Made in the Berkshires | RTR Technologies: New rail technology in an historic setting
STOCKBRIDGE — The 1783 Old Corner House on Main Street was home to the original Norman Rockwell Museum for 24 years starting in 1969. But for the past 13 years, it has served a very different purpose as the headquarters of RTR Technologies.
The rapidly expanding company, founded by President and CEO Rosalie Berger, supplies heating and de-icing equipment to prevent freeze-ups of third rails and switches as well as overhead lines to mass transit systems in the U.S., Canada, Europe and South America.
A certified 100 percent woman-owned business, RTR is named after Rosie the Riveter, the image that represented the women who flocked to work in factories and shipyards during World War II.
The company is poised to triple its current number of 37 employees, and reach annual gross revenue of $50 million within three to five years, according to Berger's husband, Craig Berger, RTR's director of business development.
RTR's administrative and technical staffs are based in Stockbridge while the equipment is manufactured at a facility in Canaan, Conn.
During the past two years, "we've been adding people judiciously and carefully," Craig Berger said.
"One of the major problems we have here is that there's not a surplus of a trained work force," he said. "It's hard for us to find the right people, so many of our technical people, upper-echelon folks, actually travel an hour and a half each way."
RTR is planning on using its services to branch into freight lines and adding telemetry. an automated communications process, and control units to the heating equipment that the company produces.
Another strategic goal is to combine all the company's operations — administrative, engineering and manufacturing — into one central facility somewhere in Berkshire County, although RTR would retain its Stockbridge office.
"Rosalie and I would have to be dragged kicking and screaming from this building," Craig said.
In 1983, Rosalie, an early-childhood educator who became a real estate broker, met Craig in her native Brooklyn while showing him an apartment that became the couple's first home. Their courtship, which led to marriage in 1989, included frequent visits to "some very nice B-and-Bs in the Berkshires," she noted.
Craig, a native of New Rochelle, N.Y., set the stage for his rail-technology career with "a very sophisticated Lionel train set in the attic of my folks' home. I moved from toy trains to the real thing."
RTR was incorporated in 1994 a year after the company started operating from an office in the couple's new home in Scarsdale, just north of New York City.
In 1995, the rapidly-growing firm moved to Lakeville, Conn., not far from the Massachusetts border. The Bergers chose that location after adopting four greyhound racing dogs from a Lakeville kennel. The couple also opened their manufacturing facility in nearby Canaan that year.
Soon, the Berkshires beckoned. The Bergers decided to purchase a home in Stockbridge and look for a new headquarters.
That's when the 6,500 square-foot Old Corner House was put on the market by Dr. Charles Kenny, the couple's next-door neighbor and dog-walking companion, who maintained his practice there. The couple purchased the historic home from Kenny for $699,000 in early 2002.
Going it alone
RTR had an early partnership with a manufacturer in Ithaca, N.Y., but ended that relationship after receiving a $750,000 contract to provide third-rail heating from the Chicago Transit Authority.
"It was time to separate," Rosalie said, "because I'm a micro-manager and detail fanatic, and they were not."
Severing ties proved to be a wise move.
"That's when we really took off," she said.
However, RTR almost derailed in 2001 after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. A $3 million order from the Long Island Railroad that the company received the day before the terrorist attacks took place was cut by 40 percent and delayed by 10 months.
But Edgardo Tarrats, the U.S. Small Business Administration's district manager in Hartford, Conn., granted RTR a $687,000 economic recovery loan that allowed the business to stay afloat financially.
"He and they are the only reason RTR survived 9/11 and is in business today," Rosalie said. "Those people stood next to me and this company, and they still do today."
Last year, RTR gained two contracts worth $9.2 million with the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority for switch-point heater controls and third-rail heating elements on commuter trains in Greater Boston. An additional $5 million agreement is in place for this year as part of Gov. Charlie Baker's $84 million MBTA "Winter Resiliency Plan."
But Rosalie's favorite deal is a two-phase, $15.6 million heating equipment contract between RTR and the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority that was granted in 2012 for a new 22-mile "Silver Line" rail link from McLean, Va., to Washington Dulles International Airport.
"We move millions of people safely, all winter long, through the worst conditions," she said.
Rosalie is self-educated but has received considerable guidance from her husband. "I'm living proof that one doesn't have to have a degree," she said.
The couple have been together for 33 years, but "since we live, work and sleep together, it's the equivalent of 99 years of marriage," Craig said.
Personal and professional relationships often don't mix. The Bergers said they've been on the "same track" in the workplace, although Rosalie stressed she's a "quality freak."
You have to meet my standards," she said. "Craig does. We've battled about that over the years."
The Bergers have no succession plan, so it's likely RTR will be acquired by a bigger company someday.
"I'm sure it will be," Rosalie said. "But right now, we don't know what the future will hold, and there are still many more things we want to accomplish."
Contact Clarence Fanto at 413 637-2551.