Configura still growing

May 29, 2012
| By Pete Daly |
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Configura, the Swedish software company that set up shop in Grand Rapids six years ago because of the office furniture industry base here, has expanded that local facility and opened a new office in Malaysia to serve Asian companies.

The new office in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, will serve Configura client companies that are already in Asia or plan to be, and new Asian customers.

Configura CEO Johan Lyreborn said by having software programmers, training and support staff at work in the home office in Linköping, Sweden, plus in Grand Rapids and Kuala Lumpur, “we can work all tasks around the clock.”

The privately held company got its start developing business software for European office furniture and cabinet manufacturers. Today it is one of the leading software developers of its type in Europe. Started in 1990, the company develops software for four industries that configure products — hence the name Configura. Those markets are kitchen and bathroom, industrial machinery and equipment, material handling products and contract office furniture.

Configura’s CET Designer is design/specification software that allows an office furniture dealership to complete every step of a sales proposal in one program, including final pricing.

Contract office furniture sales are complicated because an interior designer usually has to be involved from the start, and a new office layout often combines different products from different manufacturers, making the price calculation difficult.

Peter Brandinger, the head of Configura Inc.’s U.S. headquarters at 100 Grandville Ave. SW in Grand Rapids, once explained to the Business Journal the office furniture ordering process is very expensive and time-consuming because “the customer wants to know how much it’s going to cost — and what it looks like.”

CET Designer is described by Configura as “intelligent” in that it automatically factors in rules for each product required, determining whether or not a given combination of different products will work. Configura calls it “parametric graphical configuration.”

A company that buys a license to use CET Designer also receives additional software development, programming and support, as an extension of the software. The client company’s authorized dealerships can sign on for access to the software by its design and sales staffs.

In 2005, Haworth became a client. Steelcase and Teknion signed on three years ago. More recently Configura signed KI (Krueger International) based in Green Bay, Wis. KI makes furniture and movable wall panels for education, health care, government and corporate markets.

Brandinger said in April Configura has about 20 employees in Grand Rapids. In early 2008, before the recession, the employee roster was at 18, but that number went down as the economy tanked. Brandinger said hiring here picked up in 2010 for the support staff and programmers.

Configura’s worldwide sales revenue in 2011 was about $9.5 million, according to Lyreborn.

Office furniture production in the U.S. is predicted by BIFMA International to be flat this year, but that is just one of the markets Configura serves.

“We are in a positive trend, but it might not mean the industry is going in the same direction,” noted Lyreborn.

The Grandville Avenue office just completed an expansion into adjacent space.

“We saw this as a good opportunity for us to create a little bit more spacious environment for our employees,” said Brandinger. He said the local office has not had a real break area or collaborative space, which he described as “quite popular these days in most cutting edge technology companies. We have a staff of very creative people.”

“You need to have a creative outlet for those people,” even when they are just taking a break, added Amy Edington, head of the firm’s training and support staff.

Amenities like a collaborative area/break room also can help Configura recruit talented programmers, said Brandinger, adding it is “really hard for us to find the level of talent that we would really like to see. That’s the biggest challenge.”

Lyreborn said Grand Rapids “has been really good” for Configura and “our goal is to continue to grow” as long as it can recruit talented, well-trained programmers.

“We don’t want all those good guys to end up in Silicon Valley. We want them to stay in Grand Rapids,” said Lyreborn.

This summer Configura will have at least three student interns, another way to build relationships with promising technology employees in high demand as the economy improves.

CET Designer is an open-platform software, which allows its users to build their own extensions onto it without requiring help from Configura. But that does take skilled programmers, so companies, including Steelcase, Haworth and KI, have added employees with that programming ability.

Lyreborn said Configura’s strategy is not to have all office furniture manufacturers become its clients — just those manufacturers willing to change how they sell to their customers. The software actually changes the way a company does business, he maintains.

Edington said a lot of dealerships have changed and do use CET Designer “in some capacity,” but others are not using it fully.

“You have to make sure your sales and order entry are all going in one direction,” she said. “Some have really embraced it, and some are still going through that transition.”

Brandinger said the NeoCon contract furniture trade show in Chicago (June 11-13) is “the biggest exposition we attend during the year.” Configura will be demonstrating CET Designer 3.0 plus its newest offering: MyConfigura, a portal to a Cloud web service that enhances the communication and connection between CET Designer users and Configura’s manufacturer clients.

MyConfigura, which will be available late this year, is part of Configura’s continuing attempt to reduce the work for its software users, according to company executives. People who use CET Designer are clicking their mouse a lot, said Lyreborn, “but with our Cloud-enabling technology that we call MyConfigura, it’s going to be very easy.”

“(MyConfigura) is going to be very unique. No one else in this industry has any similar solutions,” Brandinger said.

Configura is also looking forward to its fifth annual CET Designer User Conference in Las Vegas in October. The keynote speaker, a leader in the design community, has not been announced but will be at Configura’s NeoCon party on June 11. Last year the CET Designer User Conference speaker was Aidan Chopra of Google SketchUp.

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