Third Generation CEO Guides Berk Enterprises
WARREN – Reilly Berk, CEO of Berk Enterprises in Warren, says seeing the company’s products being used by concessionaires at fairs was one of the factors that brought her into the family business at a young age.
Berk Concession Supply, a division that provides items like souvenir cups, novelty plates and novelty drinkware to concession stand operators, represents just 15% of the family business. But it is her favorite part of the business “just because it’s the most fun,” she says.
“The packaging is fun and most of the time everyone’s in a pretty good mood when they’re going to a fair, carnival or circus,” she continues.
Berk took over in July 2022 as CEO of the company founded by her grandfather in 1946.
After living in Cleveland for a time, where she attended graduate school, she recently moved to Girard to be closer to the business.
“She had always mentioned that it was her dream to work for the company,” Robert Berk, president of Berk Enterprises and Reilly’s father, says. “Even as a young girl, she used to join me at some of the trade shows I went to.”
She is the oldest of her parents’ five children and began working part time in sales in 2013, later transitioning into operations.
Berk recalls dreaming of being named CEO when she reached the age of 45 and “had a few kids,” she says.
“So, when all of that happened 25 years early, it was kind of crazy,” she says. There are few CEOs her age and being a woman in her industry is “not common.”
Berk, who in August was named to Forbes’ 30 Under 30 Local Cleveland list, was about 13 when she started thinking she wanted to go into the family business, she says.
“I remember growing up, just seeing my dad as this professional businessman who had a growing company and hearing his stories. I remember being really young when he would go to China for weeks at a time,” she recalls.
Reilly Berk worked at the company during school breaks and did internships there. When she came to the office for visits, she sometimes would sit in on meetings and was fascinated with the operations.
Robert Berk was impressed with “the passion” that she showed during the meetings. “She had very good questions and seemed very genuine and her questions and her desire to help the company in any way she could,” he says.
“It was nice for me knowing what I wanted to do at such a young age,” Reilly Berk says. That awareness led her to be mindful of selecting courses in high school and college that would help the business.
A 2020 graduate of Kent State University, she earned her master’s in business administration from Cleveland State University the following year.
After working for a time for a logistics company in Cleveland, she rejoined the family business full-time last year. Her father says he was excited when his eldest daughter finally decided to come back.
“Let’s face it, everyone who owns a business, there’s always the question, ‘Will the kids have any interest in carrying on the family business?’ And for her to say she wanted to was very exciting for me,” he says.
READY FOR THE TASK
Within a couple of months, Robert Berk, who was planning to open Past Times in Girard, a new venture capitalizing on his lifelong interest in pinball and other arcade games, decided to “basically hand over the keys” of Berk Enterprises to his daughter as CEO.
“When somebody has that kind of enthusiasm and that much commitment, it just made for the perfect time to make it happen,” he says.
Brigitt Berk, Reilly’s mother, agrees that her daughter was “destined at some point” to end up at Berk Enterprises.
“Being the oldest of five kids, I always saw her as a leader and eager to learn about the business,” she remarks.
Berk Enterprises has three divisions: the aforementioned Berk Concession Supply; Berkley Square, which focuses on disposable cutlery; and Environ, which offers environmentally friendly alternatives to plastic-based cutlery, plates, bowls and containers.
“We’re providing the tools that bring people together over a meal. Without us at a fair, there’s nowhere [for people] to put their fries or their drinks,” she says. “So just from a really young age, I just thought this was the coolest thing in the world.”
Since Reilly Berk took over as CEO, Berk Enterprises opened a second distribution center earlier this year and added staff, including a new sales director.
The focus this time of year is on developing company strategy, goals and targets, Berk says.
“My 10-year plan is to quadruple sales. So we have a lot of exciting things in place,” she says.
She acknowledges that early in her tenure as CEO she “definitely wasn’t as confident” in her new role.
“It’s kind of scary, leading the whole company,” she says.
In the beginning, she was “a little timid,” her father agrees. “But it didn’t last long. Because she just rolled up her sleeves and went for it.”
Reilly Berk says she has gained more confidence as she has served in her role and the industry for the most part has been “really supportive” of her.
“People won’t question you if you feel confident and kind of, you know, own the room,” she says.
“If anything, it’s inspiring to other people,” she says. “I have younger siblings and friends with kids. If the roles were reversed and I saw someone that was my age running a company … I would be inspired by that.”
One of the attractions for both father and daughter was that Robert Berk would remain involved as CEO and available to offer advice and guidance. Depending on what is happening on any given day, he might spend more time at Past Times one day and Berk Enterprises another.
“The one thing that got her especially excited about [taking over as CEO] was the fact that Dad is still here,” Robert Berk says. If there is something she isn’t sure of or uncertain about what direction to take, he is a phone call or visit away.
“She respects what my husband has done, especially in the business all of these years, and seeks his guidance and opinions,” says Brigitt Berk, who works in human resources and payroll for the company.
“At the end of the day, we all look to her for those final judgment calls and solutions. But that’s because we believe in her so much. She’s just so creative in her thinking,” she says. “She likes to challenge herself and others. But I do believe that she definitely keeps my husband in mind, especially when she’s making a lot of decisions.”
Reilly Berk describes her father as “the visionary” of the company and says he has known many of the company’s clients for 30 or 40 years. In addition to serving as a “sounding board,” her father continues to teach her and share the knowledge he has accumulated about the company’s customers, certain vendors, specific products and trade shows.
“We work together as a team,” she says. “He’s given me the reins to lead and do my thing. But I’m so grateful that I have him here to bounce things off of.”
Berk Enterprises will grow by one more family member after Jaden, Reilly’s brother, joins the company at some point following his graduation from Ohio State University next year.
Like his sister, Jaden also has worked in various departments of the family business over the years.
“He wants to get some other work experience first, maybe get his MBA. But his long-term plan is to be at Berk,” Reilly Berk says. “Eventually we’ll be running it together, which I’m really excited about.”
Reilly and Jaden “get along very well, like two peas in a pod,” Robert Berk says. “When he’s done with college, I think it’ll be a very easy and natural progression.”
The siblings who aren’t involved in the business regularly also are supportive, she points out.
“I have such a good relationship with my family. We never fight. We never argue,” she continues. Still, occasionally in meetings, Robert Berk will use one of his nicknames for his daughter and she will remind him of the setting.
She says she also takes a family approach to Berk Enterprises’ other employees, getting to know them as people and learning about their personal and work goals even as they focus on meeting the company’s goals.
“At the end of the day, people in general just want to feel like they are seen, heard and valued,” she says. “When you get to know them and understand their personalities, what they like, what they don’t like, I think they perform better.”
In addition to working on her new house, Reilly Berk says she enjoys traveling. She went to China for the first time with her father at age 9, has been to 28 countries so far and wants to visit 100 countries in her lifetime.
She also is planning to marry her fiancé next year.
Berk still checks out the vendors when she visits fairs and asks where they got their cups and other products. One of the most popular items is cups featuring the “Fun at the Fair” design, a cartoon representation of fairgoers that includes Berk and other members of her family.
The feeling she has from seeing her company’s products is one that she admits she has trouble explaining.
“It’s just so special … just seeing your ideas come to life,” she says. “My dad built that concession side of the business. To see all of that in the public and people holding our lemonade cups, it’s just really special.”
Pictured at top: Reilly Berk, CEO of Berk Enterprises, holds the “Fun at the Fair’ paper plate.
Copyright 2023 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.