Business Spotlight | Fall 2018

Custer Inc.: Designing & furnishing modern offices & workspaces

Custer Inc. empowers people to do their best work through modern workspaces

By Brooke Bilyj

Through two generations, three business names and several specialty divisions, Custer Inc. has evolved from an office furniture dealer into a full-service “interior integrator.” As the family-owned company has grown, it has helped clients across the country transform their workspaces from plain, drab offices into energetic, high-tech hubs of collaboration and productivity.

Custer Office Environments opened in March 1981 with 17 employees, when founder David Custer bought an office furniture dealership in Grand Rapids. In addition to selling desks, chairs and other office furniture, Custer provided planning and design services to help clients lay out and outfit their offices to maximize productivity.

Custer initially focused exclusively on office environments, as its name implied. With that focus through the 1980s and ’90s, Custer’s presence grew throughout western Michigan. But over time, the way companies utilized physical office space shifted dramatically. So to keep the business relevant as the founder transitioned the company to his three sons, Custer had to adapt to changing times.

“Technology changed the landscape of the workspace,” says David’s son, Todd Custer, who became president of the firm in January 2017. “During my dad’s reign, more people were working in offices with big cubicles and private workstations. Now with laptops and wireless, you can work wherever you are. Private offices have gone away, and individual workstations have gotten smaller as companies dedicate more space to collaboration areas. That means, for us, we sell less furniture, so we’ve had to bring in other capabilities and services to offset that.”

Through the generations, Custer evolved to create modern workspaces “that connect people and empower them to do their best work,” according to the company mission.

Left: One of Custer Inc.'s offices. Right: Todd Custer, President. (Credit: Tom McKenzie)

Diverse market reach

To remain relevant through the generations as technology transformed the modern workplace, Custer continued to expand its offerings across multiple industries. Beyond its core focus of office environments, the company’s leaders realized that other types of facilities needed interior facelifts, too.

In 2006, it launched Custer HealthWorks, a division focused on designing patient rooms and other hospital environments. With this addition, the company rebranded as Custer Workplace Interiors to signify its interior expertise beyond office environments in other vertical markets.

Then in 2010, the firm diversified again with Custer Education, a division dedicated to designing educational spaces in K-12 schools, as well as college and university environments.

“By forming separate divisions, we had 100 percent focus on those new markets through dedicated salespeople, dedicated designers and dedicated installers,” Custer says.

In 2011, the firm launched Custer Technology, a division with its own engineers and programmers focused on integrating audiovisual equipment and other technology products into clients’ workspaces. In 2016, Custer started a division called Renegade that provides custom millwork for reception stations and other specialty carpentry projects. That year, the company also acquired two electrical firms that it spun off into a separate division.

This diversification positioned Custer as a one-stop shop for floor-to-ceiling interior solutions.

“Think of us as an interior integrator,” Custer says. “We’re putting in carpet, furniture, AV and technology equipment, electrical and other architectural products. We’re looking at everything within the interior of a space, from floor to ceiling.”

To establish itself as a full-service firm composed of a multitude of specialties across industries, the company rebranded again in 2017 as Custer Inc.

“Everyone just called us Custer anyway, so it made sense to simplify our name to represent the umbrella over all of these services and divisions,” Custer says. “No one else offers the wide array of everything we offer all under one roof. We’re different because we’re a one-stop shop.”

One thing has remained constant throughout Custer’s rebranding and diversification: the firm’s core belief that “great environments are good for organizations.” The firm embodies this internally with a family-oriented culture that drives Custer’s flexible approach to serving customers’ changing needs.  

The biggest lesson I’ve learned is the importance of constantly looking ahead to the future and asking, ‘Where are we? Where are we going? Where do we want to be?'
Todd Custer
President, Custer Inc.

Family atmosphere

As the company expanded over time, the Custer family worked diligently to maintain its close-knit atmosphere by promoting flexible work schedules, open-door policies and plenty of employee appreciation events.

