The story of Lenny Berger’s family is quintessentially one of American success. His paternal grandparents were immigrants; both of them, in fact, were Jewish refugees fleeing the Nazi regime. Growing up, he knew that his paternal grandfather had successfully worked as a handyman after running a grocery business for many years. He knew his grandparents fled Eastern Europe with their infant son (Lenny’s father) and arrived in Aruba, where his aunt was born, before eventually relocating to the United States. But he knew little of the heartbreaking realities they had left behind when they embarked on their immigrant journey.
“When I was growing up, our family would not speak about that time period,” Lenny relates somberly. “It wasn’t until my 30s that the stories began to come out more. My grandfather was about 10 years older than my grandmother; I always thought that was unusual. In his 80s he finally told my grandmother that he had been married before. During the war, he was conscripted into the Soviet army and had to leave behind his wife and young child. On his way back home, he was stopped by villagers he knew, who informed him he could not return to his town which was now under Nazi occupation and everyone there had been killed. He never talked about that part of his life. Whenever anybody asked him questions, he’d say, ‘We don’t look at the past, we only look to the future.’ As I’ve read more stories about the Holocaust and visited Auschwitz, I’ve learned that “survivor’s guilt” is common.
Lenny’s grandmother, meanwhile, also went through incredible hardship. She was one of four children—two sisters and one brother. Both of her parents, as well as her younger brother, were killed in a Nazi work camp somewhere in the Ukraine. During the chaos of escapes and evacuations, she also lost touch with her two sisters. By sheer happenstance, she was reunited with her younger sister, Genia, in a bomb shelter in Western Russia. They stayed in contact, but Genia went to the Ukraine and then to Israel. Lenny’s grandmother went to Poland. Eventually, Lenny’s grandparents met when his grandfather was paid for work with a sack of flour. He asked someone what he should do with it. He was told to visit a house where a young lady could use it to bake him bread. That young lady was Nechoma, my grandmother. They fell in love, and two days after my father was born they received permission to leave Poland and moved to Aruba to live near his grandmother’s aunt, where they established a successful grocery business. Genia moved with her family to the United States and Lenny’s grandparents followed in the mid-1960s.
“When you finally hear these stories and learn what they went through to make it possible for my generation to thrive, I can’t help but feel fortunate and grateful.”
Their oldest sister, Leah, was sent to a different Nazi work camp and was presumed dead by the rest of the family for 14 years. Eventually, Leah contacted the aunt in Aruba via a letter and re-established contact. After the war ended Leah was sent to Bucharest, Romania for resettlement and became locked behind the Iron Curtain for 30 years. It wasn’t until 1980 that she received permission to emigrate to the United States as a political refugee and the family saved enough money to bring Leah to the U.S. where the three sisters were permanently reunited after decades of separation.
“It’s absolutely amazing to me what my family left behind to come here,” reflects Lenny. “My grandfather was in his 50s by the time they moved to the U.S. I can’t imagine being 50 and having to start over again. They never complained about the hardship; they were always proud and grateful. When you finally hear these stories and learn what they went through to make it possible for my generation to thrive, I can’t help but feel fortunate and grateful.”
Although his grandparents and Genia have passed away, Great Aunt Leah recently turned 101 and still lives in her own apartment. Lenny sits and talks with her about the past. Lenny’s grateful that she’s been able to watch her family begin to grow again after seeing so many killed and others separated during the war. “The next generation is getting married and having kids,” smiles Lenny. “One of my nephews recently got married and I was talking to Great Aunt Leah. She was so proud that she’s lived long enough to be able to see the family grow and thrive. She mentioned that in the old country that there were 400 relatives in the town. I thought it was unbelievable, but she said, ‘Yes, our family lived there for hundreds of years.’ It was a little town called Lipkoni and still exists today in Moldova.”
This heritage of strength and survival has driven Lenny both to appreciate what he has, as well as to reflect on how best to spend his time and talents. He’s also developed a much deeper relationship with his Jewish faith and considers his grandparents’ Kiddush cup—a cup over which a blessing is said on the Sabbath—to be one of his most prized possession. “My grandmother passed away six years ago and my grandfather six years before that,” explains Lenny. “When we sold the house, my sister and I went over and my aunt asked if there was anything we’d like to keep. The Kiddush cup was what I chose. It’s an item that brings up so many memories. Now my wife and I have it in a display on top of a little secretary in our dining room. It’s not a fancy cup, it doesn’t have a high dollar value, but it definitely brings back a lot of great memories.”
