After serving with global office furniture maker Steelcase Inc. for 25 years, and the last seven as CEO, Jim Keane recently announced he would step away from his leading role this fall when he will be replaced by executive vice president and incoming CEO Sara Armbruster. Keane will continue as vice chairman on Steelcase’s board of directors before fully retiring at the beginning of 2022. Keane spoke with MiBiz to reflect on his two and a half decades with the contract furniture leader.
What were some indicators that this was an appropriate time to step away as CEO?
I had to really think about it from two perspectives: What is the right timing for me and what is right for the company? For me, I didn’t have a magic formula or anything — there was no magic age when I felt like I had to retire.
COVID obviously was a major factor. I would have never left in the middle of the crisis. Our factories were shut down, our offices were empty, our customers’ offices were empty for a while, and then we had a cyber attack and other things happening in the company. It’s a benefit to have an experienced CEO during that period.
I see this new era for our industry and our company. That’s super exciting and requires new thinking and new strategy. While I’m really excited about it, it didn’t feel right for me to write the strategy and then leave. I thought this is a good time for a new CEO to step in, create that strategy, execute that strategy and do it in a time when the COVID crisis is behind us and a time when the economy is getting stronger so there are tailwinds forming.
Do you expect Steelcase to look different in the future based on the drastic changes brought on by the pandemic?
Absolutely. In fact, I’d say I’ve never been more excited about the future of the company than I am right now. I wish I was starting my career today at Steelcase because I think there is an enormous opportunity in front of us, but not if we stay the same. We’re a great company. Fiscal 2020 was one of our best years in 20 years — this was just before COVID hit. So we’re on a really solid footing, but things are changing, so we absolutely have to keep changing. One of the things I’m most proud of during my time at Steelcase is we reinvented this company countless times. When I joined it was all about cubicles and everyone sat at a cubicle all day and that’s where they worked.
If we were still a cubicle company, we would be obsolete. We’ve had to reinvent ourselves every few years and that’s going to continue.
What do you consider to be your mark on this company — your legacy?
First of all, the reinvention of the company — whether I was CEO or before that. I participated actively in all the reinventions, leading strategies, leading R&D, working on product development, head of North American sales and eventually head of global. That reinvention of the company over and over was really important. If we had not been able to lead in a post cubicle world, if we had not moved from the world of everyone owning a desk, we would not have been successful.
Corporate and environmental responsibility has been a focus for Steelcase. For example, the company achieved carbon neutrality in 2020. Did you fuel these efforts or has it been ingrained in the company from the beginning?
I came to Steelcase because it was a global leader in its industry and yet it felt like a family business. It felt like a business where people really cared about each other. In my first few board meetings, I realized that for every decision I bring to the board I better be ready to answer questions about how it links to the environment and what the environmental impact was. Today you kind of say, ‘Well, duh.’ But 25 years ago, that never happened in Corporate America. That was not a question people were asked. Steelcase always cared about the community in which we did business, our employees and our customers. That was evident when I first arrived but I continued to advance those principles that our founders created.
As CEO, you seemed to refocus the company on its core businesses, like with the divestiture of coated steel manufacturer PolyVision Corp. last year. Where are you in that process and what steps would you like to see in the future?
I think we’re pretty good. We did a lot of the divestitures over the first half of my tenure and today I think we’re pretty good at being focused on the core of work, worker and workplace. That’s really where we’re centered. Today, we think about how we can make sure we’re filling out our business and covering adjacencies and broadening our products. A few years ago, our push was to make sure we were covered in the world of ancillary — this is more the informal, more residential-like furniture you see in offices now.
What’s interesting there is that we didn’t do it all through acquisitions. We were able to do a lot of it through partnerships and joint ventures. And that’s kind of a new way of thinking about it.
Over 25 years at Steelcase, you’ve seen just about everything. Does anything compare to the
disruptions of the COVID-19 pandemic?
There was nothing quite like it. That said, all those other crises taught us a lot about how to manage through crises, and that was very useful. We went through a very difficult time during 2001 and again in 2008 with the financial crisis. But, every time, I think we’ve actually managed them more easily because we got better as a management team in knowing how to set our priorities and how to organize ourselves for it. We’ve always put people first. No matter what the crisis is, you start by thinking about people and then you think about things like assets and then eventually you, of course, think about customers and protecting your brand. And lastly you think about profits. Normally, you think about profits pretty high up but when you’re in a crisis you think about people first.