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From the State Capitol to Mount McKinley, Madison’s Berntsen Intl. leaves its mark

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The following is the second in a series of stories on the 2014 Dane County Small Business Award winners. To read our feature on Tweedee Productions, click here.

Rhonda Rushing isn’t a rock star, and she doesn’t spend her workdays dreaming up ways to become famous, but she and the business she’s headed since 1990 have acquired a measure of fame nonetheless.

You may not have heard of Madison’s Berntsen International, but if you’ve been to some of the world’s most celebrated landmarks, the company’s handiwork has been right under your nose.

“It’s an aspect of our work that’s really enjoyable. When we get these orders or inquiries from places all around the world, it’s interesting and very satisfying.” — Rhonda Rushing, president, Berntsen International

A manufacturer and supplier of survey markers, survey monuments, and utility markers, the 42-year-old company has created markers for the Four Corners (where Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, and Utah meet in a neat crosshair pattern), the summit of Mount McKinley, the London Underground, the Red Sea area, and the Wisconsin State Capitol.

Making markers for high-profile locales is one of the perks for Berntsen’s 22 employees, who get to contribute now and then to a little piece of Americana. And this helps Berntsen, which recently won a 2014 Dane County Small Business Award (partly in recognition of the company’s positive workplace environment) stand out among other local manufacturers.

In fact, every 10 years the company creates a marker for the U.S. Census Bureau to help designate the country’s “center of population” — or where a flat map of the U.S. would balance if everyone in the country were standing on it (and weighed the same, of course).

In 2011, the center of population was in Plato, Mo., and a delegation from Berntsen showed up for the festivities.

To Rushing, those are the kinds of things that can enliven the spirits of Berntsen’s employees.

“It’s fabulous, it’s fun,” said Rushing. “It’s an aspect of our work that’s really enjoyable. When we get these orders or inquiries from places all around the world, it’s interesting and very satisfying.”

Growing together

Berntsen International started in a garage in 1972, the brainchild of Peter Berntsen and Phillip Peterson, Rushing’s father. Rushing joined the company in 1979, when it had only four or five workers. It’s a humble origin story shared by numerous companies — including Apple, Inc., which famously began in a Palo Alto, Calif., garage — but Berntsen has managed to expand tremendously without losing its sense of cohesiveness.

The company has around 4,000 customers worldwide, but each workday still begins with a short company-wide meeting at the firm’s Monument Lane offices that covers information pertaining to overall company operations for both the plant and office. Meanwhile, employees are given customer feedback, information on social activities within the company, health tips, and a fun “word of the day.”

“We started doing that probably 15 years ago,” said Rushing. “I think the biggest thing was to improve communication between the plant, the production of the plant, and the people in the office, administration, and sales. So everybody heard the same relevant information every day.”

Meanwhile, hearing customer feedback on a daily basis can provide a welcome boost to morale. The company often needs to fill rush orders, and customers frequently convey their appreciation through the company’s feedback forms, which are included in every box.

“When we get those back and it says something like, ‘Thank you to your company, you did a great job getting this order to me in time,’ or ‘Thanks for putting a rush on that order,’ that means a lot to everybody who worked hard to make that happen,” said Rushing.

Community contributions — another key criterion for the Dane County Small Business Awards — have been a major focus of Berntsen’s for the past 35 years as well.

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