Al Berg establishes chair in entrepreneurship

Whitman 100 graphic

Al Berg establishes chair in entrepreneurship

Al Berg and Johan Wiklund

The late Al Berg ’73 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 from the Martin J. Whitman School of Management and, while at Syracuse University, 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.

“Syracuse University provided the building blocks that led me to Harvard,” said Berg. “That was the total package—Syracuse University 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 Jan. 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 its 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 Officemate (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,” said 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, strategic advisor to the CEO. In 2014, he left VSP to focus on philanthropy, investing, mentoring and lecturing.

Berg had 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 new Al Berg Chair in Entrepreneurship—the inaugural recipient of which is Professor Johan Wiklund.

“I feel fortunate to have the strong business foundation Syracuse provided,” said 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 too early and sustained business success.”

Johan Wiklund is indeed an accomplished faculty member at Whitman. He is a favorite professor among students, 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,” said 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 gave to Whitman, he also shared 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,” said 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.”

Berg passed away in 2019.