Perhaps it was his grandparents’ willingness to start over along with his grandfather and father’s work in repairs and construction that drove Lenny to leave a twenty-year technology career to launch a remodeling business. Today, HandyMensch Home Remodeling is the unlikely success story that followed two IT start-ups and a meaningful sabbatical spent travelling and volunteering.
Lenny was always drawn to computers and enjoyed many of the jobs he’d held in the IT field. Still, after a disappointing end at his second start-up, he was beginning to reflect on what he wanted the rest of his life to look like. Not one to rest on his laurels nor one to forget the importance of living life to the fullest, Lenny embarked on a quest to consider his next move. He travelled in Africa for a month before coming home and volunteering with Habitat for Humanity.
“For a while I just met and talked with people,” remembers Lenny. “I knew I liked being entrepreneurial and really wanted to see if I could build my own brand. It was the height of the real estate boom in 2007, and I was finding that there was a lot of demand for handymen who could do small to medium sized projects. So The HandyMensch was born. I started focusing on handyman services. For the first four years we did primarily hourly or fixed price assignments. But then I started noticing something. I was coming in and doing $800 worth of work, but there was another $10,000 or $20,000 worth of work going on in painting, carpeting, and things like that. Over time we evolved toward a more project-based model and took on whole kitchens, bathrooms, basements, etc.”
Not one to rest on his laurels nor one to forget the importance of living life to the fullest, Lenny embarked on a quest to consider his next move. He travelled in Africa for a month before coming home and volunteering with Habitat for Humanity.
“Today I describe our services as sitting between the neighborhood handyman and the big general contractor that does additions or whole house remodels,” Lenny goes on. “We work within the footprint of the existing house, but we’re doing things that involve a lot of different trades like electrical and plumbing. We will even bring in a structural engineer to open up a load bearing wall. Typically, our clients have a challenging project that needs good management and a good process but is smaller than what a large general contractor would want.”
The business model has paid off in spades. Lenny said his efforts to carve out a specific space for HandyMensch has been particularly successful because competitors in the business—both bigger and small companies—don’t’ view him as a threat, but as a partner filling a different role in the market. In fact, they will often recommend him or send business his way. Today, HandyMensch typically takes on about four to six projects at a time and has five in-house employees, as well as 15 different subcontractors across many different specialties. This ensures that clients have access to experts from plumbers, to electricians, to engineers, etc. This has been particularly crucial to Lenny’s business model and to a project’s success.
Although Lenny never planned to get into home repairs professionally, it’s a talent he comes by honestly. His father was in construction throughout his career and did remodeling himself for a number of years before eventually going to work at Whiting Turner in their corporate offices in Towson, Maryland. Lenny’s mother, meanwhile, presided over the family’s Baltimore City home and raised Lenny and his sister. “We were three blocks from the racetrack,” Lenny recalls of his childhood home. “I could hear the races being called outside my window. The Preakness was always a bit crazy every year.”
Lenny was never much into sports, but he did well academically. His father took note of his interest in computers early on and encouraged him. “If there was something that sparked my interest, my dad was really good about finding a way to help me pursue my interest,” says Lenny. “He would sign me up for a class or figure out how to make it happen.” First, he enrolled Lenny at a class at a local computer store. The class came with four additional hours of lab time. But by the time Lenny had used twenty, the store had run out of patience and Lenny had long since run out of hours. So his father found a way for him to continue his studies.
For high school, Lenny had been sent to an Orthodox Jewish academy. Unfortunately, the school, while academically rigorous, didn’t yet offer any computer courses. Lenny’s father instead signed him up for classes at a nearby community college at the age of only 14 and even bought him a personal computer. “By today’s standards, that computer would be a joke,” laughs Lenny. “But that was several thousand dollars at the time. I don’t think that amount of money really computed for me, but now I realize, ‘Wow, that was a huge amount of money for my father to spend to encourage me.”
Despite his young age, Lenny thrived while being surrounded by older kids learning about computers. He even took a volunteer position in the computer center at the community college. Although within two weeks, he found the role didn’t live up to what he’d been expecting. He was lowest man on the totem pole and would take printouts off the printers, return magnetic tapes to the library and would generally be killing time. Again, his father encouraged him to dream big. “He told me to go talk to the head of the department and tell him I wanted more to do,” remembers Lenny. “I was unsure but went to see him anyway. While I was waiting, his secretary told me that the Department Head, Wally Knapp, had already noticed me.”
