Weekly Editorial

The Health of the Industry Hinges on Innovation and Competition

Written By Rob Kirkbride, Editor-in-chief, OI Publications • August 14, 2023

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There are many reasons the largest office furniture makers in our industry are the largest. They have vast dealer networks. They have long-term Fortune 500 customers. And we are lucky to be in an industry where the very largest companies continue to push research and learning into how we work. In short, the largest manufacturers in our industry do a good job.

There are also many reasons that there are small manufacturers cropping up in the industry all the time as well. As the workplace evolves, new categories emerge such as phone booths that give rise to companies like Framery and Nook. Innovation also helps new companies emerge. Vari was launched and grew as an innovator of desktop risers. It now has a full line of height adjustable desks and other furniture. And some companies are launched into existing categories by executives who leave other companies. Enwork was founded by a former Steelcase executive, for example.

There is room for both the established office furniture makers and the emerging companies. Both make the industry better and both make it stronger.‌

Every business goes through a life cycle, the progression of a business in phases over time. In academia, it is commonly divided into five stages: launch, growth, success, maturity and decline. I’d say most of our largest companies, which are all between 75 and 100 years old, are in the success/maturity phase, which doesn’t mean they are in decline. They’re just well established and working to maintain and grow market position.

Bigger isn’t always better. Dealers know this as well as anyone, which is why there has been a tremendous rise in the number of brands each now represent. From the smallest small town independent office furniture dealer to the largest big city aligned dealer, all have many more brands they represent than they did in the past, which is healthy for our industry and our customers.

That doesn’t mean it is easy. Dealers are spending more time and effort keeping up relationships with an ever-increasing number of manufacturers. It is an investment to learn about new brands and their product lines. Since all manufacturers do things a bit differently, they need to learn about a separate set of terms and business practices as well.

Yet the industry is so much more rich for the small and emerging companies we are seeing. Not only do dealers — and in turn, their customers — get a broader mix of choices, these companies are boosting innovation and pushing everyone to get better.

Small businesses are the backbone of the American economy. The majority of jobs are created by small businesses, but these little manufacturers are also a major source of innovation, economic growth, and national prosperity. While the industry’s major office furniture makers probably would be happy without the competition from the smaller players, these small companies push all of us to be more innovative, signal emerging trends to their larger competitors and provide partnerships and acquisition candidates for the majors.

And it’s not just small manufacturers that help our industry. Commercial interiors also benefits from small technology companies as well. They are the drivers of innovation when it comes to processes, specifying and digital sales.

Small manufacturers and tech companies already play a major role in our industry and deserve your attention just as much as the large firms do. Diversity is important in so many ways, especially as it relates to companies serving the commercial interiors industry. We are all better for it.

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