College of Business
Claim Your Crown: Two alums are growing a business based on servant leadership principles learned at Anderson University
Brothers Nick and Garrett Bernardo began a side gig printing shirts for their teammates while in college. That side gig eventually grew into NOVUS Clothing Company. NOVUS Clothing Company, a custom uniform and apparel business headquartered in Albany, New York gets its name from the Latin word for fresh and new beginnings. Nick and Garrett continue to build NOVUS Clothing Company based on the principles of servant leadership instilled in them at Anderson.
Tell me about your years at AU.
Nick: I graduated undergrad from the University of Maine, played baseball there. Garrett followed kind of in my footsteps the next year, went to Maine on a scholarship, but then wanted to transfer in hopes of a better baseball opportunity, then it’s kind of crazy how we were both playing summer ball and we got recruited by one of the Anderson University baseball coaches.
Garrett: Nick said we were both playing summer ball but I actually wasn’t playing summer ball at the time because I had broken my wrist. Nick ended up substituting for a summer baseball game in Cooperstown, New York, which is where (AU Assistant Baseball Coach) Riley McDermott happened to be watching this game. He approached Nick after the game and asked “where do you go to school? Would you ever consider coming down to Anderson for grad school?” He was like “yeah, my brother Garrett is actually looking for a new school to play ball at, and it was shortly after that that Riley reached out to me to check out Anderson. I went down for a visit, met with the coaching staff, Joe Miller and Kaleb Davis. They really were amazing from the beginning. Their Christ-centered values really stood out to me in just how they prioritized family values, like the coach saying we don’t practice on Sundays and simple things like having a Bible in the car when coach Davis was driving me around. I just saw a leadership quality for both of them that I wanted to be around. They ended up giving me an incredible offer to come down and play without ever having seen me play ball, and I just took a leap of faith coming from New York, going down to this southern school. I took that leap of faith; I didn’t know anybody at this school. Anderson gave me the chance to pursue my dream of playing college baseball and professional baseball.
Nick: It was a big transition but after the initial kind of getting to know who Garrett really was and then getting to know the coaching staff, then the community at AU, it was like “wow, this is truly special” and how welcoming the environment is.
I could say, coming from a business school up in the north, I had a good experience, but going to Anderson and then getting a servant-based Christian values-based Masters in Business Administration was game-changing for me. I never got taught in that way. Thankfully we have great parents that instilled a great faith in us—so we had that—but professors and teachers, I didn’t have too many role models, whereas I had a great, positive experience through the MBA program and I know it really had just started. I think I was like maybe the first or second class to graduate in that MBA accelerated program. The servant leadership model that was kind of the theme of the program is something we try to implement daily in our business now.
I almost wish I could go back now and take more of those classes just because we’re in business now, we have a team, we have payroll, we have to deal with hiring and firing, culture building. I genuinely can say I know that there are a lot of professionals taking the classes that are already in industry, but then there’s also some students who go straight from AU undergrad into the grad program. It’s really valuable and there’s teachable lessons every day.
So, NOVUS got started as a side business?
Garrett: In Maine, we sold tank tops and crew neck sweatshirts to our teammates in the locker room. When I transferred down to Anderson, naturally I was like “I’m obviously going to keep trying to do this down south and see if I can sell to my teammates and buddies at Anderson.” That was a blessing in disguise. We were able to bring this hobby we loved to do, selling tanks and crew necks. We even developed our own trucker hat and long sleeved hoodie, and we sold it to our friends and teammates at AU.
AU was really where we started to see the brand come more alive. We felt so supported by all of our friends on campus, and even the staff. I presented NOVUS in one of our entrepreneurship classes, and I remember making my presentation. I brought in my different sweatshirts in all different colors and my professor was like “You know, this is something you really should think about getting into the bookstore. That could be a great avenue for you.” At the time when I was presenting I was like “that would be a dream, but we’re nowhere close… this is just a side hustle we’re doing for fun.” But he planted that seed in my head and years later, just last year, we started to work with the AU bookstore, putting some of our apparel back on campus that way, which is really cool. We’ve gotten to work with the baseball team. I think one of our early custom orders, we made performance shirts for our baseball team that had our team motto lock in on the back, and all of my teammates and coaches wore that shirt. That was pretty cool for me, during my college years to feel like the team was all supporting, wearing the shirts. It was just a lot of fun.
Bring us up to date on what NOVUS is doing now.
Garrett: We’ve been fortunate and blessed with the doors that God has opened. We do a lot of apparel for AU and the high school demographic, but we also do a lot of the college and now professional ranks. We’ve partnered with professional athletes like Harrison Butker of the Kansas City Chiefs; Trevor Williams, a pitcher for the New York Mets, Dagmara Wozniak, a U.S. Olympic fencer. She’s been to the Olympics three times. We’re starting to build out that network where we’re meeting more professional athletes to become brand ambassadors that are seeing what we’re doing with our mission and mantra of “Claim Your Crown” and wanting to get behind that, because we always felt like NOVUS is our vehicle to drive mission; it’s the gift that God’s given us to be on mission and make an impact with our platform. I think a lot of these professional athletes in any professional organizations see that mission and say “I want to use my platform to give back and I want to create apparel to help make an impact to the audience I’m working with.
