CEO still dazzled after all these years

Camas’ Rob Bernardi shepherds semiconductor company through high tech’s peaks, valleys




Portrait 2016

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Rob Bernardi still marvels at the geometry of semiconductors, even after working in the industry for three decades.

Bernardi, a 61-year-old Camas resident, is president and chief operating officer of Kokusai Semiconductor Equipment Corp., a Japanese company with 26 local employees who handle service, parts and training out of 18,000 square feet at Columbia Tech Center in east Vancouver.

“To think you can put 2 billion transistors on something the size of a fingernail — most people, they just can’t envision something like that,” Bernardi said. “You can’t see it with the human eye.”

What is plainly visible, however, is that jobs in his industry provide a good living.

“It’s just amazing the opportunities this industry gives people,” Bernardi said. That’s why he advocates for science, technology, engineering and mathematics training and why he has served as chairman of the Clark County High Technology and Community Council, a trade group for the local technology industry, for the past six years.

Kokusai moved its office from Portland in 2004 in search of more space and to be closer to where most of its employees live. Its current location maintains easy access to its customers, which include Intel in Hillsboro, Ore., and SEH America and WaferTech in Clark County.

Kokusai is one of 972 subsidiaries of Hitachi, the Japanese electronics giant. The company makes diffusion and deposition vertical furnaces — vastly oversimplified, these are $1.5 million ovens that reach as high as 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit to process silicon wafers into semiconductors. The units are manufactured in Toyama, Japan, but Kokusai, with U.S. headquarters in San Jose, Calif., has 105 employees in the United States including the 26 in Vancouver.

Electronics manufacturing jobs in Clark County pay an average of about $75,000 a year, according to state data. The sector employs about 3,000 here. Add in computer systems design and software publishing, and about 4,800 Clark County residents are working in the high-tech industry.

Success in high-tech takes not only technical skills, Bernardi said, but also the so-called soft skills of teamwork, critical thinking, problem-solving and interpersonal communication.

They are more colorfully described in a list of what Bernardi calls “rules of thought” that he has posted in his office:

“Don’t let adverse facts get in the way of a good decision.”

“Check small things.”

“Share credit.”

“Sometimes being responsible means pissing people off.”

“You never know what you can get away with unless you try.”

“Everybody needs to get a personality,” Bernardi said.

Bernardi’s upbringing honed both his character and his technical savvy. Growing up in Southern California, Bernardi tagged along with his father, a high-school algebra and trigonometry teacher, on the after-school tutoring jobs his dad took to make extra money.

“I got tutored whether I wanted to or not from a very young age in math,” Bernardi said. “Virtually every night, except for the summer, I would get some special tutoring from Dad in mathematics.”

His father, a World War II veteran who stayed in the military reserves, also led Bernardi to military service. Bernardi applied to the Air Force Academy, but his vision wasn’t good enough to be a pilot. He applied to the U.S. Military Service Academy at West Point through his congressman, but was the second choice for that appointment. Bernardi later got a call that the first choice candidate had declined the spot. He was in.

“From the day you enter West Point, they are teaching you leadership,” Bernardi said. Those skills have been just as essential to his career as the engineering degree he earned. He served as an infantry officer in Panama, South Korea and Fort Lewis.

After five years in the Army, he pursued a master’s of business administration at Pacific Lutheran University, which took him two years full time in the classroom. “Mind you, this was way before the Web and online classes,” Bernardi quipped.

After graduating from the university’s MBA program in 1983, he answered a classified ad in the Tacoma News Tribune for a job at Fairchild Semiconductor, or Fairchild Camera and Instrument as it was known then, one of the foundational companies for what became California’s Silicon Valley.

He landed a job in Fairchild’s finance department in Puyallup, where he had access to payroll records as part of his job. He soon figured out that the big bucks were not in finance, but in the engineering and technical jobs. He transitioned to technical marketing. He later worked at National Semiconductor in Puyallup and in San Jose, and at Sharp Microelectronics in Vancouver.

At Kokusai, where he has worked for the past 13 years, Bernardi spends half his time on the road, traveling to Japan or Kokusai’s offices spread across North America. When he’s in Vancouver, he checks his email as soon as he wakes up to answer messages that have arrived throughout the night from Japan, which is 17 hours ahead. He works out on a treadmill, and then heads in to the office.

When he travels, it’s to visit employees and customers.

“Typically, the meetings I go to, there are some issues. I don’t want to waste the customer’s time having a happy-happy meeting because everybody’s busy. If I’m in the fab or office area I will stick my head in to say ‘hi’ to the customers and ask if there are any big issues.”

Kokusai’s fiscal year begins in April, with half-yearly instead of quarterly reviews, a common practice in Japan. Bernardi travels to each U.S. work site twice a year to meet with all U.S. employees over dinners in groups to brief them on the company’s progress. Depending on the company’s profitability, that might mean dinner at a fancy steakhouse or a down-home barbecue joint.

“This industry is known for its very sharp peaks and valleys. It’s known as the silicon cycle,” Bernardi said.

Clark County employment in electronics manufacturing has reflected that. It peaked at 5,300 in 2001, fell to 3,000 in 2003, moved up to 3,500 in 2008, dipped to 2,800 in the Great Recession, and worked its way back to 3,000 in 2015, said Scott Bailey, regional economist for the Washington Employment Security Department.

Bernardi hopes to bolster his company’s service department to better cope with the industry’s peaks and valleys, his chief goal before retiring.

“I’m an avid reader of The Columbian’s obits,” Bernardi said. It bugs his wife, Bev, but it makes him think about what matters in life. “As you get older, and you start having grandkids, and you have a little bit different perspective.”

He enjoys hunting and fishing. He has taken safaris in Africa to hunt antelope and zebra, but he looks forward to having more time for adventures close to home, as well. He has a couple of boats, and heads out into the ocean to catch tuna and up rivers chasing steelhead.

But first, he wants to make sure he’s leaving Kokusai in good shape.

“I have 105 people who rely on me to make payroll every two weeks,” Bernardi said. “I take that job seriously.”