American Seating grows quietly in a down economy

July 6, 2009
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While you may not realize it, chances are you’ve sat in an American Seating product.

The Grand Rapids company’s products are used in sports venues, including 18 major league baseball stadiums, by public transportation industries such as the Chicago Transit Authority and the Grand Rapids Rapid bus line, in convention centers and conference facilities, and in classrooms, auditoriums and performing arts centers at colleges and universities.

But although American Seating has become a world leader in its 123-year history, its story is not widely known.

To correct that problem, American Seating hired Deb McDermott as director of marketing and business development. Since she joined the company in 2008, she has revamped the company’s Web site and moved the location of its showroom at Chicago’s NeoCon to a more prestigious location — and, yes, American Seating makes office furniture too.

“I came to American Seating late May of last year,” said McDermott. “It was really as a direct result of the executive team’s desire to increase the marketing efforts and leadership in that area.”

McDermott hails from the textile business and previously spent time at both Steelcase and Knoll. Her predecessor at American Seating was in charge of both marketing and sales.

“I think anytime you do that, the priority focus becomes sales, and so the marketing efforts do tend to fall off a bit,” she said. “The sales and distribution channel was really crying out, ‘I need photos of our installations. The Web site needs to be user-friendly. It looks tired. It’s not easy to interface with.’

“They were really starting to realize that they weren’t able to reach their customers in the way that they needed to stay vibrant.”

The decision to amp up the marketing efforts came just before the economy decided to touch the bottom of the pool. Despite the sinking economy, privately owned American Seating decided to continue with its new marketing strategy.

“We’ve continued along that plan of reinvesting in the marketing efforts even with the downturn in the economy, because, quite candidly, our business is up,” she said. “That is largely attributed to the markets we play in.”

As might be expected, the company’s office furniture line has slumped, she said, but its other markets have grown, in part due to the stimulus money from the government.

“Several of our markets are tied to the stimulus money, as well,” she said. “Some of the stimulus moneys are actually assisting the markets that we serve: public transit, higher education and government.”

McDermott said that 55 percent of the company’s business comes from transit. Its Web site is divided into “Transportation” and “Architectural Environments,” which includes education, sports and entertainment, office, and government contracts.

American Seating is currently working at installing and renovating chairs in Boston’s Fenway Park — the site of its first sports installation in 1912 — as well as for the New York Jets and Giants, who both play in the Meadowlands Stadium in New Jersey. The company also recently finished an installation at Rutgers University.

There are many facets to the American Seating story that often go unnoticed. For instance, at a time when off-shoring jobs is the trend, American Seating has manufactured the majority of its products in the same northwest Grand Rapids neighborhood where it’s been for the last 123 years, now at 401 American Seating Court NW.

And with a long-time focus on sustainability, the company has, for instance, eliminated its use of phosphates, which contribute to algae blooms.

“It’s a great company. It’s a great story and a fun one to tell, especially right here in Grand Rapids,” said McDermott. “I wish we could get a statistic on this, but given the fact that we’ve been in education products forever, in public transit, stadiums — chances are you’ve sat in an American Seating seat.”

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