So we’ve done a lot with professional athletes foundations with Harrison Butker. We’ve created product launches where the proceeds from it we’re able to contribute towards these family foundations. We’ve worked with Trevor Williams of the Mets and his foundation, Project 34, which empowers those living with spinal cord injuries. It’s just been fun to host events, work with these people that have tremendous platforms, to be a bridge to connect them with the community around and be doing something we’re really passionate about.
Tell me more about running your business on a biblical foundation.
Nick: That’s the biggest thing, the foundation obviously to our business is off of “Claim Your Crown.” James 1:12 speaks on perseverance and conviction: “Blessed are those who persevere under trial. Having withstood the test, they will receive the crown of life He has promised to those who love Him.”
We treat every relationship as an opportunity to build an authentic business relationship and the faith piece—you’ll see it come out through the relationship. You see the Christian message throughout our business in the day-to-day, but it’s not in your face. There are companies that have done a good job of this. It’s obvious that in the south it’s more talked about. We’re based in Albany, New York, it’s very cold in the faith area, so we’re kind of the light in some darkness and that’s where we believe we’re called to be based out of here because we need to be that witness. We don’t require every employee to be Christian, even though pretty much everyone is. They align with our values. It’s a huge piece of who we are, we’re not going to shy away from that.
What is the customer reach for NOVUS?
Garrett: I think we’re probably in 48 of 50 states.
Nick: Yeah, we probably ship to 48 of the 50 states. We have some sales reps that carry a strong book of business in California. We do a lot of business in Denver, Colorado. Within Kansas City, the Harrison Bukter relationship we’ve done a lot. In the Midwest, in Kansas, now we’ve partnered with the University of Maine as well; we’re in their collegiate bookstores. Our book of business in Maine is growing really in the last year or so. We just partnered with the Volleyball League of America (VLA)—It’s a fully professional volleyball league. They’re trying to bring a prominence of a volleyball league in the U.S.A. They’re very prominent overseas, but it’s like “this is America, we should have a legitimate volleyball league, so we’re the uniform and apparel sponsor for the Volleyball League of America. They have 18 throughout the country, two in California, one in Arizona, two in the midwest and a couple here in the Northeast. So that’s been big for us. They’ve kind of attacked the volleyball world.
We’re definitely throughout the country and we want to be known as a national brand; that’s our dream and that’s our goal. We believe everybody needs apparel, but they need to be impacted as well.
It appears things are going well for NOVUS.
Nick: We’ve kind of exceeded our office space. We actually just closed on a building and we’re planning on moving in June (2022) to a space that’s about four times the amount of space that we’re in now. That is very exciting but there’s a lot of backend planning and renovations going on behind the scenes.
Garrett: That has definitely been a milestone moment for us. Just to be able to buy our own building and have our own NOVUS headquarters. I’ve been having a lot of fun helping design the space. We want to create an amazing experience for our customers that come visit us and set up appointments.
What’s it like working together as brothers?
Garrett: Nick and I have definitely been blessed to just do life together, from the earliest days of playing on the same sports teams, having the same friend group, always feeding off of each other as we work through the ranks and school. Our dad and uncle and grandfather, they had a family business to be a part of; that set the example for us. Working with family is a tremendous blessing and I think Nick and I have seen as our business has grown how we each have qualities that play off of each other well. There are some things that I’m not as good at, but he picks me up and I think he could say the same for me. So we’re able to support each other well. We can go back and forth bickering for sure at times, but at the end of the day we realize we’re doing something we love and we get to go into work every day together. So that’s really something we never want to take for granted. I think we know that we’re both better together. That’s just the way it’s been growing up.
Tell me about your dad, uncle and grandfather and their family business.
Nick: Our grandfather, William (Bill) Bernardo, was a huge role model to us. His parents came through Ellis Island, lived in tenement homes. His father died young, his mother spoke broken English and was raised by his older siblings. He moved up to Albany, which is about two hours north of New York City to where we are now when he was 19, started a life and made a name for himself here in Albany. He came from absolutely nothing. He was always the happiest, jolliest guy who had this presence to him that made you feel better. That kind of charisma was just super inspiring to see throughout our childhood, but then even stepping into the family business out of college… He started an insurance business, a bonding company, and he was just a likable guy because he loved people. He loved being in business but he loved people more. My wife and I had our first child this past July and named our son William after our grandfather.
He told me when I was doing a project; it might have been a case study I had to write up for a business class at Anderson University; he said “Take care of the people that you work with, because they’ll always take care of you.” I think that’s inspired us to really try to lead from a servant perspective. We try to embody that as we continue to grow our business.
Where do you see NOVUS heading in the next few years?
