need time to go to their kids' games. We have an environment where people know they can do that. Now, we have to have people at our parts counter to take care of customers, so everybody can't just can't take off. But if you have a health concern, I enjoy saying: You work to support your family. It's not vice versa. Your family is not here to support us. If you need time off you need to go do that and not being driven by growth, sales, adding more stores. We want to be a successful business, we want good metrics, but we want to be able to honor Biblical principles."
How do you reconcile laying off a third of the work force and your vision of a Christian business?
"There is a conflict. That was very painful. But we want to be in it for the long haul, and if we are inefficient over the long haul, it won't be sustainable. So, we didn't cut to boost the bottom line. Our goal last year was to break even, not make a lot of money. We were just barely profitable for '09.... We were going to be a third smaller and breaking even was a reasonable goal. We may be at this level for four or five years, so this wasn't something that we could subsidize. It wasn't going to be a one-year flash and we'll be right back and we could absorb it. We did have to make tough decisions. If we didn't do that and we weren't sustainable, we weren't doing any favors to anybody."
What are your misgivings about the new political and regulatory climate?
"Many of us wanted change, but the change that we got wasn't necessarily what we really wanted. I think that what we got was politics as usual on steroids with all the stimulus and all the money that is not really being productive. It has created a whole level of uncertainty.
"We have seen more sales tax audits than we've ever experienced because local entities need the money.... And the state of Kansas asked us if we'd do a self-audit. I wanted to put the phone down and pick it up and say 'No. We're good.' I don't know what a self-audit is. We think we are paying all the appropriate taxes. We don't intentionally not pay them and then when they call, say 'Oh, yeah. You're right. We'll send you some more.' "