Architecture & Design, Manufacturing, and Small Business & Startups

Shaking up GR’s comfort zone

Low-key UK furniture spinoff gets ready to make some noise with its acoustic pods.

July 1, 2016
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Orangebox US
Acoustic pods and soft seating from Orangebox could be making their U.S. debut soon. Courtesy Orangebox Ltd.

The West Michigan furniture industry could receive a healthy shot of originality from an overseas company very soon.

In February 2015, United Kingdom-based furniture manufacturer Orangebox Ltd. kicked off its North American arm, Orangebox US Inc., headquartered in downtown Grand Rapids. Operating out of the co-working space at Worklab by Custer, 99 Monroe Ave., Orangebox US has been inching toward an official launch, bringing its innovative acoustic pods and soft seating to the stateside market.

Founded in 1973 as Giroflex, the company expanded by acquiring Gordon Russell and other companies before being purchased by Steelcase Strafor in the late 1980s. In 1998, executives Mino and Remo Vernashi and Peter Hurley led a management buyout followed by a rebranding as Orangebox in 2002.

In the years since, Orangebox has become synonymous with fresh ideas and innovative products, such as the Airea and Air³ acoustic pods — easily moveable private working spaces that can be constructed and taken down in just a few hours. The acoustic pods have been widely popular in the United Kingdom, where limited space necessitates workspace innovation. Once the pods receive electrical safety certification from UL LLC, Orangebox can begin manufacturing and distribution in the United States.

“We’ve had to re-engineer the pods several times to meet U.S. standards, but we’re just about to cross that finish line,” Orangebox US Sales and Marketing Coordinator Ashley Lewis said.

Lewis said the pods, which will be Orangebox’s flagship product in the U.S., are undergoing a manufacturing audit and determination of where the UL safety label will be located. She is cautiously optimistic the pods will be ready to go by the end of the year.

Orangebox US also plans to sell its soft seating here. Though its parent company boasts a large portfolio including chairs, desk chairs and desks, Orangebox US won’t try to compete with the industry stalwarts here in West Michigan.

“They just want to bring over stuff that’s going to supplement those products or add to it,” Lewis said. “They’re going to bring over what the market needs, not what it already has.”

Currently, Orangebox US operates with a skeleton staff of five employees stretching to both coasts: Lewis and a customer service rep at headquarters in Grand Rapids, two sales representatives covering the East Coast and one on the West Coast.

Lewis expects that once Orangebox US goes live, that staff will grow rapidly. A customer service team, human resources department and expanded sales team all are in the blueprints for expansion.

Orangebox US has partnered with Carthage, Missouri-based Leggett & Platt Inc. to manufacture its products at the Genesis Seating plant, 3445 E. Paris Ave. SE. However, Lewis said eventually Orangebox US likely will open a factory in Grand Rapids, once its volume becomes too big to handle.

Grand Rapids’ reputation and proximity to high-quality manufacturing firms were primary reasons Orangebox chose West Michigan.

“It’s Furniture City, and it has the best-quality partners that we can pick from,” said Lewis, a Grand Rapids native. “Grand Rapids has a lot of manufacturing firms that are manufacturing for all of the bigs like Steelcase, Herman Miller and Haworth, so they had that quality that Orangebox was looking for. And Grand Rapids is fairly inexpensive compared to the other cities they were looking at, from a tax and business standpoint.”

As for distribution, Lewis said Orangebox US has handpicked 18 furniture dealers to work with exclusively across the nation, including Grand Rapids’ own Custer Inc., which will serve as Orangebox’s main dealer in the Midwest. She said in just the past year, a number of customers have been placing orders without even having seen the product, wowing executives back across the pond.

“They find that fascinating, because they don’t have that mindset over there,” Lewis said. “People there want to see it, touch it, but over here, it’s ‘I want the new, upcoming, innovative thing. Just give it to me.’”

From a marketing standpoint, Lewis said Orangebox likes to puts its product on the back burner and its research at the forefront. She said using this strategy gives the consumer something else besides the product to think about and works as a softer sell.

“It’s supposed to help intrigue you,” she said.

It’s for this reason that Orangebox is unlikely to have a showroom at NeoCon in the near future. But Lewis said that brainstorming sessions have been held to find new, fresh ways to get its product in the public eye at next year’s NeoCon, such as hosting a dinner party or inviting guests out onto a boat adorned with Orangebox furniture — innovation from the top down.

“I think we can bring a fresh perspective,” Lewis said. “We’re coming from outside of the country, and we have designers that aren’t in this sort of Grand Rapids furniture groupthink. Because we all trade employees amongst each other, we all kind of think about things similarly, and we’ve all kind of grown up around here, we’ve all gone to NeoCon, so I feel like we kind of get stuck in this groupthink where there’s not much new, there’s not much different.

“But then you pluck something like Orangebox out of the UK, from Wales, in much different markets from the Middle East to Australia, and they think about things a little differently.”

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