If there are two words that aptly describe Mike Bernier, they would be tenacity and determination. Today, as co-owner and president of Realty Group, Bernier enjoys the rewards of a life of hard work and overcoming monumental hardships and setbacks. Through it all, he has persevered, holding close those things he values most in life: his family, his friends, his community, and the amazing people he works with.
“I guess if I could sum it all up in a few words I’d say the moral of my story is that it’s been one with virtually no opportunities and many challenges,” he says. “I was my dad’s youngest of six kids from three different wives. I grew up in a family that struggled financially. It’s not like I ever missed a meal, but times were very tough for a low-income family. For example, for many years there was no heat in the upper level of our house where I slept.”
I guess if I could sum it all up in a few words I’d say the moral of my story is that it’s been one with virtually no opportunities and many challenges.”
In fact, the home where Bernier grew up was built in the late 1800s and, as he describes it, was the bare basics. He also recalls how much his father hated his job, which led to him being a rather distant, almost absentee parent for a significant amount of Bernier’s childhood. On top of this, both parents suffered from their own personal demons.
“Both my parents were alcoholics,” Bernier says. “I think my mom suffered from undiagnosed depression. So, growing up in that dynamic, with my assortment of half-brothers and sisters was a real challenge. I had a lot of trouble developing socially.”
This difficulty manifested itself in serious problems once he began kindergarten. In fact, teachers were so concerned they began testing him for learning disabilities and other possible causes. And, because children can be cruel, Bernier drew an inordinate amount of teasing and sometimes brutal bullying all the way to high school.
“I experienced a lot of isolation and a lot of fear,” he says. “And the fear made it even harder for me to fully engage in school, and subsequently I did very poorly.”
While school life was nearly unbearable, by the time he was 14, Bernier had already obtained his first job.
“I wanted to make some extra money,” he says. “The vehicles my parents had were really old and rusted out, and I was hoping to make enough money to one day buy my own car. But what I found out right away was I didn’t like working. I could barely hold a job for more than six months.”
Upon reflection, Bernier realizes that his father’s attitude toward his own job had probably influenced him more than he realized. But things seem to change when in the 10th grade a gentleman from a local real estate firm came to talk to the students about career opportunities.
“I slept through 90 percent of his presentation,” Bernier admits, “But I never forgot him. And, later in life he was my first manager when I got into real estate.”
BEATING THE 9 TO 5
But that day was still far in the future. After barely graduating high school, Bernier had no real hopes for his future. With no desire to go to college and no clear vision of the career that would suit him, he worked for a while delivering auto parts. He had essentially resigned himself to the fact that he would go through life working menial jobs that he hated. Before long, that all changed.
“I guess I was about 20,” says Bernier. “The girl I was dating had advance placement and went to college to become a paralegal, where she did very well. She was working at a law firm in downtown St. Paul and the attorneys she worked with were saying things to her like, ‘Hey, why are you with that guy? Your boyfriend is a loser working at a dead-end job.’
“That was the last straw for me,” he continues. “I hated working. I hated my place in life, but never thought I could do any better. This is when I decided to get a different kind of job.”
That’s when he found an ad in the newspaper for jobs at a nearby real estate company. Still living at home, Bernier was able to walk the few blocks to the realty office.
“The manager turned out to be the one who had visited my class in the 10th grade,” he says. “After just a half-hour talking with this guy, I was enrolled in real estate classes starting the next Monday.”
The guy who had struggled through school, completed the real estate course in three weeks and within one month had his first client.
“We got to the closing table and the buyer broke down in tears,” Bernier recalls. “I thought I’d done something wrong. I asked, ‘Are you OK?’ But he just smiled and said, ‘I never thought I’d be able to buy a house again. I lost one in foreclosure 10 years ago. Now, here I am, a homeowner again, and you were such a big part of this. I didn’t think I could do it, but you made me believe I could.’
“In that moment, I felt like I’d found my place. I was hooked.”
That was nearly a quarter of a century ago. And while things definitely looked up for Bernier, that wasn’t the end of his struggles.
His was an exceptional start, but Bernier was never satisfied, so was always going the extra mile and pushing himself to excel. Now that he’d found his niche, this new agent was putting in the hard work that it takes to build an incredible career.
“My first year, I think I did nine transactions, and one of those was buying my own home,” he says with pride. “Two others were the selling of my parents’ home and helping them buy another one. Their dream had always been to live in Brainerd, and I was so happy to help make that happen for them. I was starting to feel pretty good about myself. I felt successful and as though I’d really found my place in the world.”
I was starting to feel pretty good about myself. I felt successful and as though I’d really found my place in the world.”
That was all about to come crashing down. “Five months after I moved my parents, my mom called to tell me she was diagnosed with terminal cancer,” says Bernier. “Nine months later, she passed away. My dad didn’t want to stay in Brainerd, so I helped him sell that home and moved him back here and found him another place.”
