Bernhard and Company are the market leaders in sharpening systems and one of the world’s most influential forces in the quality and presentation of turf grass. Golf Business News spoke to company director Steven Nixon to find out more about the history of the turf solution powerhouse, as well as the importance of grinding machines to turf presentation, how the company has adapted with modern technology, and how education is at the heart of everything it does.
GBN: Bernhard and Company has long been known as a global power within the turf industry but how and where did it all begin?
Steven Nixon: Horticulture has been in the bloodline of the Bernhard family for decades, with Stephen’s father being a very influential figure in the landscaping world for most of his career. The Bernhard and Company that is best known in the sports turf industry really got started in the 1970’s. Stephen Bernhard took the decision to setup an export company, using his extensive landscaping and horticultural connections to supply equipment such as grinders, trenching machines and power washers across Europe.
A very common maintenance practice in those times was to back lap the mowers, which was a dirty and inaccurate method of trying to keep a mower cutting. As mowers became more sophisticated, Stephen realised that back lapping was a severely compromised method of sharpening. At that point, he instantly decided to put all his energy into starting Bernhard and Company. I suppose you would say he had a lightbulb moment.
Mowers were originally designed so the bottom blade and cylinder blades should not touch during the cutting action. If touching, it would be impossible to achieve a perfect slicing of the grass blade, rather more of a scything action than sheering. By preventing the bottom blade and the cylinder of the mower from touching, there is a significant reduction in damage to the grass plant, which not only allows the grass to grow much more efficiently, but also means that bottom blades do not wear out so fast. That really formed the premise of Bernhard and Company’s grinding machines and was the start of an era that saw Stephen travelling around America, blowing people’s minds with a new grinding technique that would deliver them a far superior end product.
What do you think have been the key elements to your success and longevity within the industry?
One of the ways was to demonstrate the capabilities of our system to others out there, and a good vehicle to do that was providing on-site support at important sporting events, like major golf tournaments. This was the ideal way for us to show the world that our grinding machines were far superior to anything else out there, by delivering absolutely perfect playing surfaces on the world stage.
Bernhard and Company has evolved to be a company that prides itself on being ‘tournament ready’ 24/7, 365 days a year. For example, we work closely with the TPC, to ensure their golf courses are ready to host a tournament all year round. In order to facilitate that, we as a company, also need to be tournament ready, so that we can uphold that image.
During my time with Bernhard and Company I have been heavily involved in the tournament preparation side of things. We will often start working with major championship venues up to three years before the event; testing the growth of the grass and understanding its characteristics. Really, we are at the heart of everything that is done to a golf course on a major week.
It’s not just golf, at other major global events in sports like tennis and football, everybody talks about how immaculate the turf is – our people help to deliver that. We also provide machinery to numerous Premier League and Champions League football clubs at their training grounds and stadiums. We’ve got relationships all around the world because of our determination to always deliver beyond the expectations of the customer. In doing so, we have developed a company that is enormously respected within its field.
GBN: Technology has progressed leaps and bounds in recent years. How has Bernhard and Company ensured it remains at the cutting edge of the market?
As a company we felt the need to move towards electronics in the late 1990’s. We have always strived to be at the ‘cutting-edge’ of the market, as you say, and strides towards electronic movement and interface were certainly the next progression.
While we had a complete understanding of the fundamentals of our machinery, we needed to go behind the science and technology of what we were doing to continue our development. We’ve always hung our hats on having machines that operated at speed, were simple to use and could stand the test of time. To continue flying each of those flags, we had to move with the times.
GBN: Environmental issues impact on businesses across all industries these days. What is Bernhard and Company doing to enhance its green credentials?
You are absolutely right. One of our most important initiatives moving forward is set around trying to offset our carbon footprint and energy consumption. It is so important to us that we constantly strive to function in a more sustainable way and give something back to the environment. We are taking big strides to offset our footprint at both our office in Rugby, and the factory in Haverhill.
We have set up a partnership with One Tree Planted, a tree planting charity, through their One-For-One scheme. We are donating a monthly amount to offset our total annual consumption of CO2. Through One Tree Planted, we are aiming to plant 530 trees each year in different regions of the world. We are based in the UK, but the majority of our customers are spread globally, so we want to reduce the impact of our consumption across the world.
