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Son of canoe company's founder is back in the swim

For 33 year old Hans JT Berg, the past decade has been one of learning and growing up the hard way as a businessman.

First his father died; and then the family business, Great Canadian Canoe Co., was sold. While Berg continued to work for the company under the new owners, he also tried to distance himself emotionally.

Sometimes he did not agree with the executive decisions and found he had to draw back a little and bite his tongue.

With a young family to support, Berg said, his outlook also was, "Well, I'm getting a paycheck." But for Berg, who practically grew up in the family firm, it was not always easy.

His introduction to his father's Great Canadian Canoe Co. came when the company still was on Worcester's Water Street.

Berg was about 9 and often would be there Saturdays to sweep floors, stuff envelopes, or work in the yard where the canoes were stored.

Boyhood chums Ian W.H. MacRae, left, manager, and Hans JT Berg, president, in the Great Canadian Canoe Co. showroom.

His father, John G. Berg, founded the company in 1968. Another of Berg's Water Street companies was Elegant Entries. It made ornately carved doors in the four story, 100 year old brick factory that Berg had renovated and made home for his enterprises.

In 1985, Hans joined his father full time, working for both the door and canoe business. Also with the company was his boyhood friend, Ian W.H. MacRae. Both in their early 20's, they were involved in sales and marketing and use to go to trade shows together.

But all that changed in March 1986 when John Berg, a businessman known and liked for his outgoing, no-nonsense attitude, died at 54.

With Berg's wife, Margareta, never actively involved in the business and son Hans too young and lacking the necessary experience, the two companies continued for three years under a management team, then were sold in 1989.

Berg, who stayed on with MacRae under the new owners, entered a period he now describes as not always the easiest of times.

The recession seriously cut into canoe and door sales. MacRae was let go and he moved to Seattle to manage a kayak manufacturing and retail company.

Berg adjusted and stayed on.

 

SLOW COMEBACK
When the owners sold Great Canadian Canoe Co. in 1991, Berg again decided to stay on with yet another set of managers.

With the worst of the recession over, business that had dropped precipitously began to come back slowly.

"In 1987 and '88 we used to sell 2,400 to 2,800 canoes a year, but sales had dropped to under 1,000," said Berg. During the four years Harry and Eleanor Reinhold owned the company, sales grew 35 percent each year. The company, which had moved to Auburn, changed its address once again, moving to Route 146 in Sutton, across the road from Sutton Motors.

Known throughout the Northeast, Great Canadian Canoe Co. is the distributor of Canadian-made canoes and small boats for family paddling and fishing. The canoes are made of fiberglass, Kevlar, polyethylene, and the time-honored cedar wood. This spring one of the company's cedar canoes was shipped to Robert Plant, the former Led Zeppelin's lead singer, and President Clinton paddled in one of its Kevlar canoes two years ago while vacationing on Martha's Vineyard.

Great Canadian Canoe Co. imports about 2,000 canoes a year for sale at its Route 146 location and for U.S. distribution.

The company also markets accessories such as paddles, snowshoes and safety gear. When the company was for sale again last year, Berg said he did some soul-searching.

"Now is the time," he thought.

When he called his boyhood friend MacRae on the West Coast and asked him what the chances were he wanted to come back, MacRae answered, "Absolutely, definitely. I'll be there in a couple of weeks." MacRae rejoined Great Canadian Canoe as manager; Berg is president.

"We are really poised to take the company to the next level," Berg said last week. "Great Canadian, the next generation," he said. "It would not be a bad headline, would it?" he asked.

On March 6, when Berg bought the company his father founded, he said it finally began to sink in that the family firm would be back in the family fold. "Everything had come full circle and it feels right."

A few days after the papers passed, Berg and his family went to his mother's for dinner. They drank champagne for the occasion.

"My mother was very proud," said Berg. "And she cried."

 

Story by Peter P. Donker,
Worcester Telegram & Gazette Staff
May 21, 1996


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