Sadly, nine months after losing his mother, Bernier also lost his father. It was piling up on him, the culmination of years of bullying, bad breaks and the final crushing blow – losing both parents at such a young age. Bernier was becoming very angry. His response to that was to physically bulk up and hit the gym.
“The next few years of my life, I was amping up my real estate career, but this anger was driving me to be ultra-competitive in a very unhealthy way.”
While the results looked good on paper (by years three and four Bernier was making $150,000-$250,000 a year) what it was doing to him emotionally and personally is a different story.
“I was still only about 25 years old,” he says. “I was making crazy money and I was filled with this burning anger. This led me to do some pretty stupid things.”
Hitting the party scene regularly, Bernier says, “I took out my anger on a lot of people. It’s not like I was out looking for trouble, but I was quick to respond if it was there.”
This led to run-ins with the law and putting himself in some very dangerous situations. He might have gradually let maturity and better judgement guide him if it hadn’t been for the looming recession that was just around the corner.
“By 2007, my income had dropped to a level that couldn’t sustain our lifestyle,” he recalls.
After his father passed, Bernier’s then-wife had knocked on the door of his old family home and convinced the new owners to sell it back to them. Four years later, Bernier built her a “dream home,” something he was terribly proud to be able to offer her.
With the crash, Bernier lost not just one but both homes.
“Real estate was my only sense of identity and it looked like it was all going away,” he says. “So, on a whim we decided to move to San Diego, California and three weeks later we were there.”
Relocating did not however mean leaving his demons behind. Shortly after the move, Bernier had a brutal experience as a direct result of his inability to deal with his anger.
“I was out at a bar and three guys attacked me,” he says. “It was a vicious fight where nobody escaped injury. It was pretty ugly. I realized that my anger was completely out of control.”
Bernier took a unique approach by taking up competitive boxing, where he says he felt he could channel his anger. It certainly helped direct his uncontained anger into a safer and more productive area, but he also discovered another arena where he could shine.
“My focus shifted for the next few years,” he says. “I was still selling a home or two here and there, but my primary focus was on building myself as a fighter. In 2010, my family finally persuaded me to move back home to Minnesota.”
Although he continued for a while with his boxing career, Bernier gradually made his way back into the Minnesota real estate market.
THE ROAD BACK
As Bernier redirected his efforts back toward the business he had come to love, there was a change in how he approached it. No longer just for the love of helping people, he felt driven. Pushing himself, he was working virtually round the clock.
“It wasn’t necessarily a healthy thing,” he admits. “I was working 12-13 hours a day, every day, burning myself out.”
His relentless drive soon had him ranked in the top 50 Real Estate Agents in Minnesota. His goal was to be number 30, and then 29, and so on. He was already closing more than 70 transactions a year, and if he’d stayed the course would have easily been closing more than 100. But his life was about to change again.
In the wake of the recession, Bernier had been focusing his exploding business on bank-owned properties, but with the dawn of 2013 that particular market was drying up. By the end of that year he realized he needed to regroup and refocus his efforts. That’s when he approached his future partner and friend, Long Doan.
“Long and I had both been focusing our business on bank-owned properties, Long on the listing side and me on generating buyer leads,” says Bernier. “We both decided that instead of going our separate ways we’d form what we call a traditional real estate brokerage. But we had a unique model in mind, one that we created from concept.”
In April 2014, the new and improved version of Realty Group was born.
“Before, all I could think about was getting to number one,” says Bernier. “But, once Long and I became partners a huge change came over me. I no longer was focused just on myself and my success, I was thinking, ‘What can I do to help every agent in this brokerage?’ It was no longer about me being number one, but how do I help those new agents who are struggling with just a few transactions a year build their business. My whole focus, and in a sense, my life changed. It’s almost as if by redirecting my energy and focus I was able to realign myself.”
Ironically, over the last few years fueled with this new mindset, Bernier’s success has skyrocketed rather than plunged. But he doesn’t want to talk about his individual success, but rather that of the brokerage and those who make up that very successful business.
“Realty Group has become the fifth largest residential real estate company in Minnesota,” he says with justified pride. “We have roughly 490 real estate professionals now, grown from the original eight. We now own multiple businesses and we are national real estate coaches with Club Wealth. The opportunities that have presented themselves with my change of attitude is nothing short of miraculous.
It’s completely changed me. My happiness, how I engage with people and my relationships have all improved incredibly. That, in a nutshell, is the moral of my story.”
“It’s completely changed me. My happiness, how I engage with people and my relationships have all improved incredibly. That, in a nutshell, is the moral of my story. It’s not just, ‘Hey I had it rough.” It comes down to when you truly start contributing to other people’s lives; that’s when you grow your own.
Bernier no longer struggles with anger issues, but rather appreciates the success. He’s enjoyed overcoming obstacles in the past, and today looks only to the future with a positive and generous attitude.
“Today, my whole mission is helping create agents who have better lives and, through sustainable systems, can enjoy longevity in their career.”