What’s next for furniture dealer Custer?
Founder and CEO David Custer to take step back, mentor son Todd on duties of CEO.
Custer Inc. founder and CEO David Custer recently announced the transition of leadership is underway at the business he started in 1981. Custer’s three sons work at the business with one son, Todd, taking the helm of the company. Custer will retain the CEO title for a period of time while taking a back seat, so the Business Journal sat down with him to reflect on his 36 years in business.
Business Journal: How did you know it was time?
David Custer: We’ve been working at this for a long time. We have family meetings every 18 months, and we talk about this and talk about transition and different roles for people in the family. Last year, I turned 69, so I’m in my 70th year on this Earth; it’s about time. I don’t want to get out completely. I love our business, employees, our industry. I just want to get out of day to day. We’ve been prepping for this for some time.
BJ: What’s your role going to be moving forward?
DC: I’m still going to be involved as CEO and chairman. I won’t be around near as much. But one important role is to mentor Todd and help him however I can. I won’t pester him, but if he has questions or wants advice or an opinion, that’s important for me to be here. I have to assure we have a strategy that’s good and right and that we’re implementing it for the future. I have to, not that I’m worried about it, but to ensure the culture remains. People can buy nice furniture at other places, too. One of the things that helps make us successful is our culture. Doing things right, treating customers like kings and queens. Without them, we wouldn’t be here. It’s so simple, but it’s profound.
BJ: What will you do in your free time now?
DC: We did something I never thought we’d do; we bought a condo in Florida. We used to go down there, but we’d sponge off friends and family or rent. Now, we have more time, we thought maybe it does make some sense. So, we’ll spend more time there, we have a Lake Michigan cottage. I’ll still be real involved on a number of civic and community boards. I don’t know what else I’d do. I could golf a couple times a week, but I’m not real handy around the house. I’m not a gardener, I like to read, but I’m not going to sit around all day.
BJ: What led you to start the company?
DC: I started working for Steelcase right out of college and loved Steelcase. It was progressing well there, but my wife and I always wanted to get back to Grand Rapids. We liked the conservative nature, Lake Michigan, we like being able to get anywhere in 20 minutes. We lived in Atlanta, Nashville and Detroit while I was with Steelcase, and there were many times you’d be on the expressway for an hour and a half. It’s a quality of life thing. We wanted all of those things. Fortunately, Steelcase headquarters was in Grand Rapids, so I knew I’d get here someday, but I grew up in an entrepreneurial family business. As much as I loved Steelcase, I thought it might be kind of cool to have my own thing. In 1981, we had a bad recession, and three of our top dealers went bankrupt. Our biggest dealer was in Detroit, and I was regional manager in Detroit and they had a branch in Grand Rapids. Here, they’re bankrupt, I’m thinking that might be kind of cool to buy that dealership. It was a long story, and Steelcase helped. It was a win-win-win. It gave the dealership in Detroit money, it gave Steelcase a good dealership here and it gave me an opportunity to have my own company but still work with Steelcase every day, and they’re still 70 percent of our furniture volume. It really was a great blessing.
BJ: How has the industry changed in 36 years?
DC: Two things: Generation X and Y and how they work, and technology. In the ’80s and ’90s, everyone sat in cubicles. First, this generation works different; putting everyone in cubicles was to give privacy for concentration. That was valid. Today’s generation works different. They like to collaborate more and talk to each other. That’s changed everything. Most of the jobs we’ve worked on in the last five years, they move into 20 percent less space. Big offices are gone. Technology has changed; people don’t need work stations for equipment so large. They don’t have files and need binder bins. A lot of companies now don’t even assign work places to their people. They can work wherever they want because all their files are in their technology.
BJ: How has that affected sales?
DC: Well, you sell less, because before you had cubicles with panels, binder bins and file cabinets. You make up some of that because there are so many more collaborative areas. The other thing is technology is everywhere, visual technology. Every room we have has technology in it now. What’s creating opportunity for us is integrating furniture and technology and interior architectural components. Our customers can get all that from just one source.
BJ: What advice are you leaving with Todd?
DC: Work hard. Maintain the family atmosphere. Work with your brothers. That’s tricky, when you have three siblings working for the same company and as equal shareholders, but there has to be one boss. It’s tricky giving your brother a performance review. We spend a lot of time talking about that. If anything were to ever tear up our family relationship, we’d sell this company. It’s not worth it; family to us is worth everything.
BJ: What advice do you have for someone looking to start a company?
DC: First, you have to have a good backer. Steelcase helped me. Secondly, I got involved in the community right away. I didn’t do that to get business, but I did that to get involved, and once you’re involved, you meet other decision makers and you become known in the community. When you meet the right kind of people, good things happen.
BJ: What’s been the biggest challenge?
DC: Family dynamics, that is tricky and touchy. We spend a lot of time on that and talking about it. The other challenge is we’ve had two or three really tough economic times. It’s tough to cut an employee base or volume in half. When you’re a family-oriented company and you have to downsize, that’s tough.
BJ: What was your favorite thing to happen?
DC: A couple things. Being able to employ people and give them jobs, that gives me satisfaction. Being downtown, we’ve always been downtown in four different locations. The vibrancy of an urban environment is something I’ve always enjoyed. I take great pleasure driving around and seeing all the buildings and making their office environments better. That gives me great pride to see all the buildings we’ve worked in.