Wally would go on to become a mentor who remains close to Lenny to this day. He had been impressed with Lenny’s hustle right away, and was even more impressed that Lenny came to express an interest in programming. He told Lenny that he didn’t yet have enough programming experience but that the department needed help on the networking side of things. Lenny continued volunteering with the lab every summer through high school and later transitioned into a paid role while in college.
“At the end of the day, I always want to feel that we’ve done good work and we’ve built a great team. We have clients that like working with us, and that’s what’s important.”
For two years, Lenny attended Catonsville Community College and continued his work in the computer lab for a basic work study hourly rate. However, by this time his work was much more complex than a typical student’s. “I was getting paid the same as someone who was sitting at a reception desk,” noted Lenny. “I was actually running the college’s entire network with ten remote locations. There were multiple incidents where the network had some issue, and no one could solve it because I was in class! By the time I graduated, I had four years of experience in networking.”
After two years, Lenny transferred from Catonsville to University of Maryland, Baltimore County, but he still kept up his work on the Catonsville network. After graduation, Lenny saw an opportunity to gain a real resume boost when IBM came to Catonsville, did a study of their IT department, and recommended that they hire a Manager of Network Services. The school didn’t have the money to fund it; Lenny offered to do it for his same work study salary in exchange for the title. He did that for a couple more years before finally deciding it was time to find a position that would pay him what he was worth.
He applied to a Network Engineering job at Johns Hopkins University and was quickly selected. Through this job, he met the owner of a firm called RPM Consulting, and he ultimately jumped over to work for RPM through the dotcom boom.
Over the next five years, Lenny thrived at RPM. He was asked to move to North Carolina and later to Atlanta where he built BB&T’s network for them. He then moved to the DC area. “We basically started before most people knew what the internet was,” points out Lenny. “This was when having an email address on your business card was a big deal. We were building networks for the likes of Fannie Mae, T. Rowe Price and Discovery Channel, to name a few. Most people just didn’t yet know what the internet was or what the potential was.”
Also during these years, he became engaged to and then married the love of his life, Lynn. “She’s always been supportive of me,” affirms Lenny. “We were dating when I was debating leaving Johns Hopkins to join RPM. I thought it might be too risky, but she encouraged me to take it. She told me ‘Everything you’ve told me about these guys is exactly what you’re looking for so what’s the worst that can happen?’ I may not have taken the leap without her support and encouragement. She’s also very extroverted while I’m more of an introvert. She can talk to anyone and make you laugh. She’s a very independent minded person, and like me, she loves to travel. One of the earliest trips we took was to Thailand and Bali.”
Lynn’s advice proved correct. About five years after Lenny joined RPM Consulting, they ended up selling to a larger firm, and he was given a piece of the company in the buy-out. Lenny moved on to another start-up—one that was focused on CRM systems for car dealerships. He was hired as the CTO, but over the next several years, he saw the writing on the wall. The company made some bad decisions, and by the time he left, the company was on the rocks. It was then that Lenny decided to take his break to reassess his future. He was burnt out on the unpredictability of the tech world. “When you’re in the position that you’re not worried about paying the mortgage the next month, you have some runway to really consider your future and what you want to do,” explains Lenny. “At that point, I didn’t know anybody who’d gotten out of tech. But I knew I wanted a change. I’ve always had a creative side and knew I wanted to build another business. I just needed time to explore something new. And that became HandyMensch Home Remodeling.”
As a leader, Lenny describes himself as “the conductor.” “I’m the conductor of the orchestra,” elaborates Lenny. “I understand the role of each instrument on our projects; I understand what makes that instrument important and how it works. And at the end of the day, I’ve got to make everybody play well together. If you’re not conducting properly, projects can fall apart. If things start to get out of tune, you have to nip that in the bud and get things back on track.”
To young people entering the job market today, Lenny advises hard work and patience as he reflected back to his years working in the Catonsville computer lab for a tiny salary. “You gotta work hard and you gotta earn it,” he points out. “I worked for free or a very low wage to build real experience.”
Like his grandparents before him, Lenny wasn’t afraid to start over and swing for the fences. “I haven’t become Mark Zuckerberg,” he reflects, “but that doesn’t mean I haven’t built success. At the end of the day, I always want to feel that we’ve done good work and we’ve built a great team. We have clients that like working with us, and that’s what’s important.”