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Michigan Furniture Maker Celebrates 100 Years


Steelcase, the world's largest office furniture maker, is celebrating 100 years in business. But sales of the metal filing cabinets Steelcase is named for are declining - same with cubicles and other large pieces of office furniture.

LINDSEY SMITH, BYLINE: So, as Michigan Radio's Lindsey Smith reports, Steelcase says it's changing its identity.

Hundreds of multi-colored balloons float down the middle of Steelcase's four-story headquarters in Grand Rapids, Michigan. A couple thousand workers join together for cake and to sing Happy Birthday.


NANCY WILLEMSTEIN: I'm very passionate about it because it's been a great 29 years and it's 100 years old now, so it's been great.

SMITH: Steelcase's receptionist Nancy Willemstein tears up, talking about her nearly three decades with the company. It was once West Michigan's largest employer. At its peak in 2001, Steelcase employed 21,000 workers worldwide. That's now down to 12,000. Steelcase made more than $56 million last fiscal year.

Thirty-year-old Jeremy Bergwerff says he understands why his co-workers like Nancy are so passionate about Steelcase.

JEREMY BERGWERFF: Manufacturing office furniture is kind of a boring idea. But when you think about what Steelcase really is, that's not what it is. It's about how do people work, creating the right environments.

SMITH: So, yeah, Steelcase makes office furniture. But Steelcase doesn't think if itself as an office furniture company anymore.

JIM HACKETT: Today, we still make furniture but we're in the human insights business.

SMITH: It was human insight, Steelcase CEO Jim Hackett says, that led to the first fire-proof metal wastebasket the company made in 1912. Picture a typical office a century ago, white collar workers, chain smoking, mostly wooden furniture, lots of paper, quite the fire hazard. Sixty years ago, office furniture only came in three colors, battleship grey, olive green and brown. Human insight said why not desert sage, blond tan, or mist green? Rows and rows of cubicles? Again, human insight.

HACKETT: We know from experience that insights aren't things you can make up. They're not magic; they're really hard-won. They're hard to find. And we spend a ton of time and money mining for them.

SMITH: And there's one key human insight Hackett sees now.

HACKETT: Instead of spending their days in an office, people now carry an office in their pocket.

MELISSA HARRINGTON: No, I probably would never work in a cubicle.

SMITH: Melissa Harrington works on her iPad at a small coffee shop. She says the coffee is amazing, so that's partly why she came here to start writing a couple of papers for school. But Harrington also thinks she's more productive working in this space. With tablet devices and smartphones, many people like Harrington can work anywhere.

CEO Jim Hackett says that would be a challenge for an office furniture company. But he doesn't see it as a big problem for Steelcase. Take 30-year-old Luke Rumley. He helps Steelcase sell office furniture online.

LUKE RUMLEY: Yeah, I don't technically have a desk assigned to me right now, which is cool. I can sit anywhere with a laptop and a smart phone and I'm OK with that.

SMITH: That's right. Even office furniture employees aren't afraid to say it - they don't really need a permanent office. Steelcase has survived this long because it's been able to adapt to the dramatic ways that work has changed over the decades. CEO Jim Hackett says they'll keep adapting in the future when, for all we know, office chairs will materialize underneath us.

For NPR News, I'm Lindsey Smith in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.