Three of a Kind : Bernards Brothers Fame Rides on Projects Like Magic Mountain’s Giant Roller Coaster
Doug Bernards, president of Bernards Brothers Construction in San Fernando, likes to tackle unusual projects. Since he founded the firm in 1974, Bernards, 47, has built structures as diverse as Six Flags Magic Mountain’s giant roller coaster Colossus, a cancer treatment center with 8-feet-thick concrete walls and Pierce College’s performing arts center.
While Bernards Brothers also builds conventional buildings, such as offices, warehouses and department stores, it’s the exotic projects that Bernards prefers. “I like the . . . one-of-a-kind I guess because it’s fun,” he said.
Those one-of-a-kind projects have helped propel Bernards Brothers’ revenues to about $100 million this year. The firm is the Valley’s third-largest construction company, behind Tutor-Saliba in Sylmar and Burbank-based McCormick Construction, and it was ranked by the magazine Engineering News-Record on a list of the nation’s top 400 contractors.
The other Bernards brothers who fill out the executive suite are Greg, 42, who oversees the firm’s field operations, and Jeff, 40, an office-based administrator.
Over the years, the siblings have produced hundreds of buildings around Southern California, including a Toyota-processing facility in Long Beach, a satellite test facility for Rockwell in Seal Beach and a J.W. Robinson’s department store in Costa Mesa. But it is Colossus, completed in 1978, that still stands out in Doug Bernards’ mind.
The ride, one of the world’s largest wooden racing roller coasters, was a challenge on the scale that the Bernards brothers relish. Magic Mountain wanted an all-wood roller coaster instead of a more modern steel one, because the wood would rumble and sway like the old-fashioned thrill rides. The construction tab for the wooden thrills turned out to be more than $7 million.
The Bernards brothers went so far as to examine bridges with similar structures and even flew to Mexico City to study a wooden roller coaster there. They designed tools specifically for the project, which required considerable precision, and completed it in a grueling eight-week schedule.
Leo Hyde, manager of construction and facilities at Magic Mountain, recalled that during the construction of Colossus he received a 2 a.m. phone call saying part of the structure had collapsed. He met the Bernards brothers and their crew at the park, only to discover that a small tornado--rare in Southern California--had caused the damage. “We spent the rest of the day tying the whole thing down,” he said.
Hyde praised the Bernards brothers for their expertise and ability to finish projects on time--a critical factor to a theme park that promises the public new attractions by certain dates.
In the spring, the Bernards brothers are due to begin work on another theme park project, a new Universal Studios attraction, which Doug Bernards declined to describe. Competition among theme park operators is “like the arms race,” he said, and plans for new attractions are typically shrouded in secrecy until a formal announcement is made.
At the moment the brothers are also finishing more conventional projects: a medical building in Newhall and a physical science building at the UC Irvine. And this month, ground will be broken on a new headquarters for Siemens-Pacesetter, a Sylmar heart pacemaker firm. By year-end Bernards Brothers will have worked on about 20 projects in Southern California in 1989, with an average contract value of about $7 million to $10 million.
Even though building continues at a brisk pace in Southern California, the market is extremely competitive because building contractors from Japan and from slower markets such as Texas and Colorado come here to bid on projects, sometimes undercutting bids by local firms. Contractors like Bernards Brothers typically operate on narrow profit margins of 1 or 2 cents per dollar of sales, before taxes.
“There isn’t much room for mistakes,” said Bernards, adding that the accuracy of his estimates of the cost of labor, materials, subcontracting and the risk inherent in the job is crucial. Despite these pressures, he said he expects the company to be profitable this year.
After 15 years in business, Bernards says the difficult projects are still the most satisfying ones. He’s particularly proud of the $2.8-million clinical neutron therapy facility--a cancer treatment center--that the firm built for UCLA in 1984. Because of the radiation used there, the building had to be constructed with 8-feet-thick concrete walls and ceiling. The huge concrete slabs had to be poured at one time because no joints could be used.
Even the Bernards brothers’ first job was a little odd. Doug was working as chief estimator for a Burbank construction company in 1974 when he persuaded Greg, a construction worker, to bid with him on a small Magic Mountain project, an employee break area with a bumper car ride called “El Bumpo.”
They invested $11,000 of their savings to start the business and won the contract with the lowest bid--$7,070. “Even for a first job it was small one, but it was a way to get started,” said Bernards. When the ride was closed a few years ago, the brothers hung the El Bumpo sign in their office.
Other jobs quickly followed: A temporary banking facility for Bank of America in Arcadia and another project--the Magic Pagoda--at Magic Mountain. Jeff, who had been managing a wholesale beverage distribution company, joined the firm in 1975 and the following year Doug quit his estimating job to devote himself full-time to the business. Doug and Greg each own 50% of the company.
Bernards Brothers employs 45 office workers and averages about 200 contract workers in the field at any time. The company does its own concrete work and carpentry, and subcontracts for the rest.
Daniel Greenberg, chairman and chief executive of Electro-Rent, which rents and leases electronic equipment and computer systems, also gave high marks to the Bernards brothers, who last year built Electro-Rent’s Van Nuys headquarters. The three-story, concrete building was unusual because it was constructed in the “tilt-up” method, which requires concrete panels to be cast at the building site. The architect had favored a look which featured long narrow windows matched by long narrow concrete slabs.
“This presented an enormous challenge to the builders,” said Greenberg, since the three-story high, 200,000-pound concrete sections had to be lifted into place, and they had a margin for error of about a quarter of an inch. Otherwise the slabs wouldn’t fit properly.
“We fought with them all the way through over specifics,” Greenberg said. That’s the normal tug of war. But they came in very close to budget and on time. Those are big words to a customer.”
Disputes in the construction trade often go beyond the normal haggling over details, however, and lawsuits involving claims such as breach of contract and workers’ compensation are common to the industry. Bernards Brothers has been involved with nearly 50 lawsuits over the past 10 years, according to records in Los Angeles Superior Court. Most recently the company was sued by Pacific Bell, which claims that a subcontractor Bernards Brothers hired was negligent in caring for the plants used for landscaping.
“If you took it all personally, you could make yourself crazy,” Bernards said of the lawsuits. “It’s just part of this business and something we have to handle.”
The Bernards brothers grew up in the Valley, the sons of a building contractor, and there are signs the tradition will be passed on to a third generation. Doug’s 24-year-old son, Ron, is currently working as an estimator for the firm.
Despite the wide variety of projects the firm has worked on, Doug Bernards still has one left on his wish list. “I’d like to do a substantial high-rise,” he said. “I’m sure it will be there someday.”