Nick: We’re in the process of getting licensed with the NFL to produce merchandise, not just with the NFL logos but all of the teams. We think that’s going to start the whole process of getting into professional sports like the NBA, MLB, NHL, so it’s definitely a very exciting opportunity. I think the whole collegiate world as well is super exciting.
We want to partner with like-minded businesses too. We had a lot of case studies on Chick-fil-A when I was in the grad program; they’re such a great business to learn from. We want to find those businesses like Chick-fil-A that have done it at a national level that we partner with and provide their employee apparel. We believe as we continue to grow and meet amazing people, we’ll be connected with those types of companies. We’re making some headway on that. That’s what we’re really excited about.
Garrett: We’ve also tapped into the NIL (Name Image Likeness) rulings that came out for college sports and working with collegiate athletes and we developed this initiative called Hometown Crown, where we’re helping collegiate athletes build their own brand to connect with the communities they grew up in. We also help them run events, put on clinics to give back to the kids, because we work with so many young athletes that are playing on these travel teams that look up to those collegiate athletes that are at the level where they want to be.
So we thought with our Hometown Crown Initiative it’s a great way to bridge that gap, help tell the story of the athletes, the heroes of these little kids, and make for a positive experience for everyone involved, so as we continue to grow we definitely see that—just building out more so with more athletes connecting with their hometowns and inspiring young athletes. That would be a fun one to get into.
You guys have been around sports all your life, right?
Garrett: Yeah, we grew up playing baseball, T ball from a very early age. We did play a lot of different sports. Basketball and baseball are probably our top two sports. We played soccer, we played football. Our parents definitely encouraged us to be active, so we definitely have a love for sports.
As kids, could you imagine being in the sports apparel business?
Nick: We always dreamed of having our own business and being able to have our own company, but we didn’t know really what it was going to be.
The dream as a kid was to become a professional baseball player. Our dad, he got drafted out of college and played with the Texas Rangers organization for four or five years, and then he played overseas in Taiwan. He was a really good ball player and we thought we were going to do what our dad did and we’re going to be baseball players.
Well, we found out the hard way in college. Y’know, we were pretty good, but we weren’t that good. But it’s crazy how now, it’s like God had that plan. He knew, yes, we love sports but He made us build relationships in business, and now we’re working with the NFL. We’ve already done deals with the Colorado Rockies, we’ve done an order with. We’ve done work with the Chicago Cubs. It’s like all of a sudden, wait a second, we’re friends with guys that were a lot better than us that are in the league, but we’re making their apparel and they want to meet us, and it’s pretty cool. It’s definitely been cool to see God work in that way. We’re actually doing what we dreamed of doing.
What advice would you give someone about starting a business?
Nick: Have a good network of supporters and mentors. That comes to mind right off the bat.
Garrett: Take on a spirit of humility. Meet people with that genuine humble heart where you never know who you’re meeting, who you’re talking to, who they’re connected to, because for us we’ve seen our relationships in some of the most unlikely circumstances come full circle to where they’ve helped push us along in business. So I think it’s really important that you get out there and network like Nick said, but also when you’re talking to people about your business or what your dreams are, inviting people into that and just learning, knowledge, never overlooking any relationship or person that God puts in your path, because they could be the ones to take you to that next level or connect you to that person.
At the end of the day, what gives you the biggest sense of accomplishment?
Nick: At the end of the day, It's our families and just the blessings of God providing. Being able to work alongside my brother is a dream. But then also to provide for our families and then our team. Just seeing our team thrive and grow and genuinely looking at a team like this… We started this hobby in our college dorm and now we can take a look back and see people are showing up every day and they believe in this. And I think that’s really what means the most to me.
Garrett: I would echo that and add to it the fact that we have an opportunity to play a small part in impacting someone’s life for the better by doing business with them. There’s nothing better than seeing a little league team send us a photo of them at their championship game saying “We’ve claimed our crown.” We sponsored a little league team and in the huddle, before they break, they scream, “Claim Your Crown!” Or a professional athlete who says he really connects with Claiming Your Crown. We’re able to help play a part in inspiring the next generation to go do what they’re called to do, living with that passion and conviction and persevering through their trials—that’s really what gets us fired up, seeing people living in that way, because they know they’re going to make an impact if they do.
Is there anything else you want to say about Anderson University?
Nick: I think the branding and the growth of Anderson just speaks for itself. You’re making improvements not just in the athletic department but the academic. We’re a growing business, but we can look up to Anderson. They’re a growing university that’s gaining more and more traction. We want to run on the same wheels as Anderson.
Garrett: I would also add that we definitely want to shout out and thank all of the staff, the coaches, our best friends that we made on the campus. Jason Rutland and his wife Shelli were amazing role models. Shelli took us under her wing. She hired Nick and I to work at her print shop, so we got to do business with her, which was great. Coach Joe Miller is a tremendous role model to us. Our professors at the business school were really great, and just gave us the confidence to take on life after. We were really inspired by our days at Anderson and we know that our business continues to flourish because of the impact that Anderson had.