Manufacturing Still Strong

September 19, 2005
Print
Text Size:
A A

PORT SHELDON — Over the course of his nearly 30-year career in the office furniture industry, Michael Dunlap couldn't understand why there were no third-party consultants or analysts regularly tracking the industry other than its trade organization.

In West Michigan alone, the automobile industry had CSM Worldwide and IRN, with countless others throughout the nation. Other industries, from apparel to agriculture to appliances and supply chains, had produced a niche of independent experts. Why not office furniture?

"I was either the smartest guy in the world or the dumbest guy in the world," said Dunlap, principal of Michael A. Dunlap & Associates, a consulting firm focused on the office furniture industry. "I could jump in and fill a role no one else had thought of, or maybe no one else was doing it because there was no money in it."

As Dunlap discovered when he launched the firm in early 2003, the industry has a unique set of character traits that would defy the efforts of most analysts.

First, the industry is small at roughly $10 billion. It's regional, with its largest pocket in West Michigan. Many times it doesn't have its own supply base, sharing suppliers with automakers and other Original Equipment Manufacturers (OEMs). And with all but a handful of exceptions, its members are private and have less than 1,000 employees.

"I'd been fortunate to have gotten to know a lot of people in the business," Dunlap said. "Connections and knowledge of the industry is important, especially when we're talking about privately-held companies where the owners tend to be top management. The culture of privately-held businesses often reflects the nature of the CEO/owner."

Because of this, an analysis of the office furniture industry requires much more direct interaction.

"He's a person who knows everybody," said Erina Hanka, former president of SUPSA Inc. and Dunlap's former employer. "He remembers where they've worked, when they worked there, what they did. He's like a dictionary."

Dunlap left American Seating — where he had been a project engineer making bus seats since graduating from WesternMichiganUniversity three years earlier — for the North American division of the German lift systems manufacturer. At the time, it had fewer than 25 employees, and Dunlap wore a number of hats, managing production, quality control and engineering.

In a short time, Dunlap's skills proved more effective off the plant floor. He took his technical background into the marketplace and began working with customers to diversify SUSPA into other markets. At the time, the company relied heavily on the automotive segment: Ford and Chrysler represented 98 percent of sales.

Luckily, when Chrysler dropped SUSPA in 1981, it had already been in the office furniture market for a year, selling gas springs for chair height adjustment. In its first year, the chair components group's biggest customer was Steelcase, at 2,000 units a year. Under Dunlap's guidance, that grew to more than 500,000 a year to Steelcase and 500,000 per month across the North American market.

Prior to his leaving SUSPA in 2002, Dunlap had built not only the aforementioned network but also a reputation for leadership, vision and collaboration. He helped The Right Place Inc. launch the Office Furniture Industry Council (OFIC) in 1991, which was later integrated into the Business and Institutional Furniture Manufacturers Association (BIFMA), the industry's trade group, as the Supply Chain Management Committee.

He sat on the BIFMA board as well.

Today, Dunlap again wears many hats.

His consulting and analysis work is roughly a third of his business. The Michael A. Dunlap Associates/Office Furniture Industry Trends survey has been embraced as an industry benchmark. He also does some related consulting work outside of the furniture business.

On other fronts, he is working with a like-minded consultant, Doug Gregory of Workspace Strategies Inc., to develop a smaller trade organization of office furniture representatives and manufacturers. He is working with another consultant to drive office furniture OEM share in the health care and higher education spaces.

He serves as an expert witness in product liability cases, specializing in swivel office chairs.

Some of the most exciting work his company will undertake in the near future will involve facilitation of startups and foreign companies looking to enter the North American market.

On one end, he's helping foreign companies license products to manufacturers domestically, and vice versa, as well as aiding sourcing initiatives to Asia, namely Chinese machining and tooling.

On the other side, Dunlap provides a roadmap for startups and newcomers to the office furniture industry.

"I'm a conduit," he said. "About every two or three months I have somebody approach me with an idea they want to introduce to the office furniture business in some form or another, a concept or component, and I help them decide where to go."

Here, he practices the skills he honed while leading SUSPA's diversification and during his time on both ends of the supply chain.

"People say, 'I want you to take this to the five biggest OEMs, all of them can make a million dollars out of this,'" Dunlap said. "I look at them and say, 'You don't want to take this to any of them, you want to take it to a supplier.'"

When PC veteran John Wojewidka was looking to penetrate the office furniture market with his Redmond, Wash.-based startup, Truvia, he came to Dunlap.

"I came to Mike because I couldn't find statistics and trends on the (office) furniture industry," Wojewidka said. "There wasn't any way of getting useful information. You need a guide."

Truvia made headlines in January with the unveiling of its "$55,000 Amish computer." Wojewidka has been working to integrate custom PC hardware into desks and other handcrafted home furniture pieces. Prototype designs range from Amish and Shaker cabinets to a Louis XV armoire and a modernist glass-and-steel cabinet.

The intent of the high-dollar pieces is to integrate and conceal technology within the home, typically that of wealthy families. With Dunlap's help, Wojewidka hopes to attract partners from the office furniture industry.    

Editor's Picks

Comments powered by Disqus