West Michigan
6:00 am
Mon March 26, 2012

"Office in pocket" doesn't scare this office furniture company

Steelcase, the world’s largest office furniture maker is celebrating 100 years in business. But sales of the metal filing cabinets Steelcase is named for are declining; same with traditional cubicles and other large pieces of office furniture. Steelcase is changing its identity.

Celebrating 100 years of office furniture manufacturing

Hundreds of multi-colored balloons float down the middle of Steelcase’s four story headquarters in Grand Rapids Michigan. A couple thousand workers join together for cake and to sing Happy Birthday.

“I’m very passionate about it because it’s been a great 29 years and it’s 100 years old now, so it’s been great,” said Nancy Willemstein. She’s Steelcase’s receptionist and she  tears up talking about her nearly three decades with the company.

It was once West Michigan’s largest employer. At its peak in 2001, Steelcase employed 21,000 workers worldwide; now that’s down to around 12,600. Steelcase made $56.7 million dollars last fiscal year.

30-year old Jeremy Bergwerff says he understands why his co-workers like Nancy are so passionate about Steelcase.

“Manufacturing office furniture is kind of a boring idea but when you think about what Steelcase really is, that’s not what it is. It’s about how do people work and creating the right environments,” Bergwerff said.

Not just a furniture company, a “human insights” business

Sure, Steelcase still makes office furniture. But Steelcase doesn’t think if itself as an office furniture company anymore.

 “Today we still make furniture but we’re in the human insights business,” Steelcase CEO Jim Hackett told a gathering of The Economic  Club of Grand Rapids last week.

It was human insight, Hackett says, that led to the first fire-proof metal wastebasket the company made in 1912. Picture a typical office a century ago – white collar workers chain smoking, mostly wooden furniture, and lots of paper work – quite the fire hazard.

60 years ago, office furniture only came in three colors; battleship grey, olive green and brown. Human insight said why not Desert Sage, Blond Tan, or Mist Green? Rows and rows of cubicles? Again, human insight.

“We know from experience that insights aren’t things you can make up. They’re not magic they’re really hard-won. They’re hard to find. And we spend a ton of time and money mining for them,” Hackett said.

“Office in pocket” changing where and how people work

There’s one key human insight Hackett sees now. “Instead of spending their days in an office, people now carry an office in their pocket,” Hackett said.

“No, I probably would never work in a cubicle,” Melissa Harington said, taking a break from working on her Ipad at a small coffee shop in Grand Rapids’ Eastown. She says the coffee is amazing here at The Sparrows so that’s partly why she came to start writing a couple of papers for school. But Harrington also thinks she’s more productive working in this space.

With tablet devices and smartphones, many people like Harrington can work anywhere.

CEO Jim Hackett says that would be a challenge for an office furniture company. But he doesn’t see it as a big problem for Steelcase.

Take 30-year Luke Rumley. He helps Steelcase sell office furniture online.

“I don’t technically have a desk assigned to me right now which is cool. I can sit anywhere with a laptop and a smart phone and I’m okay with that,” Rumley said.

Yep, even office furniture employees aren’t afraid to say it – they don’t really need a permanent office.

Steelcase has survived this long because it’s been able to adapt to the dramatic ways work has changed over the decades. CEO Jim Hackett says they’ll keep adapting in the future when for all we know, office chairs will materialize underneath us.