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It Pays To Listen

Even though Bill Palmer is the president of his $11 million company, Fremont-based Commercial Casework Inc., he often takes more orders from his employees than they take from him. But Palmer likes being bossed around — it’s why he’s so successful.

Palmer cut his teeth working for his father’s woodworking company, Palmer & Associates, as a college student at San Jose State. When the business went bankrupt in 1976, Palmer, two of his brothers, and five other men who had also worked for his father vowed to resurrect the business. The only one with any business experience, Palmer was chosen to lead the company.

Management turned out to be a heavier responsibility than Palmer anticipated, although his first big hiring decision — offering his then 62-year-old father a job as an estimator — was easy enough.

“We didn’t know what we were doing,” said Palmer. “I thought I knew everything because I had a B.S. in business finance, but that’s what it was — b. s.”

After renaming the company Commercial Casework Inc. and moving it to Fremont, Palmer called all the clients whose projects hadn’t been completed by Palmer & Associates and offered to finish them for peanuts.

Thanks to referrals and the savings and loan boom of the mid-’70s, Commercial Casework Inc. was subsequently able to land several projects with financial institutions. When the savings and loan industry ran its course, the company stumbled into store fixture work and general contracting.

“It would be great to say how profound we were in our forward thinking,” said Palmer. “But we just got lucky and fell into things.”

Although the company was steadily growing in volume, it wasn’t turning a huge profit. And after 15 years, Palmer was getting restless. He knew there had to be a way to accelerate his company’s growth, but he didn’t know what to do. Then he read an article in Inc. magazine about open-book management — sharing company information with your employees that would usually remain confidential.

“It was so logical it almost made you feel like an idiot for not trying it sooner,” said Palmer. “Business is like football: In football, when the team goes out on the field, each player knows his position and how to play it, and he also knows the score.” But in most businesses, employees are usually kept in the dark about the company’s finances, and therefore don’t necessarily understand why they’re supposed to do what their managers tell them.

“The rules in the game of business are numbers, so we teach financial literacy,” said Palmer. “We don’t just show employees income statements, we have a class on how to read them.”

Employees at Commercial Casework Inc. are currently divided into three teams: the Great Game Advisory Committee, the group which develops the company bonus plan; the Innovation Team, which decides what machines and parts the company will purchase; and the Save-a-Day Committee, the group that thinks of ways to speed up projects.

Since Palmer began implementing the open-book method in 1993, profits have increased by 700 percent, revenue per employee has jumped from $99,000 to $125,000, and annual sales have grown from $4 million to $11 million. Clearly, Palmer can make more money by doing what he’s told rather than telling others what to do. Palmer says his employees are happier, too.

“One of the measures of employee satisfaction is how active they are in the community,” said Palmer. “And community service has become part of our psyche.”

Commercial Casework Inc. employees currently volunteer for Christmas in April, PARKA, and the YMCA, and the company often matches donations employees make to those organizations. Considering how much responsibility his employees have assumed, you might wonder why Palmer bothers to go to work anymore.

“They tell me I should get out and meet customers,” said Palmer. “So now that’s what I spend a lot of my time doing.”