Robert Bergenheim; founded Boston Business Journal

Robert C. Bergenheim Robert C. Bergenheim
By Emma Stickgold
Globe Correspondent / June 10, 2010

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He lit kerosene heaters at 5 a.m. to keep his workers warm in winter, took out the office trash, and thrived in a setting where the ceiling bowed under the weight of the historic Citgo sign.

For Robert C. Bergenheim and his team of journalists, the early days of the Boston Business Journal were filled with the myriad of challenges that could be expected of starting a business from scratch.

The goal was to create a publication that explored all aspects of business news — and it took about three years of scrimping and saving to make the business journal and Boston Business Magazine a financial success.

“I went through hell,’’ he told a reporter for a 2001 story.

Newspaper Row had lost its luster, and the Globe and Boston Herald were the only survivors, but, “I said, there’s going to be a business journal in this town. If we don’t do it now, we’ll never do it,’’ he said in the 2001 interview.

So the veteran journalist, who cut his career teeth at the Christian Science Monitor, launched the new publication, which led to a sister publication in Providence. P&L The Boston Business Journal debuted March 2, 1981, later dropping the P&L (profit and loss).

Mr. Bergenheim, who served as publisher of the Boston Herald American in the 1970s, died Saturday at his home in Naples, Fla. Family said several health conditions led to his death at age 86.

“Bob Bergenheim was a newsman who combined vision with integrity,’’ said Peter Kadzis, executive editor of the Boston Phoenix, who worked with Mr. Bergenheim on the Boston Business Journal’s launch. “Long before most others, he saw that business news was going to be a bigger player than ever before.’’

His son Roger was working at the Phoenix when his father called. “He called me and said ‘How would you want to set up a business journal?’ ’’ said Roger, of Providence. “So we started gathering information.’’

Getting the paper going was a struggle — at times, Mr. Bergenheim leaned on credit cards to cover payroll, and at least one early team member suffered singed pants after a close encounter with the kerosene heaters.

As the publication’s reputation spread, the number of investors and advertisers grew, and the paper was soon profitable.

“He was firmly dedicated to the idea that a newspaper’s job was first . . . to inform, and by keeping readers informed, with tough views, he had created an audience that advertisers were born to reach,’’ Kadzis said.

“The timing was excellent; high tech and health care and investment banking were coming into vogue,’’ said Nancy Gaines, founding editor of the paper.

“I think he just had a very solid, strong sense of self, sense of character, sense of nobility.’’

In Duxbury, where he lived during his years as Boston Herald American publisher, he often spent weekends grooming his yard. And he liked to fix things around the house.

“He was always up and positive about things that were happening,’’ Roger said. “I think he made people feel at ease. He came from not a lot of money growing up, and I don’t think he ever forgot his roots.’’

Mr. Bergenheim grew up in Dorchester, and went to work for the Christian Science Monitor as a copy boy at age 17. In 1944, he joined the Navy, and served in the Pacific during World War II.

In the mid-1940s, while at a Christian Science youth group picnic, he met Elizabeth McKee, whom he wed in 1947.

Back at the Monitor at the end of the war, Mr. Bergenheim was selected to become a reporter, writing city news.

“He had such a wonderful time in the Curley years,’’ his wife said. “[Mayor James Michael] Curley was such a wonderful storyteller. He was very fortunate to work at a very interesting time — and he loved reporting.’’

Mr. Bergenheim was selected for a fellowship at the Nieman Foundation at Harvard as part of the Class of 1954 and returned to the Monitor as a reporter before serving as news and city editor from 1957 to 1960.

When he became assistant manager and then manager of the Christian Science Publishing Society, colleagues and family began to see how well he could separate business and news functions. But his wife said his eyes lit up when he was called once to cover the arrival of a prominent politician at Logan Airport.

He was hired in the early 1970s to work for the McClatchy newspaper chain, but returned to Boston in 1975 to breathe new life into the Boston Herald American as its publisher.

At the Herald American, which was then owned by the Hearst Corp., his energy and ability to hire good leaders were among traits that made him stand out. “He could conduct business with dignity and style and the expertise he learned over the years at the Christian Science Monitor and other venues, but he was a still a kid in a candy shop and he never lost that enthusiasm,’’ said Geoffrey Precourt, whom Mr. Bergenheim brought in to be an editor.

After about five years, Mr. Bergenheim took a post at Boston University, where he helped smooth labor relations as vice president of legal affairs, human relations, and public relations.

“It was a very turbulent period,’’ said Joseph Mercurio, now executive vice president at Boston University. “He worked very hard to establish the base for what has been, now, probably 30 years of labor tranquillity.’’

Mercurio credited Mr. Bergenheim’s diplomatic approach and understanding of the psychology of employees. “He was charming to his colleagues, he was charming to his subordinates, he was charming to the folks on the union working on the other side.’’

But Mr. Bergenheim soon realized how much he missed the news business and launched the Boston Business Journal. Two years after he expanded the franchise to Providence in 1986, he sold the Boston Business Journal, Boston Business magazine, and half-ownership of the Providence Business News to a Minnesota-based publishing company.

He bought the Providence paper back in 1990. “He always used to tell me he was born with ink in his blood,’’ Mercurio said.

In addition to his wife and son, Mr. Bergenheim leaves three other sons, Robert Jr. of Pooler, Ga., Ronald of Boston, and Michael of Estero, Fla.; two daughters, Carol of Pelham, N.Y., and Kristine of Carlisle; a granddaughter; and four grandsons. His son Richard died in 2008.

Services are private.