A passion for learning

January 15, 2009
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Beth Nichols Joined Herman Miller For Healthcare Through A Series Of Fortuitous Events

In the summer of 2000, Beth Nickels answered a phone call to hear a headhunter say that an unnamed company was interested in her.

As the CFO of Universal Forest Products, Nickels was responsible for taking the company public, and although it led to many 2 a.m. work nights, she enjoyed her job.

Later the headhunter called back: "We've been authorized to tell you the name of the company: It's Herman Miller."

"Well, I'm still not interested," said Nickels.

"Oh … really?" the headhunter replied.

Roughly two weeks after that conversation, Nickels was outside, working on the beach behind her new home. A neighbor pulled up in a small rubber boat, introduced herself and asked Nickels her profession.

"Oh, it's so nice to meet another professional woman," the neighbor said. "I work in the marketing department at Herman Miller."

Not long after, the neighbor knocked on Nickels' door.

"I know we just met and this is going to seem like a strange thing to ask you," said the neighbor. "Are you happy at Universal?"

Nickels said yes, but the lady continued.

"I was in the office the other day and mentioned who my new neighbor was, and I got hauled into our chairman's office. I was told that we've been trying to get you in for an interview and that you wouldn't come in. He asked me to come over and try to persuade you."

Nickels had recently experienced a lot of change in her life and was not looking to add to it, but the neighbor convinced Nickels to speak with Herman Miller's CFO at the time, Brian Walker, now president and CEO.

The courting continued, capped off during a three-day CFO conference, where Nickels met someone from a competing office furniture manufacturer, who raved about Herman Miller. Then, on a table at a morning session, a journal was laid out with an article written by Mike Volkema, who was president and CEO and now is chairman of the board for Herman Miller.

It seemed she couldn't get away from it — not even on the plane ride home.

"I get on the plane to come back, and I'm sitting at the front of the plane. I look up and in walks Brian Walker and Mike Volkema. Mike looked at me and said, 'Beth, if you believe in fate, you will remember this moment.'"

Walker and Volkema were originally scheduled to fly on a different airline, but their flight was cancelled due to an "operational decision."

"Not maintenance. Not weather — an operational decision," she said. "To this day, we have no idea what that means, but (the airline) rebooked them."

It was through those fortuitous events that Nickels eventually became president of Herman Miller for Healthcare.

But her story starts well before that.

Nickels' mother passed away when she was just 14, the fifth of seven girls growing up in West Michigan. At age 13, she had her first taste of the working world with a job at her three uncles' store, Fred's Trading Post in the town of Wyoming, "which really helped define who I am today," said Nickels. "I learned so much about people, about business, about work ethic. That was a great, great experience."

She worked at the store until enrolling at Aquinas College. During her time there, Nickels triple-majored in accounting, economics and business administration while working full-time at GRM Industries, an automotive manufacturer — oh, and she graduated in three and a half years.

"I didn't need a lot of sleep," Nickels said. "I love to learn and that's part of what my career has been, and that's why I've done some of the different things I've done. I get bored very easily and have to always be learning."

GRM went on strike while Nickels was employed there, giving her the opportunity to move from cost accounting to the manufacturing floor for about a month.

"I had to cross the picket lines. I got three flat tires from them throwing nails in the driveway, but that was a great experience, because it really helped me understand what it's like to do that kind of work all day and also kept me motivated to stay in college."

After graduating in 1983, she began working at Deloitte, Haskins and Sells, predecessor to Deloitte & Touche, doing mostly public accounting work.

"I got to see so many different styles of leadership, and how different companies could be very successful with different kinds of leaders," she said.

She left Deloitte after four years and worked for several smaller companies before joining Universal Forest Products in 1993. Nickels was quickly given the challenge of taking the company public and saw the company grow from roughly $250 million to $1.6 billion by the time she left. Nickels listed her time at Universal as her most defining moment.

"The decision to go to Universal Forest Products or the fact that I was able to take them public was probably the most defining," she said. "It was a great experience. I was very happy there."

When Nickels joined Herman Miller in late 2000, it was as CFO of the company; she transitioned to her current position as president of Herman Miller for Healthcare a year and a half ago. There were several factors that guided her interest in that direction.

"My whole career I've tried to spend at least 20 percent of my time with customers," she said. "I didn't think you could be a good CFO if you weren't in touch with the customer and what their needs were. The CFO job had gotten to be way too administrative."

The passage of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, also known as the Public Company Accounting Reform and Investor Protection Act of 2002, had heavily impacted the position of CFO, and Nickels found herself spending more time in meetings and less time working on corporate strategies and with customers.

Another factor influencing her move to the health care division was the fact that she had been an investor and on the board of directors for a surgical products company.

"While I was at Universal, I was an investor in a surgical supply business, so I had an interest in health care," she said. "(I) understood some of the nomenclature of the industry and the problems that health care faces, but looked at things from a very capitalistic perspective."

But it was when Nickels spent time as a patient undergoing multiple surgeries that she began to have a deeper interest in the Herman Miller for Healthcare division.

"It was the first time I've ever experienced health care from the patient's perspective. I was amazed at how difficult the caregiver's job is," she said. "They have to go through so many heroics to take care of patients. We don't make it easy for them. The environments aren't conducive to most of the things they have to do with patients."

When she came back to work, Nickels started to pay more attention to the health care division, and when the former leader decided to retire, Nickels stepped into her new role and found it was the perfect fit.

"I love what I'm doing. I get the freedom to set the strategy and to execute," she said. "I get the customer interaction; I still have lots of learning. I feel like I'm really blessed and in a great spot in my life right now. I get to work in an area where I'm really passionate. So many times we have to find our passions outside of work, and I get to combine those."

Recently, Nickels showcased the progress Herman Miller for Healthcare has made at the Healthcare Design '08 Conference in Washington, D.C., where several of the division's new chairs were on display. One of the more unique products, however, was ER One — "the emergency room of the future" — built in conjunction with Washington Hospital in the heart of D.C. The federally funded program has been in the works for roughly a year and a half and is based on the concept of an E.R. room that can "flex" to accommodate a sudden influx of patients.

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