The Bernhardt name is well-known in the furniture industry worldwide, with eight facilities across the globe employing about 1,200 people. The company name is synonymous with excellent craftsmanship and high-end design.
Its corporate headquarters and several manufacturing facilities are located in the Caldwell County Town of Lenoir, where the Bernhardt name takes on additional meanings, including major employer and generous community leadership.
Family members from every generation are described as “friendly, humble and very approachable,” according to John Francis, former NCCF associate who is now executive director of the Helping Hands Clinic in Lenoir. “They are known for quietly and generously giving to a myriad of local causes, both with their time and checkbooks,” he said.
These values translate – throughout their immediate and extended family and to their company’s employees.
A review of Bernhardt Furniture’s website finds entire sections devoted to their philosophy on social responsibility within their industry and communities. The company is concerned with ethical sourcing, environmental policies and the well-being of employees, who are rewarded for community involvement and encouraged to be civically aware.
It’s not unusual for associates to spontaneously “pass the hat” and collect money for a good cause with no direction from management. Francis recalls Bernhardt manufacturing employees from one local plant bringing in a plastic bag of cash to contribute to the health clinic, for example. “I doubt the company management knew anything about this,” he said.
This philanthropic worldview and local altruism began at the top. Now four generations deep into operating one of the largest family owned furniture companies in the world, a review of the organization’s 126-year history confirms that these values run long and deep and “have enabled the company to endure.” It’s not just a heritage of perseverance, but also one of social responsibility.
A conversation with Alex Bernhardt Sr., who is chairman of the board of Bernhardt Furniture, confirms these observations. “This generation of my family got involved with philanthropy as a direct result of the example set for us by several generations who preceded us from both Anne Harper’s [his wife’s] family and my Bernhardt family,” he said.
A look at Bernhardt’s list of community involvement reads like a who’s who on national, statewide and local nonprofit boards, and includes two terms on NCCF’s Catawba Valley Community Foundation (CVCF) affiliate board, and leadership positions with the Nature Conservancy, the local Communities in Schools and United Way. Anne is involved with the Caldwell County Arts Council and is a board member of Helping Hands Clinic and UNC Health Care system.
In turn, he and Anne have consciously worked to pass these values down to their three adult children and five grandchildren. For example, Alex Jr., now CEO of Bernhardt Furniture, is in his second term on the CVCF board and also very active in the community.
Bernhardt described an “interesting experiment” in which he and Anne annually invite each grandchild, ranging in age from 9 to 15, to participate in a matching-gift program to any nonprofit. “They have selected interesting charities, both local and international for this challenge,” he said.
Bernhardt’s own philanthropic passions tend to focus on local needs. “While we do make grant contributions into wide geographic areas, we tend to keep most of our contributions local to the areas where we live, work and understand the most pressing needs,” he said. The family’s giving often centers on health, nutrition, education, the environment and cultural arts.
The family is particularly interested in education and for the past four years has provided 10 scholarships annually to single parents attending Caldwell Community College and Technical Institute (CCC&TI). Without these scholarships, many of these students would not be able to pursue advanced degrees, according to Marla Christie, executive director of CCC&TI’s foundation. The scholarships not only help cover tuition and books, but also assist with other expenses specific to single parents, like paying for childcare.
Claudia Cruz, a Honduran immigrant, graduated last May from CCC&TI with help from a scholarship funded by the Bernhardts. She has two young daughters and a baby and had considered dropping out of the community college, according to an article in the Lenoir News-Topic. Then she learned of the scholarship that ultimately allowed her to complete her associate’s degree.
Christie noted that there is a mentoring component to the CCC&TI scholarship program, and that the school also seeks to build a sense of community among the scholarship recipients through gatherings and events. “Anne and Alex get involved in these activities as well,” she said. “They really enjoy connecting with the students and interacting with them.”
A folder full of thank-you notes from Bernhardt scholarship recipients shared a common theme: without this monetary support, they would not be able to attend or finish their degrees. And all voiced their ambitions of going on to pursue a four-year degrees, advanced certifications or staring businesses.
Christie said that CCC&TI and its foundation were “proud” of their partnership with the Bernhardts. “They are truly champions in our community,” she said. The Bernhardts will increase the number of scholarships to 15 next academic year, beginning in the fall of 2016.
Bernhardt, who understood the power of endowed giving through his company’s foundation, established the Anne and Alex Bernhardt Foundation with NCCF in 2005 and several years later set up an additional endowment. “Working with NCCF has been highly satisfactory, as our funds there have been financially managed well, and the giving process is simple and efficient.” He cited the convenience of NCCF’s local office in Hickory, and said the family also received “outstanding support from the home office in Raleigh.”
Bernhardt recommends endowed giving and the planned-giving approach to philanthropy. “We have recommended NCCF to others and would continue to give high marks to this fine organization or other potential donors,” he said.