Crew Foreman of the Month | April 2017

Bernie Strutz: A Family Man at Home and at Work

By Kathy Jonas

Bernie Strutz’s 41 years as a foreman with Hartje Lumber in LaValle, Wisconsin, are remarkable. Maybe his longevity is due to his simple philosophy: treat people as family, rarely raise your voice, keep an immaculate work site, always be on time and make sure everyone is safe.

These rules could be applicable in many different professions—and in life.

“Bernie started working for Hartje Construction in 1969, just after graduating from high school,” said Mary Neary, vice president of the company and daughter of the owner, Virgil Hartje, who died a little more than a year ago. “He became a foreman and mentored the new employees, molding them into the competent crew members we have today.”

These qualities are the reason Neary nominated Strutz as Crew Foreman of the Month. “This is long overdue recognition for an exceptional foreman,” she says. “His incredible work ethic has set the bar high for all the employees at Hartje Lumber.”

Called a fussbudget by some of his crew members, Strutz says he values excellence and does whatever is necessary to get that end result, whether spending extra time teaching a new employee the correct way to do something or gently advising someone not suited for construction to pursue other interests.

That emphasis on exactness and careful attention to detail served him well during his 41 years as foreman. During that time, he says, he did not have one major injury occur on any of the crews he supervised. Although a minor cut may have been an occasional occurrence, he constantly reinforced the importance of taking the time to carry out safety measures.

Keeping a job site clean was also important to him. Every night before leaving a site, he would inspect it and point out what needed to be done. That practice may not always have made him popular, but it reinforced the necessity of keeping order and establishing good habits. A soft-spoken guy, he does not believe that yelling is motivational. “It is pretty hard to get me to raise my voice.”

Over a period of 41 years, Strutz naturally worked on many projects, but he especially remembers one project: the building of a large potato shed that required his spending six or seven weeks on the road and coming home only on weekends. Though it was difficult to be away for so long, he valued the great people he met and the way the guys on the crew bonded during that time.

Treating his crew members as part of his extended family, Strutz took the time to talk with them about issues they were facing both at work and at home. If someone was having transportation problems, he would make sure that the employee either got a ride or had access to a company vehicle while his own was being repaired. He always encouraged questions and felt that filling the role of teacher gave him a way to pass on the skills he had learned over the years.

“Everything I didn’t learn from my dad I learned from Bernie,” says Terry Barreau, who worked on Strutz’s crew for many years. “He was the best foreman I have ever known. He was first on the job and last to leave. He made sure that every customer was 100-percent satisfied.”

Though Strutz rarely raised his voice, Barreau said that when he did, you got the message, and you got it quickly. Strutz is “one tough guy,” he said, doing whatever it takes to get the job done.

Strutz, 66, was born on a farm not far from where he works. He and his wife, Polly, raised three boys and now are grandparents to five girls. Though his sons were heavily involved in athletics growing up, his granddaughters take dance lessons and gymnastics. When he’s not at one of their recitals or meets, he and his wife like taking the girls camping. He’s also a dedicated fan of the Wisconsin Badgers.

Looking back over the past 47 years, he is amazed at the way Virgil Hartje took the business from its humble beginnings—operating out of a Quonset hut near his home—to being one of the biggest lumberyards in Wisconsin. “He started the business from practically nothing and made it what it is today,” says Strutz.

Now working in the steel shed at Hartje, Strutz puts orders together for customers, manages the steel warehouse and prepares job packs for the building crews. He wishes that his boss and friend, Virgil, was still around today because both of them wanted to reach 50 years at the company. “In his honor, I want to work here for 50 years. It is what he wanted.”