Altus Goes Ergo With Workstuff

June 4, 2007
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GRANDVILLE — After six years, ergonomic accessory entrepreneurs Craig Vander Heide and Eric Kahkonen are re-entering their primary market this month with the launch of the Workstuff ergonomic accessory brand at the NeoCon World’s Trade Fair furniture show in Chicago.

The launch is the latest in a string of landmarks for fledgling furniture firm Altus Inc., parent company of the Workstuff brand. Its health care brand, Altus Healthcare, has successfully penetrated the institutional health care market and is gaining market share on established manufacturers with its line of sit-to-stand laptop carts. In March, the company exited its initial entry into the office furniture market — mid-priced task seating — when it sold the successful product line to Allendale office furniture maker Amneon.

“We’ve paid our dues to get to this point,” said Kahkonen, Altus Inc. vice president. “We definitely have momentum, and it’s an awful fun time to be in the business. If you had asked me in 2001 or 2002, when the industry was real soft and we were first getting started, that wouldn’t have been the case.”

Next month, the company will move into a new 25,000-square-foot facility currently under construction in Walker.

“One of the things we’ve done with our product line that seems to be unique today is that we developed it with the goal of being able to build it domestically,” said Vander Heide, president of Altus Inc. “We found that if we focus on the process and the cost of being able to do things domestically, you can design that into a product.”

The majority of manufacturing for all of its products is performed by West Michigan suppliers. The final assembly occurs at the Altus facilities.

Workstuff will be the fourth brand launch for the Altus founders since 1994. “This is fun,” Vander Heide said. “I guess that’s why we’ve done it a couple of different times.”

Vander Heide, who leads product development, and Kahkonen, marketing and distribution, first joined forces to launch ergonomic accessory firm Idea Industries. That company became a leading manufacturer of adjustable keyboard systems, growing from a small facility on Grand Rapids’ west side to a larger assembly factory in Walker before being acquired by Knape & Vogt in 1999.

Knape & Vogt, then a publicly traded company, consolidated the company into its flagship Grand Rapids facility. It today exists as Knape & Vogt’s idea@WORK brand. Vander Heide and Kahkonen exited the venture in 2001 to launch Altus.

Barred from competing with their former company until this year, the Altus founders instead looked to health care.

“The buzzword is electronic patient charting or electronic health records,” said Kahkonen. “Most hospitals are trying to eliminate paper and move toward a wireless environment and a nationwide record database. … What they do need is a computer cart that will support all of their needs.”

Altus was not the first company to enter this market, but has proven one of the most adaptive. Its proprietary sit-to-stand lift technology, Ascent, allows the cart to be used effortlessly by a 5-foot nurse or a 6-foot doctor, sitting or standing. The most recent model, last year’s H Class, incorporates five years of trial and error. It is compact for easy maneuvering through hospital corridors, durable, and has a locking panel to keep the laptop secure according to HIPPA and general security concerns. Competitors’ products use a cable system. It is factory customizable to virtually any setting.

“The H Class incorporates specific customer feedback,” Kahkonen said. “Whenever we lost a deal, we looked at why we lost it. Customers in this market are very particular on what they want. We listen to them and are nimble enough to accommodate their specific needs.”

Introducing the laptop cart to its customers has been a learning experience for Altus. Originally, the company sought entry to the market through office furniture dealers, with limited success. Office furniture distribution channels have traditionally focused on facilities contacts within hospital purchasing departments. These agents generally acquire only furniture for office and lobby use. Other furniture is purchased by the individual departments.

Altus quickly learned that its target market was hospital information technology departments. It dropped NeoCon in favor of the Healthcare Information and Management Systems Society Annual Conference & Exhibition, and signed on with a dealer network focused on health care information technology.

Over the past two years, that line has gained significant momentum, displacing competitor installations across the country. Its greatest appeal has been its office furniture styling and comparatively low-price point. The standard model is listed at $1,650.

“The early installations were crude and mechanical looking, and that’s where we’re finding our biggest opportunities,” Kahkonen said. “Feature to feature, we match their performance with a lower price, and we bring office furniture styling to the table. Predominantly, doctors are pushing these carts around, and that element works in our favor.”

With Workstuff, Altus is looking to bring the same performance and aesthetic improvements to keyboard systems. There has been little advancement in this product segment during the term of the Altus founders’ non-compete agreement with Knape & Vogt. The company’s initial launch, the JIMI Adjustable Keyboard System, is one of the bolder offerings to date, featuring a die-cast aluminum tubular construction and an intuitive locking mechanism.

The Workstuff brand is a third of the Converge Alliance, a marketing partnership with Grand Haven task lighting manufacturer Light Corp. and Wisconsin’s Chief Manufacturing, a maker of flat-panel monitor arms.

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