Diane Mastrull: How to? Here's how: Adapting

Posted: September 17, 2013

Sex sells in the video industry. So do horror and romance.

But power tools, blowtorches, and drafting software?

They've indeed been the props in instructional productions that have sustained a family-run video business in Chadds Ford for 43 years.

Bergwall Productions Inc.'s work - dating from the era of filmstrips (remember those?) - is classroom fare, intended mostly for viewing at community colleges and technical high schools.

Through three generations of Bergwalls, the company has been creating how-to guides for industrial-arts students. Its portfolio of 29 courses spanning 1,200 educational minutes covers a range of trades skills, including automotive repair, drafting, electronics, welding, and construction.

Through the years, founder and chairman Charlie Bergwall, now 86, and son Eric, 50, the company's president, have made adjustments to adapt again and again to meet the information-consumption preferences of customers.

They replaced filmstrips with video cassettes, then came CD-ROMs, followed by DVDs. In recognition of the growing popularity of online education, all courses are now available digitally.

Now comes one of the biggest changes since Charlie Bergwall left his elementary school teaching job and launched his educational-filmstrips company in Garden City, Long Island, in 1970: It is converting to a nonprofit company.

"It's going to be a very interesting ride," said Eric Bergwall.

The ride is motivated by the same primary mission Charlie Bergwall had when he started the company: to help ensure the existence of a workforce skilled in the trades.

But times have changed since then. Financially pressed school districts have been doing away with a vocational curriculum, leaving the U.S. economy with two seemingly incongruous situations.

"There is an unemployment situation in America at the same time there's skilled jobs that aren't being filled," Eric Bergwall said.

The Bergwalls want to help solve both problems by making their training materials available for free.

"The people who need our product most can afford it the least," Eric Bergwall said.

He confidently spoke of securing the Gates Foundation and the World Bank as major funders, while acknowledging: "They don't know it yet."

The current list price for the Bergwall online course is $99 a year, and $499 for the DVD course. Annual sales the last 10 to 12 years have been about $300,000 to $500,000.

The company has been rebuilding after an asset sale in 1998, when Bergwall had annual sales of more than $3 million and a payroll of 25 employees. The idea behind the sale was to divest its analog line and focus exclusively on digital technology, Charlie Bergwall said. "I found it hard to do both."

The sale essentially rendered Bergwall a start-up company again, with a five-year non-compete agreement with its buyer. So Bergwall produced only automotive-technician videos during that time, and essentially had no income for the first five years, Eric Bergwall said.

It has been expanding its offerings since then, greatly benefiting from the technological acumen of Travis Bergwall, 24, son of Eric and a 2011 graduate of Kutztown University, where he majored in electronic media. He joined the family business in May 2012.

The company moved to Delaware County from New York in the early '90s, at the urging of another of Charlie Bergwall's sons, who was attending the University of Pennsylvania. Bergwall Productions now consists of six employees, all but one a Bergwall.

To reflect its new focus - one the Bergwalls expect will generate far more advertising revenue on their website - the company will be renamed Free Trade Skills L.L.C. The Bergwalls plan to launch a fund-raising campaign soon on Indiegogo.com to help pay for the building of www.freetradeskills.org.

Ken Nelson is director of construction technology/carpentry at Williamson Free School of Mechanical Trades, in Media. It offers free vocational training to high school graduates who meet a variety of financial and other requirements.

In his 17th year of teaching there, Nelson has used many Bergwall videos, calling what the company does "absolutely critical" in an educational system that "has gotten away from anything vocational."

Free access to Bergwall videos has "got to be for the better" - for the U.S. economy as a whole, Nelson said.

"If this country wants to grow, you have to have skilled labor," Nelson said.

Of 1,123 executives interviewed in the summer of 2011 by Deloitte Development L.L.C. and the Manufacturing Institute, 83 percent indicated a moderate to serious shortage of skilled production workers, and 69 percent said they expected that shortage to worsen over the next three to five years.

Trying to help close that gap by changing the company's structure to a nonprofit and giving away its product "sounds crazy big, and it is," Eric Bergwall said.

Unfazed is his father, a change veteran.

"We're back to where we were in the '70s," he said.

Diane Mastrull: >Inquirer.com

Bergwall Productions explains its plan to become a nonprofit. www.inquirer.com/small_business

Contact Diane Mastrull at 215-854-2466, dmastrull@phillynews.com, or @dmastrull on Twitter.

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