Guest Column

Why the furniture industry is still important to West Michigan

July 26, 2013
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Although NeoCon 2013 is over, the really difficult work is just beginning. Now the challenge is to improve, modify, tweak and refine what was shown to more than 40,000 people over three days and turn it into products that the working, learning, healing and leisure industry buyers and specifiers want to purchase.

If you have lived in West Michigan for more than a decade, you already know the furniture industry is part of our social, cultural, economic and perhaps political DNA. For three-quarters of a century, the production of furniture made from locally processed hardwoods, leather, milled fabrics and hardware made in West Michigan made us the “capital” of furniture manufacturing. Names like Baker, Berkey, Bergsma, Forslund, Kindel, Sligh and Witticomb were just a sampling of brands that exemplified “the best money could buy.”

The auto industry and its suppliers eventually superseded furniture as a prime job maker in West Michigan, with high wages, benefits and the implied promise of job security. Understandably, much of today’s focus by our economic development organizations has broadened and branched out into the health care, medical device and food-processing industries.

Spectrum Health is our region’s single largest employer, with more than 19,000 individuals engaged in health care. Add Mercy Health Saint Mary’s, Metro Health, Holland Community, North Ottawa, Pennock and Mary Free Bed into the equation and the number rises past 31,500. Hope Network, Pine Rest and Priority Health add another 4,500 jobs to exceed 36,000 overall.

West Michigan-based auto industry suppliers like ADAC Automotive, Benteler, Cascade Engineering, Center Manufacturing, Challenge Manufacturing, Gentex, GHSP, GM Components Holdings, JCI, Lacks Industries, Magna International, Royal Technologies, Shape Corp. and Pridgeon & Clay — plus dozens of smaller organizations — account for more than 25,000 jobs.

Food and drug processors like Cheese Kurls, Gerber, Hudsonville Ice Cream, Kellogg’s, Perrigo, Request Foods and Sarah Lee feed more than 8,000 households.

Banking, insurance, and higher education each keep more than 6,000 people employed, while Amway supports more than 4,000 jobs.

When we examine the field of manufacturing employment in West Michigan, it might surprise you to learn furniture manufacturing remains our largest job provider. There are more than 25 manufacturers of office, education, health care and hospitality furniture in West Michigan, employing more than 17,000 people and generating more than $4.5 billion in annual revenue, not including international operations.

There are more than 125 Tier 1 and Tier 2 companies in West Michigan that supply products, materials or services used for the manufacture of office, education, health care and hospitality furniture. These companies employ more than 12,000 people and generate more than $1.3 billion in annual revenue to dozens of other furniture manufacturers outside our region.

More than 85 percent of these companies have annual sales of less than $50 million and/or have fewer than 100 employees. Dozens have sales less than $10 million, employing fewer than 20.

Most of us know that Grand Rapids was once known as “The Furniture City” for its fine residential product. During the latter portion of the 20th century, the region evolved to become the center of the office furniture industry, led by Steelcase, Herman Miller, Haworth and other lesser-known names.

Today, our focus isn’t just about the office environment; it’s about the education, health care and hospitality environments.

West Michigan truly has become the Commercial Furniture Industry Capital of the World. To those who consider it a “mature” industry that may be past its time, I say, “You are wrong!” The furniture industry remains a critical element in the economic diversity we desperately need to nurture and flourish in our Michigan economy.

Our regional economic health is envied by much of Michigan and admired by dozens of states and regions around the country. Regardless of where, when and how we work, learn, heal and relax, the environment and its furniture is probably conceived, designed, engineered and built in West Michigan.

Mike Dunlap is principal of Michael A. Dunlap & Associates LLC, a business consulting services firm that focuses primarily on issues that involve the office furniture industry. He can be reached at (616) 786-3524 or at mike@mdunlap-associates.com.

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