Everything old is new again
Crescent Cabinet is an old factory in an old, industrialized area of old and grey Hamilton, Ont. But don’t let that fool you. Like the other facades surrounding it, the entrance to Crescent is a portal to the stories of lives untold. The Hamilton-based manufacturer of high-end custom wood furnishings once went down, for all practical purposes, but now thrives. Let’s start with the company’s owner and president, Livio Passalent.
Passalent’s career in the wood industry wasn’t as predictable as one might think. Although he eventually took over for his father, Danny, it wasn’t originally supposed to happen that way. “Actually,” says Passalent, “my dad often encouraged me to do something else — to go to school and succeed in my own right. Woodworking can be a tough business, and my dad didn’t want me to be stuck in it against my will.”
So Passalent went to McMaster University in Hamilton and graduated with a degree in political science and business. This was during the economic boom times of the 1980s, so there was no lack of opportunity for the young graduate, but something wasn’t right. “Something just kept pulling me back to my roots,” he says. “I just felt I could do more with my life by helping my dad’s business.”
So, back to Crescent Cabinet he came. Ironically, Passalent says he regrets his initial time formally working for the company for not thinking outside the box. “In those first few years, we simply did what we always did,” he says. “If I could go back again, I would have done more looking at the outside world; see how others were innovating, and we weren’t. In our company, it has been a balancing act between doing things old school and new school, so to speak. We do things old school when it comes to craftsmanship and quality, but we have had to augment those values with newer methods. For the most part, I’ve always tried to look ahead.”
However, even during this initial time the company had some foresight, and Passalent says it came from his father. “Through experience, my dad knew good times were followed by tough ones,” he says, “so we thought ahead. We invested in equipment. We kept staff on. We were prepared for the good times and the bad.”
Unfortunately, they weren’t prepared enough. The recession of the early ’90s hit Hamilton harder and longer than most areas in Canada, and even the foresight exhibited at Crescent Cabinet wasn’t enough to avoid extended hardship. According to Passalent, “We did the right thing. We made the right investments. But we got stung. There wasn’t enough work out there for a long time. It was tough.”
It was so tough out there that Passalent remembers driving around town looking for ways out. “Those were some long drives,” he says. “I visited architects that previously had hundreds of clients and were now down to one. I visited construction sites where builders that previously built hundreds of homes were now down to a few dozen. It was devastating.” Continued
This was when Passalent drew upon a skill that has served him well over the years. “I started looking ahead,” he says. “I asked myself what I could do to start shaking things loose.” His answer was Passcoat Finishing, a wood-industry finishing company he started up to capitalize on one aspect of the family business that might withstand the recession.
According to Passalent, “The transition was made a lot easier because I simply used the facilities of Crescent Cabinet to run Passcoat. And it worked. Finishing is one of the overlooked aspects of the wood business, but people always care about how their wood products look, feel, and even sound, so if you can provide outstanding service in this field, you can get ahead.”
Things worked out so well for Passcoat that the company had to move into its own, bigger facilities. Passalent says they sprayed all kinds of products, from crates to high-end furnishings shipped around the world.
As with many successful businesses, others started noticing. In this case, it was Siematic Canada, a kitchen-cabinet manufacturer based in Kitchener, Ont. According to Passalent, “Siematic basically ended up buying the assets of Passcoat. I ended up working for them and overseeing their finishing operations in St. Catharines. Things went really well over there. I guess you could say that my foray into the finishing business worked out pretty well.”
Some people may have been satisfied to spend the rest of their lives in such successful and comfortable circumstances. Not Passalent. He left. He says, “You know, it’s hard to explain. I just don’t like to be complacent. I just felt there was more I could do in the wood business. So, yet again, I came back to Crescent Cabinet. My work there wasn’t complete.”
It was at this point, during the mid-2000s, when Crescent Cabinet’s current approach of melding the old with the new started to take hold. The son, Livio, took what he learned from the outside world in order to innovate. The father, Danny, stuck to what he knew best: making high quality custom wood products. It was a match the son looks upon fondly.
“There was a time where everything my father made in here was by hand,” he says. “Everyone who knew him called him an honourable man. He was mortified when I suggested we buy our first CNC edgebander. But it’s worked out. We then bought a CNC router. We now have a larger edgebander. Recently we bought a CNC beam saw. We need volume on top of craftsmanship to stay ahead in this business.”
Danny Passalent died about a year ago. Their offices at Crescent were once separated by a partition. The son cherishes the time they spent together: “Sometimes it was just those simple things. Even now, I find myself wanting to shout out to my dad on the other side of the partition, seeking his timeless wisdom, wanting to share another moment with the person who taught me everything good I know about this business, and about life.”