Geoff Miller joins FBA director, Diana Schad, to talk about the journey of Grand Rapids Chair. He highlights the highs and lows along the way, along with the compelling story of their choice as a company to build a brand separate to that of a family business.
(00:04) Diana: This is Diana Schad, CEO of Family Business Alliance, here with Geoff Miller, president of Grand Rapids Chair Company. Geoff, thank you for joining us today!
(00:11) Geoff: Thanks, Diana.
(00:12) Diana: We’d like to hear more about your work with Grand Rapids Chair, and the company itself, so I am going to start with a few basic questions. First, what year was Grand Rapids Chair founded?
(00:21) Geoff: Well, the company that Grand Rapids Chair came from was called Manufacturer’s Resource, and I believe mom and dad started Manufacturer’s Resource around 1991, and then we formally changed our name to Grand Rapids Chair right around 2000.
(00:38) Diana: Ok, how old were you when that would have happened?
(00:40) Geoff: I would have been… 16 years old, 17 years old. So, a sophomore/junior in high school.
(00:47) Diana: And how big was the company when it started?
(00:50) Geoff: It was one person.
(00:52) Diana: It was just your dad?
(00:52) Geoff: Just my dad.
(00:53) Diana: And how big is it today?
(00:54) Geoff: We have about 153 employees.
(00:59) Diana: Ok. Any other locations, or just the Byron Center location?
(01:03) Geoff: Just this location.
(01:04) Diana: Do you guys have a website, or social media that you promote your products on?
(01:08) Geoff: Yeah, we have a website, GrandRapidsChair.com, and we are actively engaged with several different social media platforms. I think the platform we like the most is Instagram, but we are also active as a brand on Facebook probably as #2, and probably a close tie for 3rd between Twitter and LinkedIn.
(01:34) Diana: Ok, so you guys are really active with that.
(01:36) Geoff: Yeah, we are very active.
(01:36) Diana: Do you have your own marketing department that handles all of that?
(01:39) Geoff: Yes. We have three people that are our core marketing team at Grand Rapids Chair.
(01:44) Diana: Ok. Good! You mentioned that you are the second generation, are you the only family member still involved or are there other family members still involved in the business?
(01:54) Geoff: Well, I was the only family member involved in the business between probably 2013, when my mom and dad retired, until June of this year, when I successfully recruited my sister to come work for Grand Rapids Chair. Allison has been with us now formally for about 4 months, 5 months now.
(02:16) Diana: I didn’t know that! What is she doing for you [at Grand Rapids Chair]?
(02:21) Geoff: Allison is our Michigan sales rep.
(02:23) Diana: Ok.
(02:25) Geoff: We are super excited to have her!
(02:26) Diana: That’s wonderful! I had not heard that, so that is great that she is involved in the business now too. Is your dad still involved at all, or is he retired?
(02:34) Geoff: Dad retired formally in 2013, as did mom. Really, they’re still around, but not actively engaged in any capacity other than coming around, slapping high fives, kissing babies, and shaking hands.
(02:49) Diana: Ok. [laughs] I know your dad used to have a studio here when he was re-fabbing boats and stuff, does he still come in here for that?
(02:56) Geoff: I wish that he did.
(02:58) Diana: Ok.
(02:59) Geoff: To be honest. But, when he was diagnosed with cancer last year and the whole process of getting over cancer really wrecked its toll, and he hasn’t been back. I wish that he would. It’s nice to see him around!
(03:16) Diana: No, I know. I’ve heard some nice stories about when he comes in. Can you tell us a little bit more about Grand Rapids Chair and your projects, your products, and some of your big clients?
(03:26) Geoff: Definitely. I guess I would really start with the third [question], kind of “where did we come from”. So, the story is very long, but I will try to keep it short and sweet.
My mom and dad started that company named Manufacturers Resource in the early ’90s after my dad left more or less what was a family business. They had a family office that would purchase furniture companies that were underperforming with the desire to correct their performance and sell them for a profit. So, my dad [for] approximately 15+ years was a member of a four-person management team was the VP of Manufacturing where he ran the manufacturing of these mostly residential furniture firms here in West Michigan.
