Volume 6, Number 2, 1997

Racing, risking and winning

Eugene Bernosky, Delaware '80, likes to go fast. He sets the pace, whether on his bicycle, his sailboard, his surfboard-or on his way to building a multimillion-dollar, high-tech company.

The enterprise he created, Applied Chemical Solutions (ACS), provides unique systems for managing high purity process chemicals in the semiconductor industry. When he sold the company recently, Bernosky was featured by the Wall Street Journal as a "new fogy"-someone who retires before hitting mid-life. Not yet 40, he now spends much of his time cycling, sailing and surfing.

Bernosky's passion for speed was evident when he was a student at the University. As a senior, he took part in a design project to build a human-powered vehicle, or "HPV." The team of seven mechanical engineering students independently designed, financed and built the HPV, and Bernosky was one of three men to race it in an international speed competition.

"Building the HPV was perfect preparation for starting a high-tech company," Bernosky says. "We were a bunch of naive kids who set out to do the impossible-but we didn't know it. We were up against firms like General Dynamics and others, and we ended up placing very high in the competition. We beat the odds. Building a new business is very similar.

"The senior design project showed me what you can do when you pull a group of talented folks together," Bernosky recalls. "We were among the top engineering students, but I was definitely the weakest academic on the team. Together, we had a lot of ability. But, none of our roles was defined. Each of us just ended up doing what he did best.

"The team model is big in contemporary management theory and is exactly what happened at ACS," he says.

Bernosky's role on the senior design team quickly became one of promotion. "The experience helped me realize I had a knack for marketing and sales," he recalls. "The HPV team had a vision, but we needed to share it with others in order to get funding. I went in search of sponsors and learned I had an ability to promote a vision and persuade people. We got the support we needed from the University, companies and individuals. In fact, some of the sponsors, contacts I made then, were people who later invested in ACS."

The senior design project had another very specific influence on Bernosky's future-it took him to California for the first time. "The whole design team went to California for the HPV speed competition," Bernosky says. "When I saw the mountains, the weather, the way of life, I told the other guys on the team that I would live there someday."

Bernosky's trek as a modern-day pioneer began conventionally. "Like most of my classmates," Bernosky says, "I went to work for a big company. I began as an engineer for Hercules, and, in the course of that work, I became involved with the semiconductor industry. I traveled to Silicon Valley and immediately saw the opportunities there. I knew then that I would eventually start my own high-tech company."

Bernosky spent several years gathering what he would need for his venture. He earned an MBA from Wilmington College, in Wilmington, Del., and made important contacts in the semiconductor industry. He learned about the challenges of starting a new business by helping to build two companies. Then, in 1989, Bernosky saw the need for an improved method for transferring, generating and mixing high purity chemicals used to manufacture semiconductor devices.

He shared his concept with others and built a highly qualified team. His "knack for sales" helped him to find the financial support he needed. And, sheer determination enabled him to make the venture fly.

"For several years, I worked 80-hour weeks. The team put all they had into the company, trying to meet impossible deadlines," Bernosky says. In five years, Bernosky's team grew ACS to a company with $20 million in annual revenues. When he sold the business in 1995, he declined the conventional route of staying on as CEO. Instead, he chose to take a break from the responsibilities of running a business.

"Last year was a year off, a reward. Every day, I managed some cycling, sailing, surfing or wind surfing," says Bernosky, whose home in the Santa Cruz mountains sits amid some of California's most spectacular landscape. "It's been great. I'm getting to do everything I always wanted to do as a kid."

It hasn't been easy to put his talents on holiday, however. Other start-ups and fast-growth public technology companies have sought out Bernosky as a consultant. "I help a variety of technology companies sort out their marketing and management problems and participate on their boards," Bernosky says. "I also help arrange the funding of start-ups and sale of established companies. I've found many ways to share my experience without actually running a business."

Now, Bernosky has a new "start-up." He and his wife, Karen, had their first child in December, named Lucas Alexander. "I'm lucky to be fairly free right now and can get to know my son," Bernosky says. He finds he is fully occupied for the present with the new challenges of parenthood.

What lies ahead? "I want to start another company," Bernosky says, with a laugh. "I can't sit out for long; there's just too much opportunity. I want the thrill of creating and growing a business again." He speaks like someone who is not sitting out the race, but picking up speed.

-Mary Hopkins