Distributor Family Business of the Year - Bergman Incentives

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Bergman IncentivesThe looming presence of a parent is a familiar strain with most family businesses. Whether it's called meddling or fixing is often determined by generational perspective. But for David Gilinsky and his father Larry at Bergman Incentives (asi/137955), it was quite the opposite. "He was great," David says about his father. "He said, 'Go to it, do whatever you want to do.' I'm in the other camp where I wish he was there providing even more guidance than he did, which you'll probably never hear any other family business son or daughter say."

There's a reason for the hands-off approach. A watchman and jeweler by trade, Larry Gilinsky is the owner and president of Bergman Jewelers, a fifth-generation family business based in Omaha. Sol Bergman started that company 125 years ago selling watch parts to the Union Pacific Railroad. (It remains a Bergman Incentives client today.) As Bergman Jewelers evolved over the decades, Gilinsky, 71, launched the incentives arm in the early 1970s to capture more business from its clients. "We were just a small business trying to take advantage of opportunity," says David, president of Bergman Incentives, "and changing in order not only to survive, but to thrive."

That was the opportunity David, 49, saw in 1990 when he left a career in finance and returned home to Omaha to head up the ad specialty side of the business. Bergman Incentives already had a few built-in advantages. The company had people and square footage for warehousing, thanks to the jewelry side, and could reallocate both as the promotional side grew. Plus, David and wife Katherine Finnegan had instant credibility with some of the biggest clients in the Omaha region because of Bergman's deep connection to the community.

"People were willing to work with us because we had an established name," Gilinsky says. "Maybe not as Bergman Incentives. But everyone knows Bergman Jewelers."

And now, the roles have reversed. Bergman Jewelers remodeled itself after some lean years in wholesale and found its niche as a retailer – a conversion spearheaded by Kevin Gilinsky before he transitioned over to the ad specialty business as an account executive and co-owner. Meanwhile, Bergman Incentives has grown into a nearly $10 million distributor that generates the majority of revenue for the family's companies. David cites continued business development as the company's biggest challenge, and is eager to craft a better administrative management system that will allow account executives to pursue sales and help David focus on managing.

As for the next generation of the business, there will be no shortage of options: David and Katherine have three kids, and Kevin, 43, has triplets. The family isn't overly concerned, though, about placing expectations of working in the business.

"If they want to come into this business, I would welcome them into it," David says. "I would certainly require that they work outside of this business for at least two years before they come back. I think that served me tremendously well." – CJM