GRAND RAPIDS — Dierdre Jimenez is joining the Business and Institutional Furniture Manufacturers Association at an interesting time.
The COVID-19 pandemic has the office furniture industry reeling from plummeting sales, a falloff in new orders and questions over the sector’s role going forward given the dramatic global shift to working from home.
Jimenez, the incoming BIFMA president and CEO who will lead the nonprofit trade group as long-time Executive Director Tom Reardon retires, stressed that this giant roadblock facing the $16.6 billion North American industry won’t stop the organization from addressing its long-term goals or agenda. Instead, she acknowledges the present remains an exciting time for the industry in terms of innovation, style and functionality.
“We’re trying not to drop everything we’re doing long term to deal with the short term, but also trying to address any of the short-term needs the industry might have,” Jimenez told MiBiz.
Jimenez, who officially takes her post July 7, comes to the position with a background in architecture and interior design. She spent more than 25 years serving in executive and ownership roles in corporate real estate and architecture and engineering consulting.
“She brings a lot to the table,” Reardon said of Jimenez. “She has a lot of great background and experience in architecture and interior design and those are groups that we are increasing our communication and outreach to. I am not at all surprised at the profile of the candidate because it aligns perfectly with our go-forward goals.”
Focus on standards
Over the last decade, BIFMA has implemented uniform standards specifically tailored to office furniture that measure performance, safety and sustainability.
During Reardon’s tenure, this included the introduction of the Level certification program, a tiered evaluation and certification system to measure the social and environmental effects of various furniture products. Level provided transparency and simplicity for consumers who were seeking out furniture that was environmentally sustainable and socially responsible.
Reardon said that developing a set of standards was important for the industry since furniture makers often found themselves being pulled in different directions in terms of defining sustainability from client to client.
This is an area that Jimenez looks to build on as she takes over the top executive role at BIFMA.
“I think the work Tom and the team did in terms of standards and sustainability is recognized and respected industry-wide,” she said. “The one thing we don’t want to do is disrupt that. We want to maintain that and continue to thoughtfully expand that.”
The organization will continue carrying that torch via a compliance program called BIFMA Compliant. The organization originally expected to roll out the public launch of BIFMA Compliant this year. However, complications with the COVID-19 pandemic, which affected test labs, manufacturers and the furniture industry as a whole, pushed back the program until March 2021.
The program covers nine mechanical standards that focus on safety and durability and is open to both BIFMA members and non-members alike.
Testing is conducted in an ISO 17025 accredited test lab and products that meet the standard are granted permission to use a BIFMA Compliant mark to indicate its designation.
BIFMA Compliant is yet another tool that will bring transparency to the consumer, according to Jimenez.
“(BIFMA Compliant) is targeted to help the consumer understand which products do comply with the standard and which ones may not,” Jimenez said. “It’s not made to disparage products that haven’t gone through the review process, but it’s more so to make sure when clients are buying products that conform to BIFMA standards, that they know the product was tested and does conform.”
“I’m looking at it from a specifier’s perspective … and from a direct buyer’s perspective,” she added. “If I’m looking to make a major investment in furniture, what do I need to know and how simply can I find information?”
Aside from furthering existing BIFMA agenda items, one way Jimenez looks to enhance the organization’s effectiveness in serving the industry is to better elevate innovation.
“The side of the furniture industry we have not yet celebrated to a degree is the design and innovation side,” she said. “There are some really creative designs coming out in furniture right now and we’re just not elevating them the way we could be.
“There have been some extremely innovative products put on the market, and I think helping designers who specify those products and direct buyers who buy those products understand what’s coming next is really a large part of what I’d like to bring to the table.”
One way BIFMA plans to do that is by teaming up with NeoCon, the premier industry product trade show and expo held every year at Merchandise Mart in Chicago, to launch Confluence Chicago. The event was scheduled to launch this year and run parallel to NeoCon before it was canceled in reaction to the pandemic.
Confluence Chicago, which will now debut in June 2021 right alongside NeoCon, is a three-day summit that aims to connect professionals from across different creative industries and design disciplines to find inspiration and common threads in their work.
Looking to grow
Reardon’s departure comes at a time when BIFMA is on solid footing as an organization, which now has record high membership, dues revenue and general revenue. As well, the U.S. market grew by 4.8 percent to $14.77 billion in 2019, with the overall North American market up 4 percent, according to preliminary BIFMA estimates.
Jimenez looks to leverage the organization’s health to promote further growth.
“There are a number of companies out there that we think we could help,” she said. “We think the services that BIFMA has provided to existing members would be as much appreciated by new members.
“There hasn’t been very strong outreach. BIFMA has sort of quietly existed, and I think there is opportunity to serve more members and join in partnership with other industry organizations — from a design perspective to client/customer organizations — to help share the message and the value that has been invested in all of this hard work.”
In addition to Jimenez taking BIFMA’s head role, the organization also voted in Kristie Juster, CEO at Jasper, Ind.-based Kimball International, and Matt Schad, CEO of Comstock Park-based Nucraft Furniture Co., to its board of directors back in May.
A more than 15-year industry veteran who leads the family-owned Nucraft, Schad held positions in product development and operations before rising up to CEO. He also has experience as an attorney in Washington, D.C.
“It’s certainly a challenging time and I’m looking forward to being a part of the board and helping craft responses to the challenges that are facing the industry,” Schad said.