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A ‘barter baron’ with a knack for recruiting Rotary members


One day in the mid-1960s, a salesperson walked into Bernie Bregman’s paint manufacturing plant in Syracuse, New York, and urged him to join Barter Mart, a company that facilitated barter exchanges. With a one-time sign-up fee, participants, who could be individuals or companies, could exchange goods and services, with the company earning a commission on each transaction. Bregman loved the idea and soon became a member. Once, he managed to persuade a candle-maker to sign up. They ended up bartering for advertising.

“People barter all the time — with their lawyers, their accountants,” says Bregman, a 52-year member of the Rotary Club of Eastwood (Syracuse). In later years, he became the marketing director for the Syracuse Trading Exchange, another barter company that allowed members to also trade for credits toward goods and services. He eventually ran the company and part of his pay was in trading credits. “I stayed in Las Vegas with my family on my barter credits,” he says. “I’ve gotten a hot tub and works of art from trading credits.”

A local magazine gave him the nickname “barter baron” in 1983 when he was with the Trading Exchange. At 91, Bregman says bartering still gives him a high. He is now a member of a Wisconsin-based barter company. Each time he brings in a new member, he gets $100 in trade credits.

A gregarious man with the energy of a person 30 years younger, he also uses his formidable networking skills to help Rotary. For the past 12 years, Bregman has served as co-chair of his club’s membership committee. “Rotary International has a 50+ club for people who have recruited more than 50 members,” he says. “Over the last five decades, I’ve recruited more than 150.” One of his secrets is to monitor local media for promising candidates. “I’m not afraid to cold call people and invite them to our club meetings,” he says.

Three of the club’s four monthly meetings feature speakers, which can be a source for prospective Rotary members. “The speeches are everything,” says Bregman, who has been on a mission to bring diverse members to the club. “I reached out to the Syracuse chapter of 100 Black Men, a national leadership group. Their president gave a speech and I asked him to become a member. He joined, and pulled in his vice president. We now have 27 percent nonwhite membership.”

Another of Bregman’s notable recruits is entrepreneur Tai Ngo Shaw, who came to Buffalo in 1982 at the age of 10 as a Vietnamese refugee, and was adopted by a local family. Four decades later, Shaw is a prominent business owner and real estate investor, as well as a leader in Syracuse’s Vietnamese community. “I saw that Tai Ngo Shaw was speaking at the local NAACP chapter,” says Bregman. “I called Tai, a complete stranger, and asked him to speak at my Rotary club. It was a big success.” Shaw joined the Eastwood club in 2021.

Image credit: Kate Warren

When the club celebrated its 60th anniversary in November 2021, it had 28 members. Bregman and others in the club brought their membership promotion efforts into overdrive. “With the new members in January, we are up to about 70,” he says. For Bregman, pulling in a new Rotary member is like sales. “When I bring in somebody, it keeps me going,” he says.

Bregman studied journalism at Syracuse University, and after his Army service, he was a reporter for a Syracuse TV station. Laid off right before his wedding in 1957, he answered an ad for “an able-bodied man” and became a door-to-door Fuller Brush salesman. It turned out that his charisma and outgoing personality made him very successful at sales. “I am a bit of character,” admits Bregman. “As a former journalist, I know how to make a story.”

Recently retired after spending 32 years as the marketing director for the Central New York Business Journal, Bregman stays active. He thinks of all his activities as part of his network. “I work out of the solarium in our house, making calls all day. My wife wants me to do projects around the house. I just shrug my shoulders,” he says sheepishly. On a recent Monday, Bregman made 50 phone calls to remind people of the next day’s meeting. “It is a way to connect, to see if people are sick or out of town,” he says.

Last spring when he brought in Syracuse Mayor Ben Walsh to speak, Bregman experienced a first. “The president of the club suddenly announced that the mayor had declared March 28 to be Bernard B. Bregman Day. I received one of those proclamations,” Bregman said. “It was a nice thought.”

An abbreviated version of this story originally appeared in the March 2024 issue of Rotary magazine.

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