ASHLAND — Family-owned companies often disappear sometime around the third generation. That makes Matthew Bernard and Darex rarities in the business world.
The 31-year-old Bernard has taken over Darex, the industrial sharpening firm which gained notoriety for its Drill Doctor handyman tool, and has since expanded into knife sharpening.
He becomes the fourth generation of the Bernard Family to lead the firm and succeeds Hank O'Dougherty as president. "Our family is excited," said Bernard, 31, who has learned his trade from the ground up, and was mostly recently the firm's marketing director. "It's the right move at the right time."
According to Isabella McPeak of Seattle-based of Peak Business Coach, only about 30 percent of family businesses survive into the second generation. By the third generation, only 12 percent of American family businesses remain viable, and by the fourth generation a mere 3 percent of family businesses press on.
Darex was founded nearly 40 years ago in Chicago and produced industrial drill bit sharpeners. The company moved to Ashland in 1979 and nine years ago had a full-time staff of 100 and another 20 temporary workers during peak seasons. The company dropped to about 70 full-time employees at one point and now runs with a year-round staff of 80. Its ranks swell to more than 100 employees during peak fourth-quarter production, O'Dougherty said.
Bernard's tenure with the family business began, as often is the case, during his middle-school years, sweeping floors and taking out the trash. "I did that sort of thing through high school and went off to college," Bernard said.
That journey ended sooner than expected and he wound up back with the company, while working on business and political science degrees at Southern Oregon University.
During that period he worked in marketing, sales and product development, learning the business from the ground up. "The only department I haven't worked in is shipping," he said.
After making its mark producing industrial tool sharpeners, Darex developed the Drill Doctor, a bit sharpener for individual consumers.
Bernard steps into the role at a good time, said O'Dougherty, who ran the firm after Matthew's father, Dave — who remained chairman — stepped aside from day-to-day operations 15 years ago.
Following some less successful ventures, knife sharpeners for outdoorsmen became the next big thing for Darex. The sharpeners sell through Cabella's, Bass Pro, Northern Tool and Amazon. "There are a bunch of mom and pops and independent stores around the country we deal with, too," O'Dougherty said.
While the Drill Doctor was perhaps the best known of the Darex products, O'Dougherty said its existing lineup offers more long-term stability.
"We're healthier than we've ever been," O'Dougherty said. "We have more products, more customers, are more diverse and in more markets. We have more products in development that are game-changing than ever before."
Don't expect Darex to strike off in a new direction anytime soon. "We can't rest on our laurels, so we are going to find new things to sharpen," Matthew Bernard said. "But we're not going too far from what we're doing, so we don't have to take huge leaps or risks."
The goal, he said, is to maintain the business for yet another generation. "We're not looking to grow into multi-billion company," Bernard said. "I have a 21/2;-year-old son, and if Darex stays healthy and profitable, I want him to take over someday."