Lifetime Achievement Dick Haworth

June 21, 2002
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GRAND RAPIDS — There are few businessmen you can point to and say that they literally changed the world, or in this case, changed how we work.

Dick Haworth in one of them.

His role in helping to create the product that changed the way millions of office workers go about their daily routines put the Holland-based family business onto the path to becoming a global force in the office furniture industry and one of the largest privately-held companies in the world.

That success earned Dick Haworth, chairman of Haworth Inc., an inaugural Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year Award for West Michigan in the Lifetime Achievement category.

The Lifetime Achievement Award recognizes business leaders “whose extraordinary entrepreneurial achievements, creativity, leadership and vision has significantly contributed to the growth of the local, national and world economy.”

In the mid-1970s, Dick Haworth was head of product development for the company his father, Gerrard Haworth, founded in 1948 as Modern Products, a small manufacturer of custom wood products the former Holland High School woodshop teacher began in his garage with a $10,000 loan from his parents.

The period saw the dawning of a transformation in the business office, as electric typewriters and adding machines and early generations of the word processor were being put to use in greater numbers. The result was a mess beneath the desk with a clutter of electrical extension cords strewn back and forth across the floor.

The answer to the problem, and to better accommodate the office environment that everybody could see coming in the future, was to figure out how to wire the modular office panels (cubicle walls) that had come out years earlier and were already changing the workplace.

Virtually every office furniture maker was working on the idea at the time.

Dick Haworth, with his team that consisted of Chuck Saylor (who now runs izzydesign in Grand Rapids) and Harold Wilson, figured it out first.

ERA-1, the world’s first pre-wired modular office panels, was a big hit when the newly renamed Haworth Inc. debuted the product at NeoCon in 1976, the same year Dick Haworth succeeded his father as company president. ERA-1 provided facility managers a better and efficient way to extend power around the office while maintaining the flexibility the modular office panels gave companies to rearrange the office.

The product not only reshaped Haworth Inc. but lifted the company, which at the time had a workforce of 212 people and revenues of $10 million, to incredible heights, setting the stage for many more product innovations to come and enabling Haworth to become a global player in the office furniture industry and an icon in the West Michigan corporate community.

Today, Haworth Inc. employs about 14,000 people around the world, with 2001 revenues of $1.71 billion, and is a company that Dick Haworth jokes you can’t “put back in dad’s garage.”

Dick Haworth worked for his father’s company in the summer during his formative years, including when he worked on a business degree at Western Michigan University, where he now serves on the college’s Board of Trustees. The Haworth family also is a major benefactor to Western Michigan, the college Gerrard Haworth attended, and provided the lead gift that led to the formation of the Haworth College of Business.

The family’s generosity also is seen throughout the Holland area, where the Haworths have quietly supported numerous organizations and causes over the years.

After college, and following a stint in the U.S. Army from 1967-69, Dick Haworth joined the company full time and, at the request of his father, began leading product development and working to bring a greater degree of formality and focus to strategic planning and product development.

He became president in January 1976, as Modern Products began to prepare for ERA-1’s introduction, which led to the company’s transformation.

Riding the success of ERA-1, Haworth Inc. focused solely on manufacturing and selling pre-wired panels from 1977-81. Panels today remain one of the company’s top-selling products.

Under Dick’s leadership, Haworth Inc. took off in the 1980s, moving into office seating and casegoods, as well as growing rapidly through internal growth and numerous acquisitions that made the company a global player in the office furniture industry.

In 1998 and 1999 interviews with The Holland Sentinel, Dick Haworth recalled how the pre-wired panels and the transformation in the business they generated represented “huge risk” for the then-small company.

“We literally bet the company on it,” he said in interviews with this reporter. “Looks good in hindsight, doesn’t it?” 

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