Right around the late ’80s/early 90’s was a fairly interesting time in the residential furniture industry in North America. During the ’80s that industry really went to an offshore type of movement, and a lot of the residential furniture manufactures, definitely in Grand Rapids moved their manufacturing from the US to low-cost countries. As that industry was dying and decaying my dad decided to move and start his own business, which became Manufacturer’s Resource. He was an independent sales rep who sold mostly pieces and parts to a very small customer base. Dad, and ultimately Mom [who] came to work for him in ’92/’93, the two of them had probably no more than ten customers.
Steelcase was one of their large customers that I remember very well. Between 1991 and 2000, the reason that Mom and Dad grew their business, and ultimately decided to change their name, was that customer base of office furniture business was really growing. With the “.com” boom, Steelcase, Herman Miller, Knoll, a lot of these large office furniture manufacturers were really in a growth mode.
With that growth mode came a lot of opportunities for my mom and dad to sell more products, and in selling those products, add more value and get more mark-ups. I came to work for them right around September of 1998, we were still Manufacturer’s Resource, we really had no brand, we had maybe ten other employees. We were doing value-add activities to a lot of the pieces and parts that Mom and Dad were selling at the time. We were doing warehousing services, we were doing some finishing, some upholstery.
The precipice for changing our name was another West Michigan family. I really don’t want to say their name or their company name. They were close friends with my mom and dad for probably 30 years. They had a contract manufacturing company, they didn’t really have a brand. They had a manufacturing process, they made pieces and parts for other manufacturers. Kind of exactly what Grand Rapids Chair was doing at the time. The owner and founder of that company got sick. When the owner got sick, he eventually died three years later. During that three-year time horizon, the business kind of went away because the founder was the company. The people that they were selling to really identified “Hey, we don’t buy from ‘x company’, we really buy from that person and he’s gone now, so now we’re not going to buy from them anymore”.
It really was eye-opening for my parents what they wanted to do was build something bigger than them. “Hey we are going to change our name and we are going to build a brand because a brand is bigger than any one person or group of people”. So, they decided to change their name to Grand Rapids Chair right around 2000, that’s really how we got to where we are today. Mom and dad deciding to build a brand because a brand is bigger than them, bigger than me, bigger than us.
(07:45) Diana: So what is your brand now? What is your brand today and what products are you selling now?
(07:48) Geoff: The connection to the original Grand Rapids Chair that we created in 2000 to today, really there is no connection. If I could show you our original brand product introductions, they were wood chairs, the market that we were trying to penetrate was the residential furniture industry, we had chairs and table products that were residential in feel, and very traditional; Queen Anne armchairs, ball, and claw chairs.
(08:18) Diana: Very different than what you have today.
(08:20) Geoff: Very different from what we have today. I often joke with people that ask the story, I think that we didn’t ever sell one of those original brand products.
(08:31) Geoff: So in the years between changing our name right around 2000 and 2005, we did have this brand product, but really carried us for about 5 years were those OAM partnerships. Those OAM partnerships were with people in the contract office industry, and then also really in the industry that we operate today, which is the hospitality industry. Mostly core restaurants. In 2005 our largest customer at that time was Burger King. We were essentially a tier 2 supplier to Burger King. They were about 50% of our sales.
In 2005 they fired us. Overnight, our business was basically cut in half and we were left reeling, what do we do now? What we decided to do was to attack their customer base. We had nothing else to do. It was either close the shop or try to sell our products direct to what were our customers’ customers. That is what got us into building what we are doing today, developing products specifically for where you eat and drink. Anywhere you eat and drink, it could be a self-standing restaurant, or a restaurant cafe in a larger facility such as in a college university, a healthcare/hospital, or another corporation.
(10:06) Diana: Is that international or mostly nation-wide?
(10:09) Geoff: We are operating an industry that very much is geographic in nature. About 70% of our sales are east of the Mississippi, and of those sales that are east of the Mississippi, about 65% of them are upper Midwest to the East Coast. So, the industry is what we call fragmented, small geographic players.
(10:36) Diana: Ok, well thank you. So now, I know through my friendship with your wife, that you have a history of naming some of your products after family members.
(10:46) Geoff: We do.
(10:46) Diana: Can you talk a little bit about how that started and maybe give us a few examples of some of the names and why you chose those?
