Moving from cabinetmaker into the world of design

December 21, 2009
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Bud Klipa's career plan is simple: "My career plan is to enjoy what I do, to learn every day, and get paid for doing it."

That plan has led Klipa to his current position as president of Details, an office work-tools solutions company owned by Steelcase.

But before he landed at Details, Klipa started out at The College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Va. He attended William & Mary on a full-ride football scholarship, playing offensive tackle for Lou Holtz.

"When it comes to getting the most out of the players, he just had a knack for doing that," said Klipa. "It was interesting to be a part of what he did from a leadership standpoint — demanding a certain level of performance and motivating players to achieve that."

Academically, Klipa was majoring in economics, but his interests soon led him to classes in art and design. By the time he graduated, he had accumulated enough credits to earn a minor in fine arts without consciously trying.

"To be honest, with the degree in economics — I did that because I had taken a couple of courses and I seemed good at it and interested in it. I just thought this would be a good thing to do or have," he said.

"For my elective courses, I took enough fine arts electives to actually have a fine arts minor, and I didn't even know it. I just kept on taking them because I was interested, and it wasn't studio art."

Klipa received his degree in 1974.

"I used to be able to say (I graduated) in the worst economic conditions, in terms of finding a job. The conditions today are probably as, if not more, challenging," he said. "The economy was dreadful, so I was fresh out of school with a degree in economics and there were zero jobs."

Klipa moved back home to Washington, D.C., and eventually found a job "pounding nails" for a construction company. In 1976, he moved to cabinetmaking.

"I had always had a knack working with my hands, just building stuff," he said.

"What (cabinetmaking) did was, it pulled you from the outside — kind of heavy duty — to interiors. It was sort of refining working with your hands."

The cabinet company he worked for, Design Craft Productions, was staffed with about four people when Klipa started, and bid on anything it thought it could handle.

"We did both commercial and residential work. You name it: interiors in offices, legal offices and build a reception desk and all the cabinetry for partners' offices, mail room cabinets — anything," he said.

BUD KLIPA
Company:
Details
Position: President
Age: 57
Birthplace: McLean, Va.
Residence: Ada
Family/Personal: Wife, Carol, and three grown children.
Community/Business Involvement: Just completed a five-year period with the Better Business Bureau.
Biggest Career Break: Having dinner with Terry West, who eventually hired him to work at Steelcase.

"We built floats for the bicentennial celebration, and that was a big deal, being in Washington. We built sets for the local television stations. If we thought we could meet the need of that customer, even if it meant taking on a new process or discovering something new, we bid on it.

"It was sort of where you were young and aggressive and worked a bazillion hours a week. That taught me the basics of production: going from a set of plans to an installed finish and a satisfied customer. That was nothing close to the mass production that Steelcase does here, but the principles are still the same."

It was Klipa's experience in cabinetmaking that helped shape his future. It also brought him back to the interest in design that he'd had in college and allowed him to "express that physically" through cabinetry.

"I have to admit, I really didn't have a good idea of 'I'm headed in this direction' or 'I'm doing this for this reason.' It was — if you want to make up a fancy term — an emerging strategy, which means every day you sort of discovered a new thing and kept on going."

By the time he was 28, the cabinet company had grown to around 25 people.

"I learned who were the real artists working with wood, and then there was me, and I was OK at it. It was one of those times when you have to step back and say, 'Am I as good as those guys? Can I really make a living doing that type of thing?'" said Klipa, who had become a shop supervisor.

In his role as supervisor, Klipa acted as a liaison between the shop workers and the customers — some of them architectural and design firms. During lunch with members of one of the firms, one of them asked Klipa, "Have you ever thought about going into design as a career?"

He went home and spoke about it with his wife, Carol, and then began reading design literature and magazines. He came across an article about a European architect in New York City who had established a European-style design program.

"It's not like going to a formal (school). It was more of an apprenticeship program," Klipa said.

"There were three areas of focus: interior design, space planning and furniture design. You would study with him three days a week, and two days a week you worked in his design practice. You were studying and doing."

Even though it wasn't an accredited program, Klipa thought it would be the right fit for him. This was, however, before cell phones, and Klipa was so busy working up to 80 hours a week for the cabinet company that he was unable to find the time to call about the program.

Finally, Carol made the call for him and then put him on a train to New York.

"She said, 'Look, we're either going to find out if this is good or do something else. You're going to New York. You're going to interview and find out one way or another if this is good or not,'" said Klipa. "That's typical of my wife."

Klipa was awarded an apprenticeship, and he and his wife moved to Westfield, N.J.

"I took the energy I had been devoting to building cabinets and I poured it into that program," said Klipa, who worked side-by-side with his architect instructor. "What I really learned was to challenge the industry conventions."

After three years, Klipa was encouraged to move on to another company in order to learn other techniques and viewpoints. It was the early 1980s and the employment situation was picking up. Klipa found a headhunter to represent him and landed a job at William Sklaroff Design Associates, a small design firm just outside Philadelphia. His first job with the firm was working on designs for the acclaimed Radius One line of desk accessories — not too different from the products of his current company, Details.

"That really introduced me to the whole office accessories and tools business, if you will," he said. "I didn't know it at the time, but that was going to help me later on with what I'm doing at Details."

During his time at the design firm, Klipa was introduced to Terry West, who was the director of industrial design at Steelcase, over dinner. The two hit it off, and later that year, in June 1985, Klipa gave West a call before heading to Chicago for NeoCon, the world trade fair for office furniture. The two met for coffee.

"At the end of our coffee, Terry looked at me and said, 'Hey, have you ever thought about working on industrial design as an in-house designer for a manufacturer like Steelcase?' I said, 'No, but that sounds like a pretty interesting thing.'"

A few months later, on Sept. 4, Klipa began working for Steelcase.

"I really was in awe that they were considering me for a position here. The reputation of the company was such that it really was unparallel in the industry. I'm not saying that Herman Miller isn't a great company as well; I'm just saying this was one of the top ones."

An office systems project was just getting under way when Klipa came on board, and the project was a large one.

"It's probably one of the biggest things you can do. If you're in the office furniture business, a systems project is huge," he said. "This project took four-and-a-half years to get designed and ready to go out into the marketplace."

By that time, Klipa had moved up to being the manager of the systems product: Context, which is still in production today.

"(Steelcase) really needed someone to talk about the design of the product, and that's exactly what I did," he said. "All of a sudden, I'm basically heading up the roll-out of the largest thing Steelcase has done in years."

Klipa had spent time on both the design side of Context and in the product marketing role. Over the next few years, he led several other projects in various sectors for Steelcase while also attending Aquinas College to earn a master's degree. Then, in 1995, he got a call to take over as president of Details.

"I said, 'Sure!'" said Klipa. "I was stunned."

Klipa has held the position ever since, guiding the company through several transitions: from consolidation to expansion and diversification, and everything in between.

"This is the best job within Steelcase. I really believe that there are very few of these kinds of positions, and I've been lucky to have one for the past 14 years," he said.

"The business has evolved and changed over those 14 years. Every time I think, 'Maybe I should at looking at something else around here,' then it's time to transform the Details business."

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