CEO: Jeff Goldberg
Headquarters: Sorrento Mesa
No. of local employees: 120
Revenue: $83 million in 2016, up 80 percent over 2015
A black dog tears through the lobby of Cali Bamboo’s corporate headquarters in Sorrento Valley, nails scrabbling across the hardwood floor.
No one in the room bats an eye: the flooring is made of bamboo, the fast-growing grass used for many of the San Diego company’s products, and the technique used to manufacture the panels makes it an easy match for dog claws.
Today, that bamboo flooring is the company’s top seller, a significant contributor to the $83 million in revenue it hauled in last year.
But more than a decade ago, when co-founders Jeff Goldberg and Tanner Haigwood formulated their business plan during a post-college stint working odd jobs and surfing, they started with something simpler: fencing.
A Natural Resource
Goldberg and Haigwood met as students at the University of Maryland and moved to San Diego after college. Goldberg pursued a career in biotech, but in 2003 he decided to sell most of his possessions and join Haigwood traveling in search of waves to surf. He had been spending nights camping out with his dog in an old van when Haigwood told him about a work exchange program on the Hawaiian island of Kauai.
Haigwood, who had a background in construction, talked the person running the construction site into letting Goldberg come along, too.
“The (general contractor) quickly realized I had absolutely no skills on the jobs site, so they put me on landscaping duty,” Goldberg said.
He was tasked with cutting down bamboo, and eventually started researching the material, recalling its durability and fast rate of growth.
“I had this epiphany that we should be using bamboo as a resource instead of these timbers which you typically have to clear-cut forests to get,” Goldberg said.
Clear-cutting, a harvesting method in which swaths of trees are cut down, reduces the amount of carbon dioxide being removed from the atmosphere and accelerates habitat loss which contributes to animal extinctions.
Bamboo, however, isn’t harvested via clear-cutting.
“The ideal way to harvest it is by picking columns at certain ages, which aren’t necessarily next to each other,” he said. “It’s more like a light pruning.”
“There’s not a lot of manufacturing involved,” said Goldberg, a plus for the pair of business novices.
It was a lucky break — well, sort of — that ended up jump-starting the company’s launch. Shortly after they came up with the idea to make building products out of bamboo, Goldberg broke his leg, forcing him to return to San Diego. As he recuperated, he fleshed out the plan for Cali Bamboo, starting with the company’s mission and purpose.
Raised with a love of the outdoors, Goldberg and Haigwood said they were determined to pursue a business venture that would have a positive effect on the natural world.
“There was no real big commercial industry in the United States using bamboo, certainly not as construction materials,” Goldberg said. “It just seemed like a really good commercial opportunity that had huge benefits for the environment.”
In early 2004, Goldberg persuaded Wells Fargo to give him a $50,000 line of credit on the one possession he hadn’t sold in pursuit of a low-key surfing lifestyle, a townhome in Clairemont. It was the only financing the company needed until it was bought in 2015 by a private equity firm,
Manufacturing in China
After tracking down manufacturers willing to make fencing from bamboo through the China-based e-commerce giant Alibaba Group, Cali Bamboo received its first shipment from China, — where its products are made — in August 2004.
Goldberg and Haigwood drove throughout Southern California knocking on doors, making phone calls and sending out mailers, hauling along the bamboo to show prospective customers, including homeowners and contractors, exactly what they were hawking.
“Trying to convince people bamboo was a good idea was a tough thing to do,” said Goldberg, today the company’s CEO.
Many of the concerns weren’t about sustainability; it was about the material’s basic usability, he recalls.
“They said: ‘It’s round.’ Or, ‘I’ve never seen it before. What is it?’ It was very, very different than traditional building materials,” he said.
Terms that are mainstream today — green, renewable, sustainability — weren’t yet in widespread use.
“It was a little before its time,” he said.
They also posted ads on Craigslist, the barebones classifieds site.
One day the business line they had established rang, and on the other end was a woman from Arizona interested in buying the fencing.
“We were kind of shocked it was ringing and it wasn’t a wrong number,” Goldberg said. “(Tanner) explained how great the product was and lo and behold, 20 minutes later, she gave him her credit card number.”
One obstacle: they hadn’t gotten a credit card terminal yet.
Nevertheless, the lesson of that call for Cali Bamboo was the ease of selling online versus in person.
They became one of the first building products companies to use Google AdWords for search engine marketing and built a competitive advantage around being one of the few companies in the industry selling directly to consumers online, rather than through retailers, Goldberg said.
“That’s still a huge component to our company and how we go to market on things,” he said.
By the summer of 2005, seven Cali Bamboo employees were working out of Goldberg’s townhome, tossing cordless phones across the room to answer sales calls and using closet doors as desks.
They quadrupled revenue year over year and as growth accelerated, moved into the company’s first commercial space, an 8,000-square-foot office building in Sorrento Mesa.
“Everything was on the fly, but it ended up being a competitive advantage because we were able to be creative and do things very differently from most of the people in this type of industry, which is kind of old-school,” Goldberg said.
Word of their products spread from satisfied homeowners, who liked how the material looked and held up, to the designers and architects with whom they worked.
“That’s how every one of our channels started, by marketing and selling our products directly to the end consumers, and those end consumers driving demand through other buying channels,” Goldberg said.
Selling online also has allowed the company to test out any products that may eventually be sold by a retailer to gauge popularity and make any changes before they appear in stores, said Haigwood, executive vice president of business development.
Cali Bamboo’s foray into manufacturing and retail flooring, now perhaps its best-known product, started in 2007.
The company decided to use a manufacturing technique to make what’s called fossilized bamboo, or shredded bamboo and adhesives packed down to create a denser material that can be impressed with texture and color.
The company also has expanded into other products, including decking and paneling, and other materials, including cork and eucalyptus, which are also considered sustainable resources.
They’ve even launched a line of vinyl flooring, which has historically been maligned for the emissions the material can release and the presence of some unpleasant chemical compounds; Cali Bamboo says tests of its version show it releases fewer emissions than what is present in the air we breathe and very low levels of such compounds. The planks include recycled cork.
As the company expanded, although it had historically sold directly to consumers, it began working with home improvement retailer Lowe’s.
Soon, “they wanted a significant partnership,” Goldberg said.
Cali Bamboo began looking for a private equity firm to buy the company and provide the capital it needed to take on Lowe’s as its biggest customer.
Private Equity Buys It
New York private equity firm High Road Capital Partners acquired the firm in 2015 for undisclosed terms.
Since then, growth has accelerated, with the number of local employees topping 100 last year, rising 47 percent year over year. The company says it is hiring an average of about five new employees per month.
The company recently expanded its corporate headquarters from the 15,000-square-foot portion of the office to which it moved in 2014 into the rest of the building, an additional 8,800 square feet; its first office outside Sorrento Mesa is slated to open sometime this summer, in Carlsbad.
Revenue in 2016 beat out 2015’s numbers by 80 percent, rising to $83 million; Petco Park installed the company’s decking in right center-field ahead of the All-Star Game last year.
Today, the company’s main challenges are finding employees who are a good fit with its mission-driven, casual culture — the dog that scrabbled through the lobby was no anomaly in the open concept, pet-friendly workplace — and focusing its growth.
“All the areas we service and all the products we offer are all billion-dollar spaces,” Haigwood said. “It’s about focus, but it’s also a tremendous opportunity.”