Setting Boundaries. Building Bonds.
The links that connect Commercial Fence Corporation’s people and purpose
From husband to wife, brother to brother, father to son, and friend to friend, Seattle-based Commercial Fence Corporation’s identity is interwoven like the steel that binds a chain link fence.
This small company of just 29, founded by Dale and Cheryl Duke in 1994, has progressively become one of the region’s top commercial fencing specialists with names like Sound Transit, Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT), the University of Washington and the Seattle Seahawks on its impressive customer list. Commercial Fence specializes in industrial, commercial and public works projects. Fencing systems include chain link, ornamental, architectural wire, wood fence, automated gates and access controls.
For the owners and employees, the company does more than fence installation; it offers a path to professional growth and personal connections.
Cheryl, President, and Dale, General Manager for the company, didn’t plan to become one of Seattle’s top fencing provider. Dale has always worked in construction, first as a concrete laborer for a contractor building high-rises in downtown Seattle, then for a fence contractor, first as a salesman, then estimator, project manager and eventually he oversaw all projects and people.
After a falling out with the owner, Dale left the company in 1994 with an eye on doing anything but fences. “I’d had it with homeowners,” Dale says. “I really didn’t know what I was going to do, but I was ready to do something different. Then some of my former clients, primarily homebuilding contractors, called to ask for my help on various projects. At first, I was still planning on something else, but the calls kept coming in.”
That same year, he and his wife founded Commercial Fence.
Focused on commercial fencing, specifically public works, Cheryl and Dale drained their IRAs and maxed out their personal credit cards to invest in the tools and materials necessary to install fences. They had a company truck (Dale’s father’s old pig truck, known as ‘Old Nasty’), an office in the ‘Pink’ room of their house, and a rented unit at a public storage facility to store materials and equipment.
Dale recalls, “While Cheryl continued to work her job managing specs and related documents at a local marine construction company, I began building the business, getting our name out in the industry, researching bids and completing jobs initially for homebuilders and installing fences with help from the local labor pool that I’d met through my previous job.” The company’s first jobs involved putting fences throughout several new residential subdivisions. Subdivision fencing jobs sustained them for several years, while the two continued to seek out commercial contracts. Dale would handle the installation of chain link fences and subcontract help to install wood fences. “As we grew, we increased the number of subcontractors to perform installation, and I handled the bidding, supervision and project management.” says Dale.
The biggest thing people don’t expect when they start a company, besides the financial investment, is the number of hours that are required to make it a success, says Cheryl. “Dale and I worked six days a week for 15 years. We would take Saturdays off to attend our boys’ sporting events. Then on Sunday we would review plans for jobs coming up for bid in the upcoming week,” she recalls.
As their reputation and backlog grew, Cheryl was able to quit her other job and join full time.
By 1997, the business moved from the couple’s home/rental garage to a warehouse with a large yard.
“The warehouse was a huge benefit for our process,” Dale says. “Up until then we couldn’t lay down materials for a big job. Having a fence yard allowed us to bid larger jobs and gave us more flexibility to schedule crews, which in turn gave us the flexibility to meet construction schedules for more jobs.”
They were also able to hire their first employee, Chris (CJ) James, a fence installer who is still with them today. Along with his responsibilities for building gates, CJ is also the company’s biggest celebrity, having played in two college bowl games for the University of Washington.
Roads, Rails and More
Thanks largely to Cheryl’s extensive knowledge of the government contracting world and the associated insight into the detailed requirements to win and get paid for jobs, the company won its first big public bid for the King County Housing Authority in 1998. The contract was $15,000 to install a 4-to-6-foot-high wood fence around a low-income housing complex. Dale says, “I was sweating bullets because, at the time, it was such a big project.” Soon after, the team won a contract to install 12,000 feet of 12-ft-high chain link fence with barbed wire at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport .
Cheryl recalls the airport job in particular because it allowed them to invest in more equipment. “From the profits, we were able to buy our first brand-new Bobcat to speed up hole digging,” she says.
