Leading Herman Miller

April 30, 2007
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HOLLAND — During a recent presentation to a group of HopeCollege students, Herman Miller president and CEO Brian Walker succinctly captured his role with the famed furniture maker:

"You didn't ask me to come here because I'm Brian Walker; you asked me because I'm CEO of Herman Miller," he said. "This company's done a lot of great things the past three or four years, and we're really getting a sense that how we wanted to expand the company is happening. But did I have a lot to do with making that happen? Not really."

Like many of the company's previous leaders, Walker has found success comes from understanding and fostering talent within the ranks. Leadership, he explained, isn't always telling people what to do or how to do it. "If you paint the picture well enough, you can get out of the way."

To some degree, the Zeeland-based firm has written this philosophy into its business model. Recruiting and retaining talent is becoming an increasing necessity for companies to be successful in the new economy. As an example, Walker cited the Social Security Administration, a current Herman Miller customer that is planning for the loss of a majority of its work force to retirement in the next decade. With very little cultural appeal, the administration realizes that filling its ranks with competent recruits will be a difficult task, and hopes that creating a desirable workplace will aid it in doing so.

Walker predicts a labor shortage as the baby boomer generation transitions into retirement. "If it gets like I think it will, the question won't be 'What's my cost per square foot?'" said Walker in a later interview. "It will be 'What is my cost of recruiting them back in if we lose them?'"

In order to fill those needs, the $1.74-billion, NASDAQ-listed Herman Miller is itself in a competition for the world's best creative and operational talent, Walker said. The company taps world-famous designers such as the late Bill Stumpf, creator of the blockbuster-selling Aeron chair, along with young talent capable of driving the company's expansion plans.

Walker should know all about the competition to recruit top talent. When the company first recruited him in 1988, he turned down the offer — three times.

At the time, the Jackson native and graduate of MichiganStateUniversity was a 25-year-old certified public accountant in the local office of now-defunct accounting firm Arthur Andersen. One of his largest clients was Herman Miller, and during the firm's annual audit, he made a seemingly innocent recommendation that caught the eye of then-CFO James Bloem.

"He asked me to come implement it, but I was having a blast at Arthur Andersen," Walker said. "I didn't want to leave."

When Bloem learned that Walker was a martial arts enthusiast with a strong interest in Asian culture and business, he sweetened the offer with a post in the company's fledgling Asia division. Walker accepted and began working under Bill Mitchell, who today is senior vice president of international sales management and leader of the company's Latin America business.

"The first day I met him, I was within two days of heading to Tokyo," Mitchell recalled. "So I asked him if he had a passport."

"I went to ask him something … and he asked if I'd ever been to Japan," said Walker, who had previously traveled to Okinawa as part of his martial arts training. "I was hired on Wednesday, and on Friday I was flying to Japan."

Mitchell, a pioneer of the company's international efforts, quickly became a mentor to the young financial controller, using him as a sounding board for new initiatives and providing him exposure to parts of the business sometimes far removed from corporate finance.

"As I traveled with him, I saw he had this intellectual curiosity that became very important," Mitchell said. "He was interested in geopolitics, economics — you name it, and he was intuitive. It wouldn't take him long to solve something. You could see his mind at work."

He also had a great capacity for responsibility, Mitchell recalled, and wasn't concerned with overstepping his authority. If there was an opportunity or problem, Walker attacked it head on.

"Brian doesn't tip-toe around anything; he'll take care of it quickly, eyeball to eyeball," Mitchell said. "We had labor issues in Japan, and he took them all on. I didn't have to talk him into anything."

Within three years, Walker was asked to lead the European financial team, and relocated from the company's Zeeland headquarters (he and Mitchell commuted to Asia) to England. He later returned to Michigan and worked in the company's health care segment for a year before being named the company's interim CFO at the age of 32.

"I was always volunteering for opportunities that came up, and that served me well in getting to learn a lot about the business," he said. "I wasn't one of these folks that had a master plan. If you would have asked me if I wanted to be CFO or CEO, I would have told you 'no.'

"When people focus on climbing the ladder, they get sidetracked. They're focused on getting to a position when they should be focused on getting experiences."

As CFO and later as president of Herman Miller North America (1999), and then as president and COO (2003), Walker benefited from working with then-CEO Michael Volkema, who provided much of the direction for the company's restructuring during the office furniture industry downturn that opened the decade. Volkema recognized that it was necessary to consolidate and "right-size" certain parts of the business, but that it was important to keep up research and development efforts to facilitate future expansion.

Volkema, still Herman Miller chairman, stepped down as CEO in 2004 after a nine-year stint.

"There was a guy who was still pretty young but knew it isn't about when he was ready to go; it was about when his successor was ready," Walker said of Volkema. "I hope I have that foresight to realize when it's time to hand it over to the next generation."

The role of CEO was a daunting responsibility from the start, Walker said, considering Herman Miller's heritage of market innovation and leadership. The most difficult lesson, he found, was learning how to trust and understand the talented individuals he leads. Having worked with many of these individuals on his way up the ladder, it might seem as if that would come easy, but sometimes it takes effort to understand the value in a new product or initiative.

Legend has it that the Aeron chair was very nearly nixed in the development stage, but then-CEO Dick Ruch recognized its potential. In a current Herman Miller project, a designer is developing a more comfortable reclining method and uses a "wheelbarrow contraption" to demonstrate the feeling.

"Sometimes you really have to squint to see these things," Walker said. "You have to learn how to understand and to judge these things on the stories behind them and not the objects themselves."

Going forward, the company is on track to achieve a stated goal of doubling its business and is challenging for the industry's top spot by 2010. It has already surpassed its profitability goals for that period.     

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