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Commercial Casework Inc. Crafts Quality

In 2009, business came to a grinding halt for Commercial Casework Inc. As with other companies in the field of construction, the slow economy pounded the firm, which manufactures and installs custom architectural woodwork and cabinetry for both residences and commercial offices.

The recession in 2009 was the most dramatic downturn that founder and CEO Bill Palmer has seen in 37 years of running the business.

“A big part of our success is getting people to think like owners,” says Palmer, left, with his son, Nick, in their 42,000-square-foot Fremont production and office facility.
– Spencer Brown

“We went from a revenue of $13 million in 2008 to $7 million in 2009,” Palmer said. But thanks to having experienced multiple recessions, he knew what kind of adjustments the company had to make to adapt, and he cut staff, hours and benefits quickly and deeply so that he didn’t have to do it again.

But business is booming again for Commercial Casework Inc., having grown from 2010 revenue of $9.7 million to $16.8 million in 2012 with clients that include Google, Apple, Salesforce and Yelp. What is Palmer’s advice for both steering a company through rough financial times and booming growth?

“Grow as fast as your cash flow does,” said Palmer. “Focus on cash flow.”

That, and the open book style of management he uses for his company, in which he keeps financial numbers transparent for all his employees, updating them all in a weekly meeting every Wednesday morning so they can see how well the company is doing — and thus how their bonuses will turn out.

“A big part of our success is getting people to think like owners,” Palmer explained. In educating his employees about the company’s finances, he motivates their performance, and higher performance translates to higher revenue. Palmer takes it a step further in hosting classes for his employees about economic literacy, using open book management methods laid out in a book by Jack Stack.

It’s an unusual type of management in the construction field, said Vistage International CEO Coach Sterling Lanier, who has worked with Palmer in the Vistage group, a network for CEOs to meet and share advice. “This disclosure has made a huge positive impact, and Bill really cares about the people there,” Lanier said. “I think he has one of the best-run companies I’ve ever seen of that size.”

Financial literacy and stability mean a lot to Palmer, who studied finance in school and watched his father’s company — also a woodwork and cabinetry manufacturer — go bankrupt almost 40 years ago. Soon after, he and his brothers started Commercial Casework Inc.

It remains a family business today. Palmer’s son Nick will take his place eventually, he said, and some nephews work at the company. With 85 employees, the firm recently added 2,000 square feet of office space to its existing 40,000 square feet of office and production space in Fremont. For a company that has been around a long time, Palmer said, it can be hard to focus on innovation, but that’s what it tries to do, seeking ways to constantly improve and use technology that can bring more efficiency, such as the computerized saws that have replaced what used to be simple table saws.

Commercial Casework Inc. is also working with different types of clients. Thanks to the Bay Area tech boom, it has worked on projects at major technology firms, whereas it used to do more work for banks and law firms. Palmer’s industry is different than it was when he started the company in 1976.

Running a company involves constant learning, Palmer said, “You quickly realize you don’t know anything.”