Curiosity ignited something within Bernie Fernandez, Executive Director and Founder of Agero Group, to start a business. That curiosity has constantly made him yearn for more. There are pros and cons to it, he fathoms. The thirst for knowledge can often be insatiable. Nevertheless, it is this same curiosity that has led Bernie to a perpetual quest for learning.
In the beginning, Bernie didn’t regard himself as curious. The discovery was quite peculiar. It was on his wedding day when it was his best man’s turn to give a speech. The fellow started highlighting his various characteristics. “I never met a more curious person in my life than Bernie,” the best man said about the groom. Bernie never realised he was a curious person before that. Those words just hit him in the face.
Another incident that reinforced that description of Bernie was when someone came up to him and asked if he had taken an online character test, the VIA strengths, where he would find out his top 24 strongest characteristics. So, he did. Remarkably, Bernie’s results generated curiosity as his number one character strength. This curiosity was a significant key to his entrepreneurial journey.
Bernie didn’t have any entrepreneurial background in his family to lay claim to, as they were the working-class type. His father was an orphan who left his life in Spain to come over to Australia when he was a young man. His mother’s family, which was very conservative and risk-adverse, was from Chile. Growing up in an immigrant household that included his maternal grandmother and uncle, Bernie developed a diversity in his character. He found in himself aspects of both his dad and his uncle, who were very different people.
“I feel like double. I feel like I’m the benefit of being twice as diverse. Dad was an immigrant orphan. He was hardworking and head down. As an orphan, he struggled with his emotions. He was very loyal. A very nice guy. He was such a hard worker, which was a bad thing if you think about it, as he passed away because he worked so much. On the other hand, my uncle from the Chilean side was politically privileged in the Chilean society. He got amazing awareness of culture, food, dress sense and habits. For example, he would take me to the ballet and the orchestra. Through my uncle, I know how to do a tie and how to wear a suit. And that's the salesperson in me,” Bernie explained.
As a youth, he recalls being frustrated and rebellious. “I didn't do well in high school. I left my university degree before I finished it because I knew I was going to hate it.” But the frustration also drove him to constantly strive for something new as he started entering the workforce. At 15, his first job was at Coles as a cash register. But he got frustrated that it made him want to do different things to be better. From there, he moved on to find his place in the food and hospitality industry.
“I started in a café, and I loved it. Then, I ended up working at fine dining restaurants and being a manager and enjoying it,” he recalled. Since he started settling down to work, he always wanted to work in the architectural industry. Bernie worked his way from the bottom and quickly rose through the ranks in different roles and responsibilities. From being an architect, he graduated to become a designer and then later a project manager. He then found himself making sales, which he thoroughly enjoyed more than anything, as he worked for only four hours a day and did quite well. This point in his career was what he described as “a truly balanced, fantastic life as a salesperson”.
“And then, this frustration inside me came about again that I wanted to feel my worth, my value at work,” Bernie expressed. He aspired to be a partner in the company where he was working. From the first day of his job, he told his employer that he would dedicate himself to the business because he wanted to be a shareholder. That never happened. With the desire to satisfy his need and knowing he wouldn’t find a better employer, Bernie decided to go on his own and start for himself.
“When you get to the top, you realise there’s nowhere else to go. But I have to get to the next. With work and business, when I have covered the technical skills and the management and sales side, the natural next step for my curiosity is to start a business.” Since he has built his career in this area of expertise, he founded a business focusing on interiors construction.
Bernie didn’t experience a lot of difficulties starting a business because of the business acumen he honed over the years of his employment and the low barriers to entry. “It's relatively easy to generate good cash if I have a sales pipeline. I know mine is going to come in through the door. I’ll have a low cost (of expenditures), and I’ll be good. The only thing that can truly scare you is failing. And you can't fail if you keep having jobs. The real challenge is starting now for me. The more I have to manage a business, the less I sell, the business starts to hurt. To be honest, I’m now in the midst of my first very big challenge, I think,” he surmised.
Still, difficulties were never absent in life, especially to business owners like Bernie. Having invested everything he had in the business, including his time, there were aspects of life that were bound to hurt. “The hardships were that my relationships have suffered. My body is what has suffered the most because I’m not as active as I used to be. The best version of me in business was when I worked four hours a day. That’s when I sold the most and performed the best. I didn't have to worry about anything, other than selling, finding opportunities, and having fun with clients. I’m working through hardships now. There are people hardships, such as hardships of trying to keep staff. I’m not a very good manager of staff. So, the real hardship is that I’ve lost staff because they come and go. And I get bigger projects.” As if these were not enough, Bernie underscored the major hurdle in his path. “The biggest hardship is meeting my own expectation. I get frustrated when I’m not growing,” he disclosed.
Moreso, the construction industry is quite volatile. Bernie pointed out the labour market as a difficult factor. “I have to compete with bigger construction businesses that continually increase wages because they have to get people. There is a big labour shortage in construction,” he declared. He has come to terms that he is not going to win in the labour game. To counter that, he keeps his staff to a minimum, with only three people under his wings.
