Manufacturing, Small Business & Startups, and Technology

Restructuring of business model pays off for Holland-based Twisthink

Despite automotive roots, company provides strategic design for an array of industries.

November 4, 2016
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Twisthink
Twisthink employees can find themselves working on wearable technology and home appliance projects one day and health care and office furniture tasks the next. Courtesy Twisthink

When visitors of Twisthink’s new downtown Holland offices walk in the door, the first thing they encounter is a row of workbenches, each one housing an engineer busy at work.

The reason behind that, Twisthink co-founder and managing partner Bob Niemiec said, is very intentional. Twisthink puts innovation at the forefront of every project it tackles — so why not put the innovators at the forefront of its physical space?

For nearly 16 years, the Holland-based product innovation and business strategy consultant has assisted manufacturers big and small in finding the next big thing.

“We’re trying to be a rising tide in the domain of innovation,” Niemiec said.

Niemiec and his partner, Gordon Stannis, founded Twisthink in 2001 after a 12-year career with Prince Automotive and, later, Johnson Controls Inc. after the latter acquired the former. Growing weary of a grueling travel schedule while raising a young family, Niemiec started looking for something new.

Seeing firsthand how successful Prince and JCI had been thanks to their approach to pairing great design and great technology, Niemiec realized that business model could be replicated — not just in automotive manufacturing but across all the industries that called West Michigan home.

“It took a lot of thinking, but eventually, we just said, ‘Hey, let’s deliver great design and great technology not in our own product but as a professional service,’” Niemiec said. “And that was sort of the impetus behind the whole thing.”

Armed with years of experience and a strong business model, Twisthink landed its first client, and it was a big one — Benton Harbor-based Whirlpool Inc. Fifteen years later, the $21 billion appliance manufacturer still is one of Twisthink’s major clients, exhibiting one of Niemiec’s key benchmarks for success — client retention.

Though the company was founded with an automotive background, Twisthink covers a variety of industries. Wearable technology, home appliances, health care, office furniture, lighting, the internet of things and, yes, automotive are covered under the Twisthink umbrella.

Covering such a wide scope might seem like it would exhaust the minds at Twisthink, but Niemiec said the breadth of Twisthink’s operations actually keeps things from getting stale.

“If we were just a singular-market minded company, I think it would make this journey tougher, and the team would be even wearier,” he said. “But the fact that one day, we’re trying to solve a really hard problem using image processing in the automotive industry and the next trying to serve a health care client with an IoT need, I think that variety helps keep us lively and fresh and really innovative.”

That isn’t to say Twisthink works with all comers. Niemiec said in some cases, if the industry is one the team is unfamiliar with, or the fit isn’t right, the firm will pass. The goal, he said, is to connect with companies that see the value in using strategic innovation to transform the way they operate.

“All the research points to professional service and product companies needing that stimulus of strategic innovation,” he said.

Twisthink also has made its own contributions to that well of researched data. This past summer, the firm released a study of more than 200 senior executives, which revealed 7 percent invested in innovative ideas regardless of financial viability. That’s a trend Twisthink wants to turn on its head.

The basic message Twisthink tries to get across to its clients is financial viability and technical feasibility are just two legs of a three-legged stool. The third leg is usability and desirability of the user — and Niemiec is concerned the voice of the consumer too often is lost in the fray.

To counteract that, Twisthink provides an end-to-end service, from idea generation and screening to design and finally, commercialization. Niemiec recalls a client once told him Twisthink’s ability to “convert” and run alongside them the entire way was valuable.

“What makes us a little bit different is we understand that process, but when it gets down to brass tacks, we understand that somebody’s got to figure out how make this thing work,” he said. “And we can go to that level.”

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