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Lunch at the Tribeca Grill with: Jack Bergen

Published by The New York Sun on 2005-06-20

When he was Airborne Ranger in Vietnam, Jack Bergen of the Bronx was accustomed to flying under the radar. Now, as he plays out his second act in middle age, the Irishman wants to show up on the radar.

The second act for the combat veteran comes after 21 years in the American military, including a stint as a professor of philosophy, English and ethics at his alma mater, West Point, and as chief speechwriter during the Reagan Administration for then defense secretary Caspar Weinberger.

"Only in America can you start all over again," Mr. Bergen said over a lunch of chicken salad, which suggested why he's as lean and fit as in his days of jumping off planes.

Those days in the service of his country make for entertaining, if sometimes harrowing, tales. Now, as senior vice president and director of marketing and advertising of the 158-year-old conglomerate, Siemens, Mr. Bergen's job is to ensure that the German company - which has been doing business in America since the mid 1800s - shows up on the public radar here.

"At a time when American companies are outsourcing jobs, Siemens is insourcing," Mr. Bergen said.

That translates into more than 70,000 jobs that the electronics company has created in this country, nearly 5,000 in the tri-state area alone. More than 10,000 men and women of the American work force were added in the last two years alone, at a time when most American manufacturers have been laying off workers. With revenues of $16 billion, Siemens' American operations - based at 820 sites in all 50 states and Puerto Rico - accounted for the largest share of the company's worldwide revenues of $91.3 billion in 2004.

The company's automation systems process 90% of America's mail annually - or more than 210 billion pieces of mail.

Moreover, Siemens is a major exporter from America. Some 13% of its sales last year came from overseas customers. In New York, Siemens equipment is used for all baggage handling and electronic systems at Kennedy International Airport. Now the company is also automating the city's 722-mile subway network.

"So you can imagine why our biggest frustration is that Siemens isn't a household name in America - like some others," Mr. Bergen said, alluding to the company's biggest competitors, the Connecticut-based General Electric and Philips Electronics, a Dutch company that came to America almost 100 years after Siemens.

Mr. Bergen's frustration is compounded by the fact that some of his company's civic activities are better recognized than the brand itself. As president of the Siemens Foundation, Siemens' philanthropic arm, he distributes more than $1 million to high school students through the annual Siemens Westinghouse math and science competition, and other awards.

Nearly 1,300 students participate in these competitions each year, strengthening America's available pool of scientists and engineers in an increasingly globalizing - and competitive - economy.

"Perhaps the problem lies in the fact that Siemens is a business-to-business operation, we make medical and communications equipment, we build light-rail systems as we did in Houston," Mr. Bergen said. "Our internal challenge is that we're an engineering company, not a marketing company."

"And if we don't become more marketing driven, we won't be able to increase our well-engineered products in America," he added. "We need to create more of a public dialogue with our customers. We need to be more concerned with projecting our public image."

To project that image, Mr. Bergen's headquarters in Munich has allocated an annual advertising budget of $21 million for America. But, Mr. Bergen frets, this figure is not even 10% of the company annual global budget for ads, even though Siemens' 17 subsidiaries in America generate more than 16% of global revenues each year. And with contracts such as the one for subway automation from New York's Metropolitan Transportation Authority, business is growing at nearly 20% annually.

So what to do?

More advertising, for one. A key message that Mr. Bergen wants to project is that although German-spawned, Siemens is an integral part of the American market place. He highlights the fact that, in the 19th century, Siemens laid the first trans-Atlantic cables, as well as telegraph lines across America. He highlights, too, the fact that Siemens' Sylvania subsidiary produces 450 million light bulbs annually, more than anyone else. And he highlights the fact that virtually every one of America's Fortune 500 companies is a Siemens customer.

"I call it 'communications by infiltration,'" Mr. Bergen said.

That's military jargon, of course. And indeed, it was a former military colleague, then Lieut. Gen. Colin Powell, who introduced Mr. Bergen to a public relations maven, Thomas Ross. That introduction begat Mr. Bergen's "second act."

His public-relations career took him through blue-chip companies such as Westinghouse and General Electric. He was also president of the American operations of Hill & Knowlton, then the world's biggest public-relations company. Mr. Bergen came to Siemens three years ago.

When he arrived at Siemens, its American unit was headed by a man named Klaus Kleinfeld. Mr. Kleinfeld was aggressive in expanding the company's business here, and Mr. Bergen proved a valuable ally on account of his knowledge of the American corporate community, as well as the military-industrial complex.

Now Mr. Kleinfeld has become CEO of Siemens worldwide.

Doesn't that augur well for Mr. Bergen's task of increasing his company's public profile?

"Of course," Mr. Bergen said. "Klaus understands America. It's important not only to conduct business well - but also to be perceived as doing so. This means that the company culture must include a stronger emphasis on image-building. And it helps that we've had a very solid record in America."

Pranay Gupte,
Senior Writer and Global-Affairs Columnist

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