“If you need to leave early to coach your son’s baseball game, by all means, do it,” Custer tells employees. “Or if you want your wife and kids to come in for lunch, invite them. We try to promote family first to maintain that family feel.”

Although the first generation is semi-retired, founder David Custer still serves as chairman of the board, and his wife, Karen, is still involved with planning employee parties and customer events. Their involvement has fostered a smooth transition to Todd and his brothers, Mark Custer, who serves as vice president of business relations, and Scott Custer, vice president of new ventures and investments.

By upholding their parents’ core values and strategic vision to stay ahead of industry trends, the second generation of Custers is propelling the family business ahead into new markets and opportunities.

“The biggest lesson I’ve learned is the importance of constantly looking ahead to the future and asking, ‘Where are we? Where are we going? Where do we want to be?’ and driving toward that over the long term, not just from a day-to-day or week-to-week standpoint,” Todd Custer says. “Our goal, as the second generation, is to turn this into a third-generation business. So what do we have to do to evolve into different capabilities and vertical markets, to survive? That foresight and long-term strategic vision have been pivotal to our growth.”

Custer colleague enjoys his work space. (Credit: Tom McKenzie)

Design on display

When prospective clients ask to see examples of Custer’s work, the firm can point to plenty of its installations throughout Western Michigan and beyond. But perhaps the best examples come from Custer’s own facilities, which serve as working showrooms to display how the company implements its own design advice.

Custer invites customers to its office to see, for example, that none of Custer’s executives occupy private offices, not even the president. Instead, most of the space is dedicated to communal areas, with enclaves where employees can work. In addition, the entire environment is integrated with AV so employees can connect with each other, wherever they are.

“If you walk through our space, you can see where we’re living our brand story,” Custer says. “We spend a lot of money on our facilities to make sure that the design of our space reflects what we’re telling our clients to do. That’s why we’re renovating or updating every couple of years, to make sure our space stays relevant.”

Custer Inc. has grown 40 percent over the last six years and now has 130 employees across five locations. And although the company’s main territory is the western half of Michigan, several large local clients have engaged Custer at locations across the country, from California to New York.

Custer represents more than 200 furniture manufacturers and other suppliers to offer customers an unmatched selection of products to fit every style and budget. By growing alongside its customers through the generations, Custer is positioned to keep expanding into the future.


The work environment of the future

When Huntington relocated its Grand Rapids office to the Michigan Trust Building in 2016, the bank’s West Michigan Regional President John Irwin, wanted to “create the work environment of the future” in a landmark building originally constructed in 1892.

To update the historic space and literally blow the doors off the office, Huntington collaborated with Custer Inc. to complete the interior renovation of the sixth and seventh floors. Custer provided furniture, finishes, workplace technology and custom privacy screens throughout the space, which doesn’t have doors on any of the offices, not even Irwin’s.

“What we’ve done intentionally is to create spaces where people are going to collide,” Irwin says. As a result, “the energy we have here is better than I’ve ever seen.”

For example, the space includes a work cafe where Huntington colleagues can socialize and collaborate, huddle rooms and privacy lounges where they can meet with clients, and meeting rooms of various types and sizes, equipped with videoconferencing capabilities.

“It’s not your typical bank environment with a bunch of private offices,” says Custer Inc. President Todd Custer. “It’s very lively, open, collaborative and technology-driven, in line with John’s vision of making it a vibrant, inviting, innovative space.”

Custer’s designers worked closely with Huntington’s team to complete the space, selecting finishes and furnishings that reflect the bank’s unique corporate identity and welcoming culture.

“Custer and the design team were able to come up with solutions that meet our needs,” Irwin says. “The kind of treatment we got from them during this process is the treatment that we want to give our customers here.”

Just as Custer helped usher Huntington into the future through this renovation, Huntington helps Custer prepare for future growth financially by providing both personal and corporate banking services to the Custer family.

“Huntington has been a fantastic help to us,” Custer says. “They’ve given advice on how to use our money and a line of credit to fund us when we needed it. They’ve been a huge support to our daily operations.”  

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