Because he has a few people on his team, Bernie has devised a way to guarantee effective delivery of their services to clients. “The best practice I’ve ever done was, with the three of them, have a strategy. We execute a rhythm of meetings where we would focus on accomplishing certain things that are outside of our day-to-day technical life.” He has also kept strong relations with his clients, and they have remained loyal to him.
In retrospect, there are things that he would like to change if given a chance to do things differently. “I probably wouldn't do my business as it is in its current format because it's a project-based business. I don't like the fickleness of it. There's no value to my business. There's no recurring income. There is no sticky client. But, now, with this business as it is, what I would do differently is that I probably would have taken a bigger risk and pay for better staff for better performance,” Bernie contemplated.
Having experienced being employed and running a business, he can now measure up the challenges and rewards both have given him. “Well, working as an employee certainly gives you a certain level of bliss because all you have to worry about is what you have to do and that's it. I got so good as an employee. But that frustration crept in. That curiosity crept in.”
“The benefit of having my business is that, aside from growing my business, I, myself, as a person, have grown exponentially. I almost argue that my growth for the last five or six years has been bigger than I could ever remember. I have a thirst for knowledge that I never had at school. I never had school. I want to improve myself and my level of awareness. Spirituality is back into my life. My communication skills alone have been worthwhile. I was a shy kind of guy. I never understood girls or how to communicate with them. Now, my wife and I, even though we had tough times, I think we can communicate better than ever. I’m forever improving. I’m the best version of who I am because of having a business and because of having that curiosity, so much in so many other ways. The bad side is like I’ve said, it’s very consuming. The biggest spiritual challenge right now is how to bring balance back into our lives so I can have my family, so my body doesn't turn shoddy because I sit down so much all day. That's my challenge.”
Outside of work, Bernie focuses on self-improvement and family. Although he yearns for golf and he knows he needs exercise, he doesn’t have the luxury of time anymore. He’s trying to work on some bad habits, such as watching television and not guarding the food he eats. He was unmindful of their effects on his body until the books he reads and the talks he attended in EO Melbourne opened his eyes to these things.
With more than two years as part of EO Melbourne, he has learned a lot of insights that he can infuse into his business and personal life. He may not regard himself as an entrepreneur yet, but as a business owner, he admits that EO has taught him a lot. “I think one of the biggest values for me as a young business person (I avoid using the word ‘entrepreneur’) is the content. The educational content is superb. And as I mature and have more and more psychological problems with running a business, the support network is going to be great. I can see it. Over the first one or two years, I never had much to contribute or even take from the support it gives, but I’m getting there.”
It was in EO Melbourne where he learned to accept the scenario that he’s in. “I guess I’ve recently reached a level of understanding, which has given me a lot of comforts that I’ve come to accept, that my business is a cash flow business. That will never have value. But what cash flow businesses can do is potentially open up opportunities to look at other businesses. So, in other words, I’ll take the cash from here and look at a recurring-income business, then I have two businesses,” Bernie quipped.
Another significant lesson he picked from EO is to be grateful for things every day. And the one thing he is most grateful for is the best treasure he now possesses – his son. “In my life, the happiest I am is because of my son, my little boy. When I am with him, it's absolute bliss. I don't think about work. What work buys and the money I make has no impact on my happiness with my son,” Bernie articulated.
There is no doubt that his son is his ultimate joy. But when he looks at the business side of his life, he feels he doesn’t have wins yet.“I look around. I have a great office and relatively good life,” he admits. While there are things he still wants to do, there is also a part of him that doesn’t want to work. “I'm Spanish, right? I don't want to work. I’d rather play golf and spend time in some amazing beach. But you know what, life is going to happen. Let's say I achieve that goal. I don't work, and I play golf for a year. I'll get another stimulus or some other idea that will make me follow that. It's a bit on the spiritual side. I don't want to be driven by the next thing.”
The future may seem far ahead, but he looks at selling his business and expanding to other ventures. “Selling my business is very important for me because it is the point in time that I know that I've succeeded,” he conveyed. Since he didn’t finish his degree, this is the one thing that can give him that approbation he warrants. “I didn't have a point in time where they say, ‘You know what, you got your degree, you got there, and all your hard work paid off.’ For me, selling my business is that point in time when it happens,” Bernie revealed.
After that, he would probably start a new business again. In fact, he’s working on another one right now. When that takes off, Bernie thinks he can officially call himself an entrepreneur. He believes he is more attracted to startups, founding them, growing them and selling them. But he does not also discount the idea of going back to employment and taking on a leadership or directorship role. Wherever his journey leads him, he is curious to find out what else is in store for him.
When asked if his curiosity on starting a business has led him to some answers, he has this to share. “I found the state that I was looking. It’s the state of perpetual improvement. There were no answers after a state of being. This curiosity thing, it’s perpetual learning. I still want to be somewhere where I can continually improve myself.”