Whitman alum Al Berg establishes entrepreneurship chair
May 2, 2016
Al Berg spent dinnertime at his childhood home on Long Island discussing the family’s textile business, which his grandfather and father owned and operated. He credits those conversations as an early influence in his life’s work as an entrepreneur.
Berg graduated in 1973 from the Whitman School of Management and, while at SU, he received the Award of Distinction for helping to build the Student Government Association and Campus Conveniences. After Whitman, Berg went on to earn an MBA at Harvard.
“SU provided the building blocks that led me to Harvard,” says Berg. “That was the total package—SU plus Harvard—that guided me down my entrepreneurial path.”
With the Harvard MBA in hand, Berg returned home to join the family textile business but found it very unrewarding. After exploring several entrepreneurial ventures, the family business of a childhood friend became his next employer in 1981. When that company, Avant-Garde Optics, was sold in 1982, Berg, his friend, and his friend’s brother-in-law began conceiving plans to start their own business. On January 1, 1983, they opened Marchon Eyewear Inc.
With a commitment to “doing everything right,” the three entrepreneurs built the company into an industry leader. Marchon created great designs, brands, and products, such as their house brand Flexon, a patented memory metal, and worked with many licenses, like Calvin Klein, Nike, Ferragamo and Michael Kors, to name a few. Developing quality and innovative products was just one piece of the puzzle. The way the partners painstakingly approached every aspect of the company—from design to production to service—was the foundation for success.
Marchon achieved significant growth in the crowded industry through the early adoption of state-of-the-art technology systems for sales and service, the creation of an exceptional team environment, the addition of key divisions, including Office-mate (the largest industry practice management software company) and Eyedesigns (the largest builder of optical offices), and a nearly life-consuming work ethic.
“We had a solid, clean image throughout the industry,” says Berg, “which is especially fulfilling, because, as an entrepreneur, you can’t separate yourself from your business. You identify with it totally and you’re totally identified with it.”
Marchon was sold to Vision Service Plan (VSP) in mid 2008, and Berg continued on with the company in various roles, including president, vice chairman, and, until recently, as strategic advisor to the CEO. In 2014, he left VSP to focus on philanthropy, investing, mentoring, and lecturing. Today, he calls both Long Island and Miami Beach home and enjoys the extra time “retirement” has afforded him with his family—specifically his wife, Gayle, and their children, Jarret, Jennifer and Carly.
Berg recognizes the role Syracuse played in preparing him for the challenges and possibilities of business. He also sees the complexities of today’s global marketplace and the breakneck pace at which commerce changes.
“The pressures and fast pace of business is irresistible to a true entrepreneur,” offers Berg, “but it is a treadmill and, as successful as you might be, the speed of change keeps increasing providing challenges and opportunities.”
Berg has long supported the Whitman School and Syracuse University. Through previous giving and his most recent endowed gift to Whitman, he has enabled valuable programming and the creation of the Al Berg Chair in Entrepreneurship—the inaugural recipient of which is Professor Johan Wiklund (pictured below).
“I feel fortunate to have the strong business foundation Syracuse provided,” shares Berg. “Today, students need every opportunity for preparation before they step out on their own. It is my hope that my financial support helps provide programming, experiences, and instruction by accomplished faculty like Professor Wiklund, which I believe are keys to early and sustained business success.”
Wiklund is indeed an accomplished faculty member at Whitman. He is a favored professor, a dedicated mentor to Ph.D. students, and a renowned researcher. The impact of the Al Berg Chair gift will be significant to Wiklund’s work.
“This funding will allow me to conduct actual empirical research and to organize and participate in academic meetings,” says Wiklund. “I am currently exploring the topic of mental health and entrepreneurship, in particular how certain mental disorders, such as Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), may actually convey advantages in the entrepreneurship context.”
Wiklund’s career highlights include numerous publications, editorial positions, and international awards, such as the Academy of Management Entrepreneurship Mentor Award for his work with Ph.D. students and the prestigious Greif Research Impact Award for a paper he co-authored with Whitman entrepreneurship professor Tom Lumpkin. The Greif award recognizes the most influential and cited entrepreneurship papers in the world.
Beyond the financial support Berg gives to Whitman, he also shares his time and experienced perspective by lecturing and engaging with students as a visiting executive in the Entrepreneurship and Emerging Enterprises Department.
“I feel strongly about supporting faculty, but that is just part of the equation,” says Berg. “It’s also important to support resources, like the student business hatchery, and experiential learning programs. Sharing your knowledge and path to success with students is also valuable. These collective offerings beyond the classroom enhance communication, problem solving, and leadership—things that shape a person’s business ‘personality.’ College should be a transformative period with opportunities and experiences for students to develop their inner self and outward persona.”
Whitman is just one of many beneficiaries of Berg’s generosity. He gives both financially and of his time in service and leadership to several organizations for which he is passionate, such as UJA-Federation of NY, the Israel Air Force Center Fisher Institute, Mid Island Y JCC, Kaufman Campgrounds, Long Island’s UJA Federation Connections (which he cofounded), the NLC/ Summerfest programs, Shalva, Aipac and the Harvard Business School Alumni Association. He is also the executive producer of Above and Beyond, a documentary about the creation of the Israel Air Force from producer Nancy Spielberg.
Berg’s professional achievements have been recognized by the SUNY School of Optometry, and he has also received the Accessories Council’s Ace Visionary Award, the ORBIS International Blue Sky Award, and the PriceWaterhouse Regional Entrepreneur award.
Having spent decades working to build a business legacy, Berg is now deliberate in sharing the fruits of his labor in meaningful ways. “It is rewarding to write checks, but being present, giving advice and sharing my life’s lessons feels especially gratifying. I’m happy to be in a position to do both.”
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