Steve Bernas, CEO, Better Business Bureau of Chicago and Northern Illinois
Chicago BBB chief has navigated scandal to rebuild public trust
Steve Bernas took over the Chicago-area Better Business Bureau amid a sea change in how consumers research and complain about companies. (Michael Tercha/Chicago Tribune / February 19, 2013)
Bernas was being groomed to take over, but he only took the reins in 2007 because his longtime mentor at the bureau, who had been there more than 40 years, died.
Then, early in his CEO tenure, Bernas endured the greatest crisis of trust the 100-year-old BBB nationwide ever faced, which is a big deal for an organization whose lone currency is trust. Embarrassing evidence arose that a Better Business Bureau in the Los Angeles area was allowing paying members, including fictitious ones, to receive unfairly high ratings.
About the same time, Bernas and the national organization entered a standoff. National threatened to eliminate the Chicago chapter by revoking its charter because Bernas refused to implement a new letter-grade system of rating companies. He thought it was unethical because the system gave higher grades to paying members. (The national BBB eventually changed the ratings system to the way Bernas wanted, and the Chicago chapter is in good standing.)
All this happened amid a sea change in how consumers complained about companies and researched them, moving away from the household name Better Business Bureau and turning toward newer online names such as Yelp, Angies List, Facebook and Twitter. Perhaps the only thing that could hurt the BBB more than a crisis of trust is irrelevance.
Roy Spencer, chairman of the BBB board of directors, called that time "a tremendous period of transition."
"Steve handled it with such aplomb," said Spencer, who is also president of Perma-Seal Basement Systems Inc. in Downers Grove. "He carries that calm professionalism even through the most trying times. That was a real potential crossroads for the bureau."
Despite the challenges, Bernas is credited with modernizing and remaking the Better Business Bureau of Chicago and Northern Illinois, while forging relationships with consumers, Chicago-area businesses and consumer agencies, such as the state attorney general's office and the Federal Trade Commission.
The keys to his success, observers say, are his limitless energy, uncompromising principles and dedication to helping consumers and businesses get along. He has managed the delicate task of boldly advocating for consumers even as his organization is funded by businesses.
Today, Bernas, 47, is the face of the 86-year-old BBB in Chicago. He's a regular media guest on television and radio and is frequently quoted in print articles talking about consumer issues. During a typical day, the husband and father of two teen daughters leaves his house in Naperville at 5:30 a.m. and returns at 8:30 p.m.
He's an energetic speed talker whose brain seems to work faster than his tongue; he tends to speak in half-sentences while somehow still communicating effectively.
Last year, his 68-person BBB offices -- in Chicago and a small one in Rockford -- handled about 50,000 formal complaints. He and his colleagues are often referees in disputes between outraged consumers and Chicagoland home contractors, auto dealers and retailers.
Every day, 55,000 people visit the Chicago BBB website to look up information on businesses. All told last year, the local chapter was contacted some 20 million times, including Web visits.
Because of his office's enormous reach and connection with consumers, Bernas has become valuable to the legal system when pursing scam artists, rogue contractors and unethical advertisers.
"He's just so easy to work with," Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan said. "Steve's just a good guy. He's very engaging and very personable and very committed to the mission of the Better Business Bureau."
A child doing unto others
Born into a religious family in the Brighton Park area on Chicago's Southwest Side, Bernas attended Catholic school, including high school at Quigley Preparatory Seminary South. There he was required to perform volunteer work in hospitals and homes for disadvantaged and disabled youths.
"That's where I felt the joy of helping people, those less fortunate who cannot help themselves," he said. "It's that feeling that you can give and it doesn't cost you anything. ... I fell in love with it."
He graduated from Loyola University with a degree in psychology. Does that come in handy when dealing with feuding businesses and consumers? "Every single day," Bernas said, laughing.