Fragile and inefficient supply chains took center stage throughout the COVID-19 pandemic and have furniture OEMs reevaluating the ways to approach this key component of their operations.
At the same time, smaller manufacturers are eagerly vying for the opportunity to supply the furniture industry.
Both sides came together recently for the first-of-its-kind Michigan Furniture Industry Symposium. The event was hosted by the Michigan Economic Development Corp.’s Pure Michigan Business Connect (PMBC) program and was in partnership with West Michigan-based economic development agencies Lakeshore Advantage and The Right Place Inc.
The event, held virtually on May 13, brought together 10 purchasing companies from Michigan and beyond with dozens of Michigan-based suppliers. The symposium featured a best practices panel discussion involving furniture executives and also facilitated 80 buyer-supplier meetings. Buyers included names like Zeeland-based Herman Miller Inc., Lowell-based Enwork and Genesis Seating Inc. in Kentwood.
“We have worked with (office furniture) businesses before but those have not been on specifically industry-focused initiatives,” said PMBC Senior Program Specialist Katy Till. “This is the first time solely focused on the commercial furniture industry to provide those supply chain connection opportunities.
“Knowing they have experienced unique challenges due to COVID, we wanted to provide resources at a state level to help with some of the supply chain issues that furniture industry companies were experiencing.”
Till said that PMBC — which provides programming predominately in metro Detroit — wanted to design an event that would benefit an industry meaningful for West Michigan, and that the pandemic helped reshape some of its content.
“(The PMBC staff) reconnected around the fall of last year and said this is probably a better time than any to do something with the commercial furniture industry now that we know there are even more unique challenges and opportunities related to COVID,” Till said.
Time of transition
Amy Sparks, president and CEO of Holland-based manufacturer Nuvar Inc., was included on the event’s panel discussion. As a Tier 1 supplier for furniture OEMs, she fielded meetings with Michigan-based suppliers in an effort to forge new relationships.
Nuvar manufactures finished goods primarily for the commercial office furniture industry. When the pandemic hit and orders for most commercial office furniture products plunged, Nuvar’s sales followed suit.
This led Nuvar to scour for opportunities both in furniture and other industries.
“We believe (commercial furniture sales) will come back, but what else can we be doing and how else can we add value?” Sparks told MiBiz. “There are so many wonderful companies in Michigan and West Michigan that service that industry that are in the same situation. They have tremendous capabilities.
“Everyone uses the word ‘pivot’ — but how do you do that effectively while also remaining there for our historic customers that we believe will come back?”
By Sparks’ assessment, now is not only a great time for Michigan-based buyers and sellers to connect, but also for our manufacturing-rich state to court OEMs on a national scale.
“There is power in our network, and I think we can bring some wonderful value across the nation as well as international solutions,” she said. “It’s having that right playing field and just the opportunities and open doors.”
Nuvar, which Sparks acquired in 2018, has leaned on economic development agencies to make those connections. The Michigan Furniture Industry Symposium was one such opportunity.
Nuvar specializes in producing customizable solutions in both low and high volumes, a capability Sparks said is in demand by other industries as well.
However, as businesses of all industries begin to sort out their new, revamped approach to work, Sparks said that she expects a strong demand for customization to fit the needs of employees wherever they might be working.
“I’m hopeful that allows us to come alongside our partners and say, ‘Hey, let me help you with that. I can take that complexity out,’” Sparks said. “We can come do the rest of it and really open up your offerings.”
Sealing the deal
While supply chain challenges plagued all businesses in the commercial furniture market, they’ve been especially detrimental for the smaller players.
“We’ve been hearing from some of the members, particularly our smaller and mid-size members, that supply chain issues were impacting them probably more significantly than the larger manufacturers,” said Deirdre Jimenez, president and CEO of the Business and Institutional Furniture Manufacturer’s Association (BIFMA). “So, (the symposium) was perceived as a real opportunity for them to explore expanding their supply chains.”
In an industry that is broadly focused on environmental responsibility and sustainability, Jimenez said that like-minded suppliers are more likely to find connections with OEMs.
“When you think sustainability and the environment and chemicals of concern — these are all areas that the industry is very proactively working on and improving in,” she said. “If we can bring our suppliers into this value structure, I think that will propel the industry forward.”
While the dynamic of the post-pandemic commercial furniture market remains to be seen, Jimenez is bullish on the idea that many large businesses will reel their workforces back to the office. Citing a surge in office searches and interior design projects in large metropolitan areas, she expects an approach that is not necessarily dominated by remote work.
“A lot of social capital was built up in the workforce prior to the pandemic that carried people through remote work for the year,” Jimenez said. “But that social capital has been eaten up and isolation and distancing and reduced engagement sets in when social capital is low.”
News coverage in the manufacturing section of MiBiz is made possible by advertising support from The Michigan Economic Development Corporation. MEDC markets Michigan as the place to do business, assists businesses in their growth strategies and fosters the growth of vibrant communities across the state. This advertisement has no effect on editorial consideration in MiBiz.