Jodi Berg tells the story of a family reunion staged in the log building that once served as Vitamix’s Olmsted Falls headquarters. It was on a Saturday afternoon in the 1970s, a few years before her mechanical-engineer father John Barnard moved his wife and five children from Erie, Pennsylvania, so he could join the family business, that manufacturer of the powerful, versatile “blending solution” loved by professional chefs and home cooks alike.
Berg had followed her grandfather, Bill Barnard, then the company’s president and chief executive officer, into his office to answer a customer-service line and watched as he spent the next 20-plus minutes calmly issuing instructions for making bread dough in a Vitamix to the caller. When he hung up, Berg voiced her displeasure at the interruption.
“He looked me, very serious, in the eyes, and he said, ‘Someday you’ll understand, Jodi. We’re not here to sell machines. We’re here to change people’s lives. And lives won’t be changed unless they successfully know how to use their Vitamix,’” recalls the Barnard family’s fourth-generation president and CEO of Vitamix, now 52.
Berg has continued to champion that goal of changing people’s lives by introducing the Vitamix to consumer and commercial markets in more than 140 countries. International sales have increased more than 150 percent since 1997 when they were under $1 million, while the workforce has swelled from less than 200 to over 1,000. In the United States, sales have tripled under Berg’s leadership. According to board member Nancy Heinen, Berg has fostered a culture devoted to fulfilling Vitamix’s mission: “Create relationships for life by designing, developing and producing the world’s best-performing and most reliable blending solution.” She even devoted her doctoral thesis to exploring not only how working for a company with a higher purpose, but determining and living with a personal calling, affects on-the-job engagement.
“She develops these relationships that encourage people to…develop themselves with challenges, backup, training and support,” says the retired BP executive. She’s constantly encouraging people to spread their wings.
Perhaps the greatest irony of Jodi Berg’s life is that she never intended to work for Vitamix after high school. She wanted a career in hospitality management. She spent the first two years after graduating from Bowling Green State University in sales at Residence Inns in Ohio, Michigan and Kentucky.
“I loved the look on people’s faces when they were delighted.…That sense of creating a ‘wow’ for people, that’s amazing,” she says.
But Berg would return to Vitamix again and again. The first time was after she’d left Residence Inns and earned a master’s degree in hospitality management at Washington State University. She’d developed an equal passion for quality while taking a class on the concept and feared that no one would give her a job in quality improvement and maintenance without some experience — no one, that is, except an uncle running Vitamix who had just started a quality division. A year later Berg attended a presentation by Ritz-Carlton, Cleveland, director of quality Emily Yen. An awkward introduction — Berg was so inspired by Yen’s words that when she got to the front of the reception line, she blurted out, “Hi, I want your job!” — actually prompted Yen to offer to serve as her mentor. When Yen was promoted to director of human resources a year later, in 1994, the luxury property hired Berg to assume her position.
By mid-1996, Berg was informing the hotel’s general manager she was working herself out of her dream job.
“When you’re the director of quality, your goal is to create continuous improvement,” she explains. “I created all the improvements, and I systematized as much as I possibly could.”
Berg had two options: Take on a second hotel and commute between Cleveland and the out-of-town property, or open new locations in Asia. She turned down both. She’d just met local entrepreneur Frank Berg, her future husband and father of her two daughters. And Vitamix was looking for someone to establish an international division charged with selling its line of 220-volt products, a job that satisfied an interest in international business she had developed.
“Because I was setting it up, I got to set the whole culture, the tone,” she adds. “I chose to bring the elements about hospitality management that I loved — serving customers and thinking of people as customers and guests.”
Berg began her new position in 1997 by researching commercial and consumer food-prep needs around the world and ordering markets to enter based on those findings. By late 2006 she was overseeing consumer and commercial sales and marketing both in the United States and around the globe. She’d begun putting the direct-marketing company’s products in mainstream retail chains such as Crate & Barrel and Williams-Sonoma, a major undertaking that required changes in everything from sourcing, manufacturing and shipping to marketing and billing.
“When you’re in a world where people don’t have any idea what your product is or why they would need it, you have to reach out to them direct,” she explains. “But once consumers were [asking], ‘How do I eat healthy? What tools and equipment are out there?’, we had to be where everyone was looking.”
John Barnard, who had succeeded his brother as president and CEO, was contemplating retirement and thought his daughter was the ideal person to succeed him. He had been impressed by her ability to ferret out distributors whose commitment to customer service matched the company’s own, thoroughly train them at regional programs — basically, succeed at everything she did. Berg, however, disagreed with his assessment. “I said, ‘I don’t know how to be a CEO. I don’t know how to be a president.’” It took meetings with the board and family-business consultants to change her mind. She asked her father to stay on for two more years while she learned the intricacies of his job, assuming the presidency in 2009 and adding CEO to the title in 2011.
“Even after the two years, I was saying, ‘Let me figure it out first, and then I can step into that role,’” she says. “Oftentimes, as women, we’re our own worst enemies, and we hold ourselves back. I’ve been trying to encourage women ever since to not respond too quickly that [they’re] not ready.”
She delivers such advice at speaking engagements around the globe. Dr Rachel Talton, founder of Synergy Marketing Strategy & Research in Cleveland, says her friend was instrumental in helping her launch her four-year-old second business, Flourish Leadership conferences for women. Her support has gone beyond providing corporate sponsorships and speaking at select conferences to developing programming, “literally sitting at a luncheon table with papers spread out, saying, ‘How do we ensure that we are touching and transforming these women’s lives?’” Talton says. Retired Sherwin-Williams executive chairman Chris Connor witnessed a similar dedication to integrity when she joined the board of private-sector economic-development organization the Greater Cleveland Partnership in 2012, during his tenure as chairman.
“We’re discussing. ‘Well, should we do this? Should we do that?’” he recalls. “Typically, Jodi was the one that was saying, ‘This is the right thing to do.…Let’s find a way to make that an effective, productive, cost-efficient and doable model.’”
Heinen cites managing Vitamix’s exponential growth as Berg’s greatest professional feat. “Resourcing, production, planning, marketing, everything was escalated because of the growth,” Heinen says. “She did a very, very exceptional job of moving the organization to a higher level of sales, moving all of the departments and the other leaders through communication, through the company culture, to this next level.” But Berg rates her performance in numbers of happy customers and satisfied employees.
“When an employee will just express that they feel like they can be who they want to be, they feel like they can live their purpose — and hear it while we’re trying to live ours as an organization — I feel that that’s my greatest success,” she says.
Phone numbers for fact-checking: Jodi Berg, (440) 782-2358 (for assistant Ginny Aller); Nancy Heinen, (216) 402-0632 (cell); and John Barnard, (440) 782-2355 (office).