BERNINA of America

BERNINA, a premium manufacturer of sewing machines, got its start 127 years ago in Switzerland. Today the business remains a family-owned company in its fourth generation, operating in the United States for nearly 50 years. Based in Chicago, BERNINA and its sister companies continue to make decisions that are in the best long-term interest of the firm, its employees, and its network of independent dealers, many of whom are family owned as well, so that the legacy can continue well into the next 100 years.  

In addition to its machines for sewing, quilting, embroidery, and overlockers, BERNINA offers customers sewing accessories including presser feet, needle sets, embroidery accessories, overlocker accessories, and even cabinets and chairs for the best experience. While maintaining close ties with its dealers, BERNINA is also able to work directly with customers to inspire their creations with project ideas, classes, BERNINA Academy events, and mastery workbooks. 

The Sewing Industry Booms in Pandemic 
While the story of the middle market in 2020 was one of decline, industries like sewing saw an unexpected skyrocketing of demand as more people stayed home and picked up or rediscovered at-home passions. “Initially, mask construction was a big driver. By the first week of April sales were exploding for machines at our lower price points, but by May and June as manufacturers struggled to keep pace with the demand and people realized how much they loved this hobby, our premium machines were flying off the shelves too,” said Paul Ashworth, CEO and President of BERNINA of America.

BERNINA had to make swift changes at its factories to maintain safety and social distancing while capitalizing on the surge of interest in the market, and its dealers started selling machines curbside. The biggest challenge has been the bottleneck in machine parts coming from many different countries as the world’s supply chains continue to suffer amid shutdowns and shortages. 

BERNINA views its family orientation as a key differentiator for both its culture and its ability to forge powerful dealer relationships. Retention levels are incredibly high, with many employees spending 20 or 30-year careers with the firm. BERNINA encourages this with its compensation policies and additional pay for milestone anniversaries such as five or 10 years. 

Employees have a sense of freedom as BERNINA operates within a flat structure that trusts people to take a hands-on approach and explore their sense of entrepreneurship. Many employees are sewers themselves who have a passion for the product, and with the growth they’ve experienced this year BERNINA continues to bring in new people who they hope will bring fresh ideas and perspective to the organization. 

Preparing for What’s Next
At the beginning of 2020 Ashworth’s focus was on cultivating the next generation of sewers. With the average age of sewers around 65 in the United States and less exposure among younger audiences due to the removal of sewing from most formal curriculums, the problems were clear. Now, the focus is on making the most out of the renewed interest in the category. BERNINA has invested in online platforms like its classes and demonstrations to continue to keep new consumers involved, showing them how that can grow within BERNINA’s product line as their skills evolve. 

Ashworth notes the importance of relationships, and advises other middle market executives to nurture and protect them. “People and relationships, especially with customers, are even more important in the middle market. Even a mature business like ours must continue to find ways to reinvent itself and grow with the customer.”