Something Old, Something New

It doesn’t get more American than Jasper, Indiana. Carefully cropped farmland and modest churches pose beneath a broad blue canopy of sky. Linear, neatly sculpted factories dot the landscape, living monuments to honest industry that have employed local families here for generations. And it doesn’t get more American than Kimball Office. Jasper’s best-known office-furniture manufacturer has built a reputation for quality case goods that hark back to a time long before the Internet. It’s the last company one expects to reach across the ocean for renewal. But Kimball is doing just that, charting a course that will involve new lines, new clients, and, it hopes, a new image, all without losing its traditional base and brand. It’s a bold move, and maybe a risky one, amid falling sales across the industry and a recent round of layoffs for a company that prides itself on lifetime employment.

“Today it’s all about collaboration, teamwork, and mobility, and we needed to reflect that,” says Paula Schmidt, director of market communications at Kimball Office, strolling through the company’s Jasper showroom. About half of the space displays traditional wooden lines called President and Senator. The rest features sleek modular systems with names like Fluent and Hum. Minds at Work. These new systems are paired with a selection of stylish task chairs made by Interstuhl, a high-end German seating designer and manufacturer. The two directions couldn’t look more different.

Kimball Office has been an industry leader for more than 30 years. But times have changed, and Kimball has changed less than many of its competitors. Haworth, another mainstream manufacturer with a similar market position, is well under way with its transition. “It’s clear we need to alter the way the company is perceived, particularly in the design community,” says Jeff Fenwick, who returned to Kimball Office as vice president and general manager in 2007 after a one-year absence. “For too long they’ve known us as a stodgy player.”

Rather than go toe to toe with the likes of Herman Miller and Steelcase—companies with long design legacies—Kimball focused on work-place functionality, a newer field where it could begin to compete as an equal. “What’s remarkable about Kimball is how aggressive they’ve been,” says Brad Powell, the editor of the industry newsletter Officeinsight. “It’s a small company, but they’re in some cases leading development in modifying furniture according to the way people work. And they’re doing it at a time when people aren’t spending a lot of money for furniture.”

Kimball first tried on its designer duds with Hum, which it unveiled in Chicago during NeoCon 2008. The streamlined, open-office workstation offers multiple seating arrangements and adaptable storage and work components. There are screens and panels for varying degrees of privacy, and spaces beveled into the desktops help promote ad-hoc meetings and cross-desk consultations.

“It’s cognitive ergonomics,” says Ed Burak of Formway Design, which partnered with Kimball on Hum. “Hum reflects the role that the mind plays in making sense of your working day: the way we prioritize, organize, and collaborate with our co-workers. Think of it as an empty blackboard that allows the individual to adapt his environment in a way that makes sense to him.”

Hum came out of an auspicious partnership. Formway, a New Zealand design firm, began drafting the workstation in 2004. Three years later, with Hum well developed, Formway began searching for license partners. Burak and his colleagues knew that Kimball was looking to jazz up its image and inventory. “At our first meeting, we learned they’d been developing a project brief that was incredibly similar to what we had already done,” he says. “It was a case of incredible synchronicity.”

For Kimball, Hum was a decisive first step in a makeover that will require substantial investment and energy and even more time. It also showed how complex changing direction can be. “We got lots of orders for Hum after Chicago,” Fenwick says. “But when clients asked about seating, we realized we didn’t have anything appropriate. It was very irritating.”

Later the same year, a team of Kimball employees met with Interstuhl to explore a partnership. The two companies had already collaborated on the Approach chair four years earlier. The seemingly unlikely pair—a solidly Midwestern, almost nostalgic company and a cutting-edge, design-driven German manufacturer—discovered they had much in common.

“It was like we knew them,” says Kimball’s Michele Lemelin. “They have many long-term employees, just as we do. They bring the same passion to their work. Even the landscape around the factory looks like southern Indiana.” Announced this June, the Kimball-Interstuhl partnership called for six task chairs to be available for order by mid-December. The agreement caused considerable buzz, both in-house and in the design community. “I can’t get enough chairs to supply our sales reps and trade shows,” says Dean Merder, a 23-year Kimball Office veteran charged with building the delivery network for the Interstuhl chairs. The network will be ready next month. “Even with the economy in the shape it’s in, if we could sell them today, we would.”

The experience with Hum—a new element highlighting substantial gaps in product and service—will inevitably repeat as Kimball slowly stitches together its new clothes. Fenwick has already redeployed his sales force to focus more on the end user. The company will need to iron out distribution and delivery on Interstuhl orders and a host of other processes, and prove that it can consistently deliver in this new arena.

But Kimball’s most difficult job will involve changing how it is perceived in the architecture and design community while safeguarding its traditional base. The Monday Morning Quarterback’s Rob Kirkbride believes that Kimball’s long history, a potential hurdle at the outset, could become an asset down the line. “Having a reputation for quality products is a much better place to start than being known for cheap design or for-the-moment furniture,” he observes. “It may not make it easier to change the perception of the design industry. You can ask Haworth about that, because it takes years, but Kimball is doing exactly what it should be doing right now.”

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