Haworth Tells Of Risks And Rewards

September 8, 2004
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ZEELAND — First there was the man he worked for at a drugstore in Benton Harbor who thought he could do better and helped him get a new job in Kalamazoo so he could enroll in college.

The next big helping hand came from his father, who loaned G.W. Haworth $10,000 in 1948 to start his business. A few years later, a local banker connected him with a larger institution in Chicago to provide the capital he needed as his business grew.

"That was a great blessing to have that fella to get me into a big bank to get me help," G.W. Haworth said as he spoke last week to a group of business owners and entrepreneurs.

In recalling his early years in business, the founder of Haworth Inc. spoke of the help and support he received in building his business while reminding his audience that success requires a goal and a steadfast determination to see it through.

"It isn't easy starting a business from scratch. You have to have a real job in mind and a real commitment and a vision and a tenacity for what you're doing, and it takes all you've got up here to do the job," the 92-year-old Haworth said during an address last week at Lakeshore Advantage's inaugural Lakeshore e2e Series (entrepreneur to entrepreneur), a monthly event that brings together successful business owner in the Holland-Zeeland area to share their stories with young entrepreneurs.

"You have to be a driven individual with determination," Haworth told the audience of more than 100 people. "You have to have a driving goal, a driving desire to do something unusual."

Each entrepreneur leasing low-cost space in the Lakeshore Advantage business incubator, located near downtown Zeeland, is matched with a volunteer mentor with whom they will meet regularly to monitor their business plan, chart progress and help to steer clear of problems.

"This isn't about cheap space. It's about mentorship and providing mentors to help you avoid fatal errors," said Dan Bourbon, chairman of EST Solutions Inc. in Holland and coordinator of the Lakeshore Advantage Business Garden.

"It's all about success and increasing the probability of success," Bourbon said.

And few in the history of West Michigan business have been as successful as Gerrard Haworth.

A wood and metal shop teacher at Holland High School for 11 years, who at the time was 36 years old and the father of four children, he decided to turn a wood-working hobby into a business, known as Modern Products, that initially produced store displays and checkout counters and added new products and services every year.

The company's big break came one day in 1954 when a salesman came into the shop, located on East 16th Street in Holland, asking if Haworth could design and build wooden office partitions. Haworth did — making them 54-inch wood panels with 12 inches of glass at the top — and the salesman took them to Detroit, where he sold them to Walter Ruther, head of the United Auto Workers, for the union's new headquarters, Solidarity House.

While a challenge for the young company to undertake, the UAW sale represented the first big order for Modern Products and sent the company on its way.

"I said, 'You know, I found something here I think we can build a business on,'" Haworth recalled. "That was the beginning of our growth."

From that point on, Modern Products focused on building office partitions and the business grew steadily.

In 1976, the company sold off the partition business, which represented about half of sales, to focus on a new product line: modular office panels, the component of the modern office cubicle.

The newly renamed Haworth Inc. introduced the world's first pre-wired office panel in 1976 at NeoCon, which marked the beginning of a period that transformed the company, under the leadership of G.W.'s son, Richard Haworth, into one of the world's largest manufacturers of office furnishings.

In speaking at the e2e Series last week, G.W. Haworth advised entrepreneurs that beyond their own commitment and determination, business success requires sacrifice and support from their families and spouses, hiring and keeping the right people, and securing the services of a good banker, accountant and attorney.

And, he added, initiatives like Lakeshore Advantage's programming that help support businesses are beneficial, too.

"I don't know why they didn't have this 55 years ago," Haworth joked. "I would have done a lot better in business."

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