Leading Herman Miller
"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,
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,
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.
At the time, the
"He asked me to come implement it, but I was having a blast at Arthur Andersen,"
When Bloem learned that
"The first day I met him, I was within two days of heading to
"I went to ask him something … and he asked if I'd ever been to
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,
"Brian doesn't tip-toe around anything; he'll take care of it quickly, eyeball to eyeball," Mitchell said. "We had labor issues in
Within three years,
"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,
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,"
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.