Not long after, they won a job for Sound Transit. Officially known as the Central Puget Sound Regional Transit Authority, the public transit agency is responsible for building and managing the rapid transit system in the Seattle metropolitan area. The Commercial Fence team installed architectural fence at several sites as well as at Sound Transit’s first operations and maintenance facility near aerospace and defense manufacturer The Boeing Company. Sound Transit fence projects currently make up about 30% of the company’s total contract value thanks largely to the rapid expansion of the transit lines.
As well, Commercial Fence has become one of the premier contractors in the region for sports field fence systems, with projects at high schools, middle schools and metro parks. Over summer 2020, the company completed 11 new high school sports field and perimeter security fence projects in time for the current school year. In addition, crews have installed architectural fence around the Seahawks training facility, chain link sports fencing at the University of Washington’s Husky Stadium, and a four-field sports complex at Joint Base Lewis–McChord.
Along with high-profile and community projects that range in scope and scale from $5,000 to $5 million, the company has grown considerably in terms of equipment. Today, it owns three Bobcats, two Dandy Diggers, a number of forklifts, 16 one-ton trucks (the pig truck is gone), a utility truck for operator installation and two trailer-mounted air compressors.
Another large portion of Commercial Fence’s workload is for WSDOT. Cheryl confirms, “Many people don’t embrace highway construction; but we love it!”
To date, the company has installed chain link fence for the Alaskan Way Viaduct Replacement Program, the I-405 express toll lanes corridor and I-5 highway projects, to name a few.
"Mentoring is ingrained in our culture. Our foremen understand that they are not just responsible for completing projects but for the education of our new hires.” Dale Duke, General Manager, Commercial Fence Corporation
Despite the scope and scale of its projects, Commercial Fence is still a small company with a unique perspective on professional opportunity that has helped retain nearly every employee that walks through the door.
“We expect anyone that we hire as a fence helper to be a foreman one day,” Dale confirms. “That’s why we have new hires work directly with our experienced guys. Mentoring is ingrained in our culture. Our foremen understand that they are not just responsible for completing projects but for the education of our new hires. Every one of our foremen understands that they are a critical piece of their helpers’ professional growth—and that they are an essential piece of the company’s future.”
Cheryl adds that she has that same philosophy for office staff. “We expect them to grow in ability to keep pace with company growth,” she says.
Continuous learning and opportunity for professional growth are likely fundamental reasons why most of the employees have been with the company 10-15 years.
Dan Weber is good example. He started in 1998 as a yard manager, then moved to helper, installer, foreman and now he’s one of the company’s two estimators.
Similarly, Jim Dean has been with the company since 1998. Dale worked with him at his former fence company. Dale says, “He had started his own company, but didn’t really love the business side of things. We bought the company and brought him on board with us. This was a major coup for us because Jim is a great leader and his unique talents allow us to ramp up our gate operator services.” Today, Jim is the company’s Director of Automated Systems.
Even the owners’ sons Collin and Eric Duke have gone through the necessary on-the-job training. Both worked off and on for the company through their high school and college years. Collin moved on to other interests, but Eric returned to the company in 1999. Today, Eric is the Vice President of the company, in charge of supervising daily tasks for installers, scheduling and communication with customers. Eric adds, “My mom and dad have long reinforced that without customers there is no company—and that’s why our mission statement is ‘building success through commitment.’ “
In addition to the Duke family, the company boasts three sets of fathers/sons, two sets of brothers, and a husband and a wife (yes, they met at Commercial Fence). Maintaining its culture of family focus, the Dukes made the decision to pay all employees full weekly wages through the pandemic shutdown.
Now the company’s leadership is looking to the next generation to continue the legacy that has been established over the last 26 years. Dale concludes, “We’ve built a family, but more importantly established a culture of opportunity and success. We encourage and expect every one of our employees to grow professionally with a common purpose—to Fence It All.”