“A Better Idea”
One day in 1971 Phil Peterson was talking with acquaintance Peter Berntsen of Berntsen Brass and Aluminum Foundry about an idea. Peter relayed to Phil a conversation he had with his friend who worked for Wisconsin Department of Transportation. The DOT had been setting concrete survey monuments and was looking for something easier, lighter in weight and more economical. Peter and Phil were pretty sure there was an opportunity here. Being a foundry man, Peter needed a partner to help bring a product like this to market. And, this is exactly what Phil had been doing for years. In 1972 these two entrepreneurs created Berntsen Cast Products, Inc. (now Berntsen International, Inc.) to take on this new challenge. With Peter’s manufacturing background and Phil’s sales management experience, this team began prototyping a new product design and testing out the market. As Phil tells the story… “Peter sketched out his plan for the W-1 monument on a restaurant napkin. He asked me if I would be interested in forming a company around the concept.” Without hesitation, Phil “bought in” to the idea!
The first prototype monument, called the W-1, was a 30” cast aluminum monument with an iron rod going down the center for magnetic detection. It was bulky and heavy. And it had another problem ─ the combination was a setup for metal corrosion. Phil had consulted with University of Wisconsin Professor of Metallurgy, Dr. H. Arthur Dodd, to learn more about making the monument as corrosion resistant as possible. With new knowledge about metal alloys and combining metals, Phil began looking for an alternate way to make a more corrosion-resistant monument. That’s when the idea of using high-strength magnets in the monument was developed.
So the second prototype was cast aluminum with three magnets for detection (two in the base and one in the cap). The iron rod was eliminated and a break-off feature was added so that magnetic remnants of the monument would still be intact and detectible if the monument was hit by heavy equipment such as a snow plow (a common occurrence in Wisconsin.) The monument weighed in at a reasonable ten pounds.
The third (and current) version was soon developed and weighed in at a slim 8 ½ pounds. The magnet composition was improved to be ceramic and the metal alloy was further refined. Now it was time to “get this show on the road.” And Phil and Peter did just that! Throwing the monument in the trunk of Phil’s car, they attended their first Wisconsin Society of Land Surveyors Annual Institute. Feedback ranged from “there’s a market for this - sales will be difficult but not impossible” to “What are you going to do with THAT?!?” Phil’s entrepreneurial spirit kicked in when he replied, “I’m going to market it!”
Undaunted, Berntsen Cast Products, Inc. rented a booth at the 1973 ACSM Convention at the Washington Hilton. Here Phil and Peter received invaluable feedback and gained confidence that their vision to provide a better, lightweight monument would fill a need and be the basis for a new business. Indeed, that was just the start of a company that would grow to provide hundreds of products for land surveys and infrastructure projects around the world.
The “die was cast” (so to speak) for a corporate culture of innovation and products of high quality that answer the needs of customers. As Phil often says, “Everybody was looking for a better idea.” We’re all grateful here at Berntsen that Phil, now Berntsen Chairman of the Board, had the vision and skills to make that better idea a reality!
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