We need trees not only to absorb the carbon that we exhale and produce, but because human-driven and natural loss of trees (deforestation) affects wildlife, ecosystems, weather patterns, and even the climate. By partnering with One Tree Planted, we know that the initiative will be driven towards a sustainable reforestation through not only planting trees, but also through education and raising the awareness of tree preservation. It is key to understand the relationship between planting trees and the environment, rather than just using trees for building, manufacturing and firewood. We want to encourage the regeneration and conservation of soil and water at community level.
GBN: What are some of your key products for this year, and how do you look to tailor packages to meet the demands of each customer?
We have a selection of products and services that can cater full circle. Something that is really important for us when talking to prospective clients is helping them understand the long game. Investing in a Bernhard and Company solution will give you the best possible end product, that’s easy to demonstrate, but they don’t always understand the profitability.
While it is expensive to invest in your own grinding machinery, we like to say that it is an investment in turf technology today, for performance and profitability tomorrow. It is key for them to understand that we’re not simply selling them a grinder, we’re selling improved playability. Investing in your turf is a long-term pledge towards the ultimate playing experience.
We are so confident in the performance of our products that we offer a 10-year warranty with each piece of equipment, which provides a great level of comfort for the customer.
GBN: The company has diversified its product offering in recent years to also supply SubAir and TurfBreeze solutions. How important has it been to be able to expand the level of turf support you can offer?
We want to offer turf professionals solutions that complement our sharpening systems, products that focus on turf health, and encourage preventative practices. The grinders concentrate on the turf plant from above the surface and SubAir helps promote a healthy subsurface environment by pumping clean air through the subsoil. It also allows the moisture levels to be kept at the optimal, even in the worst, uncontrollable weather conditions.
TurfBreeze is a simple concept of air movement, and we all know how important that is to any living thing. The TurfBreeze fans create a gentle breeze across the surface that helps regulate the temperature of the plant. Using the fans overnight also helps to control excess dew formation on the leaf of the grass plant, allowing for a dry cut the next morning.
GBN: Lots of golf clubs will grind their mowing equipment on an annual basis. How important is it to educate the market on the benefits of owning machines and ultimately investing in their most important asset, golf courses?
Grinding machines are amazing bits of kit, but what really matters is the end result – that’s what we’re all judged on. We are really proud of the investment we made into market research. We wanted to understand the thought processes of course managers and get a feel for the level of knowledge they had of their equipment.
We found that 98% of our target audience thought that reel grinding was a good process to go through, which was not surprising. However, what did surprise us was that only 33% of people said that the method in which you use a reel grinder was important. We then instantly knew that our job was to educate. Ever since then, our business has been built and developed on the importance of method of practice.
We attend numerous conferences and events, as well as operating regular seminars and webinars through partnerships with BIGGA and the GCSAA, with the aim to increase product awareness, promote education and help people understand the benefits of sharpening their mowers. We also like to convey the message about who we are as a company and how we can help through other turf management solutions than grinding machines, such as SubAir and TurfBreeze.
GBN: Given your global reach and the impact of the pandemic, how important has the Bernhard Academy and your webinar platform been in delivering the best possible service to your customers?
Everything that we try to do from an education standpoint has been designed to help people deliver the best possible product on their golf course. We organise regular training for our distributor technicians to ensure they can provide the same service that our direct customers get in the UK.
We have also worked on developing a face-to-face programme at the Academy and an online programme that will enable us to deliver training no matter where our customers are located. This will give us a much greater educational footprint around the globe. Recently we have delivered a series of online training sessions to customers in Asia, which have been greatly received. The awareness of turf quality and level of expertise is marginally lower in the region, so we are pleased to have been able to perform demonstrations and help to correctly set up mowing equipment for sharp cutting.
Throughout the pandemic we have been trying to help our customers expand their level of product knowledge by creating useful hints and tips on social media, running online demonstrations, and performing educational seminars. While not being able to do so in-person, we have also tried to support our customers through installation processes by using videos and other various current communication technologies.
GBN: Without the ability to perform site visits, how has modern technology enabled you to continue servicing and maintaining equipment remotely?
Some of our new grinders come with remote access on the machines. The grinders are connected to the web via Wi-Fi, enabling us to go online and login to review the machines from our factory. Once logged in, we can diagnose any issues the customer might be experiencing. We can basically take control of their grinders with the touch of a button and fix any issues that may arise without laying a hand on the machines. We also have a worldwide network of fully trained technicians through our distribution partners that can provide assistance where necessary.