From Undergrads to Entrepreneurs

When Nick and Garrett Bernardo (Class of 2014 and 2015, respectively) rented an apartment in New Jersey to play summer baseball, they had no idea it would start a business venture. The brothers sublet an apartment from Scott Klimchak, a Rutgers University lacrosse player. The trio became best friends and co-owners of NOVUS, a clothing company that offers sportswear and apparel to teams and corporations. Garrett is the CEO/Creative Director, Nick is the COO/Director of Sales, and Scott is the CSO/Director of Outside Sales.

NOVUS is Latin for “fresh and new beginnings.” “When we started, we thought it was cool to use the Latin root of “fresh”,” Garrett says. “As we’ve grown as a brand, the name NOVUS encapsulates our mantra of living a life of passion, conviction, and perseverance.”

The three undergrads had an idea to sell crewnecks and tank tops to their friends on the Rutgers and UMaine campuses. “NOVUS wasn’t a real business at that time, but we all had a passion for the idea and enjoyed coming up with new designs to sell and meeting new people through our sales,” Garrett says.

“UMaine was always on my radar due to my parents,” Nick says. “They met their freshman year in Stevens Hall!” The brothers grew up vacationing in Maine from their home in New York. When deciding where to attend college and play baseball, Nick and Garrett already felt like UMaine was a second home. Both brothers were members of the University of Maine men’s baseball team – Nick played first base, and Garrett played infield and outfield.

The Bernardo’s also grew up watching their father, uncle, and grandfather run the family business—a bail bond and insurance business. Nick, a management major, always wanted to have his own business. Garrett followed in his big brother’s footsteps and joined the Maine Business School. “I thought it would be cool to possibly have classes together,” Garrett says.

Their favorite classes included Business Leadership, Organizational Behavior, Finance, and Entrepreneurship and New Venture Creation. They also learned a lot from local business owners, including Bob Cutler, who started The Family Dog, and Kostas Bazmpas from the Orono House of Pizza. “I’d pick their brains and educate myself on what they knew about entrepreneurship,” Nick says.

As a senior, Garrett found himself applying NOVUS to almost everything he was learning in his business and entrepreneurship classes. “As I began to learn more about my passions and strengths, I started to believe this business idea could turn into my full-time job,” he says. “I knew it would take time.”

Garrett says that UMaine was the fuel behind the fire of NOVUS. “From the classroom, I was pushed to step outside my comfort zone,” he says. “My public speaking class and making presentations in my business classes helped me discover my strengths. On the baseball diamond, I learned what it was like to be a team player and how to be selfless and work hard towards achieving a common goal.”

What separates NOVUS from other sports apparel companies is how they source their material and build their product offerings from scratch. “Our customization abilities and embellishments are far superior to your standard custom apparel company,” Nick says. “We have no middle man and have spent more than eight years developing relationships with exclusive factories to produce our apparel.”

This level of customization led to NOVUS’s first professional athlete partnership with Harrison Butker in July 2020. Butker is a kicker on the Kansas City Chiefs football team. NOVUS worked with him to create his own clothing line. “From the first time we met with Harrison, it felt like a brotherhood,” Garrett says. “Harrison was on the same page as Nick and I – wanting to use his platform as an athlete to make an impact. It was affirming for us to meet and build a relationship with an elite professional athlete who truly believed in us and what we’re doing.”

The brothers say that the COVID-19 pandemic was a blessing in disguise. When COVID hit, all sports came to a halt, devastating for a sports-focused custom apparel company like NOVUS. Nick, Garrett, and Scott were forced to think differently and pivoted to focus on outfitting essential businesses. “The state police, construction companies, fire departments, and other corporate businesses were new accounts, which resulted in another crucial piece to our business revenue stream that we didn’t have before COVID,” Nick says.

NOVUS hasn’t been an overnight success, but that’s just fine with Nick and Garrett. Establishing trust with their customers and clients is the most important thing to them, and that takes time. “We challenge ourselves each day to ‘stay small’ from an overall mindset of how we want to grow our business,” Garrett says. “What I mean by that is we’re always ensuring we do everything to give our customers our very best service and being intentional in the way we go about that as we continue to grow. We are very grateful for the support so many have given us. It keeps us grounded and helps us treat every opportunity with the same excitement we had when we first started.”

This mindset led to the brothers creating the UMaine Claim Your Crown Fund in 2021. This endowed fund provides financial assistance for purchasing athletic team championship mementos. The first benefactors were the UMaine 2021 America East Field Hockey Champions.

NOVUS has committed to contributing to the Claim Your Crown Fund for the next five years. “As we continue to work hard on growing our business, we’re excited to work along UMaine and their commitment to excellence in both academics and athletics,” Garrett says. Nick adds, “We are a mission-driven company, and giving back to the community and those that helped get us to where we are today is all part of our greater plan. Maine has always held a special place in our hearts.”

If you’d like to contribute to the Claim Your Crown fund, click here.