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In The Shadow Of Giants
GRAND RAPIDS — Ask any commercial furniture dealer or salesman in the region: There is no market quite as interesting, or challenging, as
Although it did not purchase any of its furnishings, the
Here is a Hekman Contract reception desk, a Steelcase conference table and chairs, a Herman Miller-furnished staff room, a
Each installation is intended to promote the earth-friendly products of West Michigan manufacturers, but has inadvertently created the most extensive exhibit of competing commercial furniture offerings this side of
The council's space in Bazzani Associates'
"I don't think this would be possible anywhere else," he said.
Interphase Office Interiors in
"This market is very different from any other market in the country," said Interphase CEO Randy DeBoer. "There's a lot of politics — and that doesn't have to be negative when you realize that our industry is very much based on relationships."
In other markets, the only relationship a potential customer might have with someone from the contract furniture industry would be with someone like DeBoer. In
"I've always said that
For the largest companies, the lines are boldly drawn.
Major service providers generally represent only one client of each type, so, for instance, when Ernst & Young LLP shops for new furniture, odds are it will turn to audit subject Herman Miller. When BDO Seidman LLP redoes its offices, it will probably pick audit subject Steelcase.
Likewise, Herman Miller Chairman Michael Volkema sits on the board of Wolverine World Wide.
"There are times when they say that just because so-and-so is on the board doesn't mean they get to pick what furniture they buy," Custer said. "But whoever you're aligned with, you're going to buy that furniture. They say they'll be fair, but when the time comes, something happens, and they just can't pull the trigger."
For Big 3 dealers, the alignment usually balances out. While there are companies apparently closed to a dealer like Custer, there are others that will exclusively buy his Steelcase line at the expense of
With that, the playing field is slanted against dealers such as Kentwood Office Furniture, which represents no major
"There is a significant advantage in selling product lines by the major manufacturers in the
No one is looking for Allsteel, an
The local preference has boosted
"We get jobs where the customer demands that it's Herman Miller," Hasse said. "But they're happy if it's used."
Like WMEAC, the region's furniture politics truly come to light when an organization has strong connections to several different manufacturers. Custer suggests companies just go with whichever manufacturer has the lowest bid.
"I'd say that most companies will pick the one they do the most business with," said furniture consultant Michael Dunlap of Michael A. Dunlap Associates. "No one is going to come in and pressure you because you do a lot of business with a manufacturer."
Ted Etheridge, president and owner of SVH Group, acknowledged that he had never been pressured into buying furniture for that reason, but he feels obligated to, nonetheless. The commercial printer matches its furniture purchases as closely as it can with the percentage of business it does with izzydesign, Steelcase, Turnstone, Herman Miller and others.
"I don't think any of our orders will make or break them," Etheridge said. "But they do their business based on relationship and trust, and I want to show I appreciate that."
As a former executive at furniture supplier Suspa Inc. in
He compared this to the automotive industry, in which he began his career.
"It is easier in automotive; you can just buy three or four different cars," he said.