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The Man In The Straw Hat Steps Down

In 2006, Howard gave advice for industry newcomers. Watch the video below.
READ MORE! Learn 5 Things You Didn’t Know About Howard Bernstein, including the origin of the famous straw hat.
Howard Bernstein
“Howard is a legend in material handling. Throughout his career, he has shown great passion for the industry as a whole and MHEDA specifically. We are honored to be able to work with Howard as he launches his scholarship program.”

— Liz Richards
MHEDA Executive Vice President

“Howard is cut from the same cloth as Tom Brokaw’s ‘Greatest Generation.’ He knows the business, but the real key is that Howard genuinely knows and cares about people.”

 — David Griffith, Modern Group Ltd.,
2005 MHEDA President

“Howard is very passionate about the industry and MHEDA. People like Howard are why MHEDA continues to provide the value proposition to its members and has sustainable growth. His commitment to helping peer companies has made all of us better.”

— Chuck Frank, AHS Inc.,
2011 MHEDA President

“Howard is the icon for the importance of independent dealerships. He has been instrumental in building the foundation from which we have all benefited. I have never been with Howard when I have not learned more about our industry.”

— Tim Hilton, Carolina Handling
2000 MHEDA President

“Howard Bernstein knows more about the material handling industry than most and has never been afraid to share that knowledge with others. He is a great guy and a true American success story.”

— John Cosgrove,
Atlantic Handling Systems
2007 MHEDA President

Leave your own tribute here.

Hats Off To Howard Bernstein

On February 11, 2011, MHEDA’s iron man, Howard Bernstein, stepped down from The Atlas Companies (Schiller Park, IL) and transferred ownership of the company to Allen Rawson. Even at 88 years old, Bernstein is adamant that this move should not be confused with retirement. He will stay involved with MHEDA and the material handling industry. Bernstein could never leave the industry behind. It’s in his blood. It’s who he is. “I considered retirement when I turned 65, but I just wasn’t interested in playing golf and bridge,” Bernstein says. “Interacting with customers, suppliers, MHEDA members—all of those things were just more interesting to me than being retired.

A Journey Begins
Bernstein’s long tenure in material handling began more than 60 years ago. After serving as a Navy pilot during World War II, Bernstein began work in 1946 at Sterling Lumber Company in Chicago, selling industrial lumber and wood pallets. During his five years at Sterling, Bernstein sold and taught customers about proper size and design of pallets, which were relatively new in use. Prior to the war there was very little unitization of loads, but as people began to see how unitization saved time, space and money, forklifts began to boom in popularity. While he was at Sterling, the company employed lift truck salespeople who were trying to guide warehouses to use the new technology. “We talked and exchanged leads, and that’s how I first learned about forklifts,” says Bernstein, who was immediately hooked.

Those leads spurred Bernstein to start his own business in 1951. One of the salespeople at Sterling had gotten a call inquiring about a lift truck rental, at a time when no Chicago dealers were renting trucks. Bernstein started to buy trade-in forklifts from dealers and then rent them to customers who weren’t interested in buying new. Atlas Lift Truck Rentals was born. It didn’t take long for Atlas to move beyond strictly rentals. “The lift truck companies were also not leasing trucks,” says Bernstein. “When customers asked for leasing, the dealers came to me to solve the problem. I was able to obtain financing and develop a leasing program. At the time I was also selling used equipment.”

Bernstein continued to cultivate relationships with dealers in the Chicago area. In 1954, several of those dealers convened in Chicago to establish the Material Handling Equipment Distributors Association. Bernstein, who was doing business with many of the organizers, was invited to attend the first-ever MHEDA Convention.

Howard’s Tenure in MHEDA
Bernstein accepted the invitation, but it was very nearly his last Convention. One of the first proposed by-laws would have excluded membership for any dealers that didn’t represent a major line of new forklifts. “I stood up and told them that they were inviting problems,” says Bernstein. “I said that we should get used equipment dealers to properly represent the product and become as reliable and dependable as new equipment dealers.” The Board took his advice and within a couple of years asked him to join the Board, kicking off an unrivaled 18-year stint on the Board, including presidency in 1965. From the first MHEDA Convention, Bernstein became a tireless advocate for the industry and the association. He has attended more Conventions than any other person—54 and counting—and has cultivated countless relationships in more than 34 countries around the globe.

During his presidency, Bernstein undertook several initiatives to expand awareness of MHEDA. He was instrumental in the creation of the first newsletter, MHEDA Magazine, an eight-page publication designed to attract new members to the association. He was also the first president to sit down and encourage a manufacturer to do business with MHEDA dealers. His biggest focus, however, was education. He contributed to an industrial distribution scholarship fund at Bradley University in Peoria, Illinois, and visited Texas A&M University to draw attention to material handling.

Betting His Legacy On Youth
Bernstein is still passionate about education. Now that he has stepped down from Atlas, Bernstein is spearheading an initiative to institute a scholarship for colleges that have an Industrial Distribution curriculum. “We have to attract these young, bright minds into the industry that has been so great to me,” he says. The goal of the project is to draw not only the scholarship recipients, but all industrial distribution students, into material handling. “We need to get young people involved with material handling because it’s such an important industry,” says Bernstein. “We’re not selling hula hoops here. These are labor-saving devices. It’s equipment that people need.”

 His message for young people is that material handling is a great industry because it’s not confined to nuts and bolts. “It’s exciting,” he says. “You learn to communicate with people at all levels, not just the executive. You really learn what makes the world go round and become an expert in all industries. In doing so, you broaden your scope of understanding and really make yourself a better, more well-rounded person.”

Anyone who has ever spent any time with him can feel the passion and enthusiasm that he has for material handling. “I’ve been blessed and I truly feel like I’m the luckiest man in the world,” he says. “Hopefully, I can influence some young people to progress in their own lives as I did in forklifts.”

Bernstein will continue to expound on that legacy with his new scholarship program, in hopes that one of the recipients might become the next Howard Bernstein. We should be so lucky.

Material Handling Equipment Distributors Association



  1. Aside from being a great businessman, Howard was a great example in his positive and respectful treatment of everyone he came across and in contact with.

  2. Two years at the MHEDA conference I got the opportunity to walk around with Howard in the Hanger. He was so proud to be able to share stories about those planes. At a round table session I had the opportunity to sit with him, two very large dealer principles, one up and coming dealer, a VP from Enersys and one of the students from Tennessee. I remember Howard jumping right in the middle of the debate with some astute opinions on the industry. For being 86-87 he had no problem what so ever stating his opinion strongly. At the end of the round table session the student leaned over and said “Who was that guy” I answered simply “Someone that we all can learn a lot from. Period.”

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