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Published in Manufacturing
Sara Armbruster Sara Armbruster COURTESY PHOTO

New Steelcase CEO sees opportunity in rapidly shifting office furniture industry

BY Sunday, October 10, 2021 02:00pm

Early this month, longtime Steelcase Inc. corporate leader Sara Armbruster became the company’s 10th CEO in its 109-year history. Armbruster has been with Steelcase since 2007 and served as vice president of strategy, research and digital transformation since February 2018. In addition to leading corporate strategy and acquisition activities, Armbruster has led other businesses within Steelcase, including Steelcase Education, Steelcase Health, and PolyVision Corp. MiBiz spoke with Armbruster during her second day as president and CEO to learn about her approach as the company’s top executive.

Among a wide range of leadership roles you have held with Steelcase, you headed up the company’s COVID response strategy. What sort of lessons did you learn from leading through the pandemic that will apply as CEO?

One of our core focus areas was, of course, to make sure that we were doing what we had to do to make sure we were keeping employees safe. In the process of that, we learned a ton and we were able to be successful in that goal. We also heard a lot of great feedback from our employees about what helped them feel comfortable in the office or in a factory, and that was everything from what kinds of policies we have in place to how we might arrange a space or use space to keep people apart from one another.

We were able to really learn and iterate based on our employees’ feedback. I think we’ll continue a lot of those things in one way or another.

Both you and your predecessor Jim Keane have emphasized the opportunities for Steelcase as the industry pulls out of COVID. Is this truly a crossroads for the industry as a whole?

I really am quite excited about the future of work and about what that means as far as opportunities for Steelcase. This is a really unique moment in time when leaders of organizations around the world are all asking fundamental questions about work, where people work, how they work, and how they can help their people in different ways. If there was ever a moment for Steelcase — and really for the whole industry — to be able to bring compelling solutions and have a positive impact on people at work, I think this is that moment. I feel really good about how Steelcase is positioned to do that. We stayed invested in innovation throughout the pandemic so we could continue to do research, innovate, develop new solutions to bring to new customers. We remain really committed to delivering on those things in a way that’s sustainable, ethical and inclusive.

With its core business in the contract furniture space, how do you see the company adapting its model in the future to embrace the work-from-home market?

I would say we’ve already embraced it in the sense we do have a presence in retail ourselves through our Steelcase store. We also support people who want great solutions for the work they do at home through our partnerships with a number of retailers and e-tailers. I think that’s already part of our business today. While our presence may be relatively small when you compare it to our overall contract business, I think we’ve seen some nice growth in that area since the pandemic began. 

How is Steelcase’s appetite for M&A?

Acquisitions have long been part of Steelcase’s success. When I think about the last couple of years, we’re really proud of the value that we’ve created for our customers through things like the acquisition of AMQ Solutions, Smith System and Orangebox Group. I think that’s been an approach we’ve leveraged successfully, and that will continue to be something we continue to look at and explore as one of several ways we can imagine pursuing growth and pursuing opportunities to bring new value to our customers.

Former CEO Jim Keane recently voiced support for a federal vaccine mandate — a fairly divisive topic among manufacturers — for employers with at least 100 workers. Do you agree that vaccine mandates are the quickest path to getting back to a sense of normalcy?

We as an organization, since the start of the pandemic, have encouraged our employees to be vaccinated. We have both encouraged and provided information. So, we really encourage our employees and have taken a number of measures to make it as easy as possible. We continue to encourage that. With respect to mandates and some of the news coming out from the federal government in terms of various requirements that will be put in place for employers of various types, clearly we are tracking that and our intent is to comply with whatever regulations apply to us. Our COVID team is working carefully on that to make sure we will follow those new regulations and to make sure we’re compliant.

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