Curt and Charlie Berkner grew up following their father, Jim, around his excavating business. Like most young boys, they couldn’t resist playing in the dirt. Now, 49 years later, they all continue to work side by side.
The trio owns and operates Berkner Excavating & Gravel in Milbank. Jim calls himself the “gopher” of the operation. He lines up the jobs, meets with customers, creates estimates and manages the location of lines and cables. Curt does most of the digging and Charlie repairs the equipment and ensures everything runs smoothly.
Jim discovered his love for earth moving during his first career. He was a member of the Milbank police force and, in addition to being an officer, he did part-time excavating work for the City of Milbank’s water and sewer departments.
The city contracted a small excavating operation owned by Ernie B. Jim worked for him. When the time was right, Jim bought out Ernie and began Berkner Excavating. He jokingly says he gave up police work because it wasn’t exciting enough. But he remembers the thrill he felt when he decided to go into business for himself.
“Ernie had one backhoe,” Jim said. “I bought him out and started digging. I started helping small dairy and hog farm setups and we grew from there.” He now has nearly 60 pieces of equipment and 10 employees.
When Curt was about 10 years old and Charlie about 8, they regularly tagged along with Jim, riding in the backhoes and loaders and doing small jobs around the shop. As they got older, they both knew they would join their dad in the business. “It’s like growing up on the farm,” they said. “It’s what we knew and planned to do.”
“I wanted them to go to college, but they didn’t want to,” Jim said. “They wanted to stay here and work with me.”
Jim and his sons also attribute the early success of the business to Curt and Charlie’s mother, Pat, who passed away from cancer in 2000. “She was a big part in starting and keeping the business going,” Curt said. “She did the bookwork and helped out wherever possible.”
Working with family does not come easy for most people. Jim noted that typically just 3 out of 10 family businesses survive. Luckily, the Berkners are a close knit family, but they have also have had their share of disagreements and spats. “We figure it out,” Jim said. “We overcome our differences and get back to work.”
The family even spends most weekends together at the family lake cabin or snowmobiling during the winter. “That’s what life is about,” said Jim. “Family.”
Curt and Charlie each have families of their own, but neither has sons. Curt has five daughters and Charlie has two. Curt and Charlie have just one sibling, a sister, Cathy. “We’re not sure what will happen to the business in the future,” Jim chuckled. “I have no grandsons. I have great grandsons and great-great grandsons, but they are a long way away from stepping into the business.”
In the meantime, Jim plans to continue to work alongside his sons. “If it weren’t for them, I would have retired long ago. They keep me going.”