When Julie Berndt was hired by Johnson Electric Coil in 1991, she brought a strong work ethic and desire to learn that have been evident throughout her career,
Now, three decades later, Berndt has been promoted to president, marking the first time in the company’s 87-year history that it has not been led by a member of the Johnson family,
“This is more than just a job to me,” Berndt said. “Everyone has a purpose here. We are making a difference for the customers that we serve, the people we employ and the community we are a part of. This is the right time and I am comfortable with the position.”
“We’re extremely fortunate to have someone with Julie’s skills,” Bill Bockes, who is turning over the reins of president, said. “She is totally invested in what we do. She has a unique ability to understand people and the skills to lead them.”
Johnson Electric Coil designs and builds transformers for industrial manufacturers and the machine tool industry. It was founded by Lawrence Johnson in Illinois in 1934 and continued by his son, William, who moved the company north to Antigo in the 1970s.
Bill Bockes became president in 1986 and in 2004 he and his wife, Beth, who is William’s daughter, took over ownership, which they maintain today.
“Julie and I have been working together for 30 years and it became the right time to do this,” Bockes says. “She has really been doing everything the last couple years and it was very important to Beth and me that we keep the company going and the jobs here in Antigo.”
Berndt was hired just years out of high school by Pete Rayner, now retired from the board of directors. She was placed in the accounting office, which she admits “wasn’t my strong suit.”
It quickly became apparent she had a natural rapport with customers and fellow employees.
I discovered I have a passion for the world of manufacturing. My objective is to improve the overall image of manufacturing in the U.S. and interest others in it as a career. —Julie Berndt, president,
Johnson Electric Coil,
Customers have always been a priority and Julie’s communication with them built lasting relationships that continue today,” Bockes said. “Working with customers gave her a comprehensive understanding of what they are looking for. As she began to show strong leadership in this area, it became an easy transition into managing the workforce and all aspects of the business.”
It was a natural fit, bringing a mix of opportunities and concerns. As she continued with the company, Berndt was also growing her own family, and she lacked the formal education that was becoming increasingly common in industry.
Staying true to its mission of caring for employees as family, Johnson Electric Coil financed her continuing education, first a twoyear associate degree at Northcentral Technical College and then bachelor’s and master’s degrees in industrial management from the University of Wisconsin-Stout. It was, Bockes says, a joint commitment to the future of the company.
At times, splitting time between school, work, and family — in an era before in-home Internet and online programs — was a challenge, but Berndt balanced all three successfully, crediting the company, her family and the employees in accomplishing her educational goals.
“I discovered I have a passion for the world of manufacturing,” she said. “My objective is to improve the overall image of manufacturing in the U.S. and interest others in it as a career.”
Bockes began grooming Berndt for larger roles, promoting her to general manager in 2008, vice-president of operations in 2017 and adding her to the board of directors that same year.
She helped shepherd the company through the economic downfall of the 2008 recession and the challenges of the 2020 pandemic. The 2000s also saw the implementation of lean manufacturing, a production method aimed primarily at eliminating waste, optimizing processes, cutting costs, and boosting innovation in volatile markets.
“It was stressful and chaotic, but we knew it was the right thing to do to sustain the company,” Berndt said.
The business offers complete design, engineering and manufacturing services to create efficient, value-based custom transformers and inductors. To date, Johnson Electric Coil has manufactured nearly 17,000 unique transformers. Sales totaled nearly $9 million in 2020.
“Every single transformer we manufacture is custom made and proprietary,” Bockes said. “It’s all made to order.”
Bockes and Berndt share the philosophy that “family” extends beyond ownership to the workers on the floor, many of whom have been with the business for decades. The company also works with local school districts on various cooperative and apprenticeship programs and is a keen supporter of the Langlade Health Care Center’s supportive employee program, which places special needs clients in local businesses to the best of their abilities.
The transformer industry is volatile, and, as a small player, Johnson Electric Coil could be an attractive acquisition target, Bockes said. The family was determined not to have that happen, with a goal of keeping the manufacturing and valued workforce in Antigo
“We want to sustain the company and continue offering good paying jobs going forward,” he says. “We owe that to the people who work here,” Berndt said. “This shows our dedication to our goal of staying in Antigo and staying small.”
Thirty years after a talented young woman came looking for a job, Bockes said the company is in good hands, with a strong leader in a challenging industry.
“It is very gratifying to watch what Julie has built here,” he said. “She believes in the people who work here, and they care about one another and respond. The day that Julie took over was the best day of my career.”