(10:53) Geoff: Well, I would attribute the current naming convention more or less to Dad. We couldn’t think of names for our products, so we just started thinking of family members. I think one of our first chairs was the Jill chair, which is my mom. We had another seating product that was the Allison chair, which was my sister, and then once he ran out of female family members, he went to female people at Grand Rapids Chair. We launched the Amanda. Or friends, there was a product called the Diana, which was my parents next door neighbor at their summer home.
So, there really wasn’t a defined strategy on why we were going to pick these names, but it really has stuck with us over the last 20 years. It’s one of those cool things that really defines the brand and separates the brands from other companies. We have cool stories around people that are our products are named after.
(11:54) Diana: Well I know you have two children, Brooke and Brady. Do they have their own chairs?
(11:58) Geoff: Yeah. Brooke has been discontinued and relaunched as another product. So, the original Brooke chair was launched years ago and didn’t sell well, so we discontinued her. She was relaunched in a brand-new product that came to market last year, it’s a solid wood chair that is doing very, very well. Brady, my son, has never had a product until 2016 named after him. Actually, that product family is the bestselling product family today, which is super cool.
(12:36) Diana: Oh, that’s great. Does he know that?
(12:36) Geoff: He knows that. There is also a Melissa product family, and for years the Melissa product family has been number one on the list. A lot of our internal employees that started at the company after Melissa was launched have had the sole purpose of really killing that product line because we want new intellectual property, and newer more relevant products launched. It wasn’t until two years ago that the Melissa was off as number 1.
(13:08) Diana: Ok, ok. For our listeners, that’s your wife! So, a well-deserved position. [Laughs] I want to switch gears a little bit and talk about Grand Rapids Chair’s core values. What are some of the core values that you base the business on?
(13:24) Geoff: So when we started the company, none of the things that you would think of as an established company existed. We didn’t have any core values, we did not have a strategy, we didn’t have a tactical plan. I like to think of where we came from as squash-buckling entrepreneurialism. So, as we grew that became more and more difficult to have no values, no strategy, no tactics. We just sell stuff, we make stuff and sell stuff. It wasn’t until 2010 and 2011 where we really started to think about “What’s our purpose? Who are we? Where is this business going?”.
That’s really a continual process that we come back to every year. Values for Grand Rapids Chair started right around 2010 and it wasn’t until about 2014 where we had it clearly stated, “What is the value set of Grand Rapids Chair?”. I think that was really cool work, to have the opportunity to really define “Who are we? What’s our purpose? What separates and defines us as a cooperate entity?”. That was a series of employee meetings, I think we had seven different grassroots groups getting together. We had challenging conversations with the purpose of “We want values, we want to define who we are and what makes us special”.
That today embodies itself in the Grand Rapids Chair values of C.H.A.I.R. We really like having that acronym, because our name is Grand Rapids Chair and our values are C.H.A.I.R.. Commitment, honor, agility, investment, and respect. Really, unbundling what that means is it is the definition of where we came from, and how we got to where we are today, and where we want to be in the future. It takes good ‘ole mid-western values to get that done. Commitment, I think unbundles itself as hard work.
Honesty is acting with integrity and doing the right thing. Agility is not being a specialist but being a good all-around team player and the ability to wear multiple hats; “I can weld a chair, I can do sewing, I’m a good power coater. I’m not just one thing, I can do a lot of different things”. Agility is very special in terms of defining, hey we are good at making stuff, we are good at making chair and tables, there’s a lot of different needs in making a product. Investment is the continual desire to invest in ourselves, invest in our community, invest in our employees and our partnerships. Respect is treating people as we would seek to be treated.
(16:36) Diana: Wonderful. You mentioned something in there about West-Michigan values and West-Michigan ethics. Why did the founders choose West-Michigan? Was it just because you were here or was there a reason that you chose the West-Michigan area?
(16:49) Geoff: We chose West-Michigan because we were here. But I believe that we are here for a reason. This area of the mid-west is known for craftmanship, and manufacturing and furniture building. That’s the reason there’s so much furniture manufacturing in this region, I think it goes back to the 1800’s and the 1700’s there was vast resources of water, materials, wood. That’s probably the reason the industry started here in the first place, but the reason it still exists is the people.
(17:29) Diana: You had a big move several years ago, you moved your facility. Can you tell us a little bit more about the importance behind that and how that has worked out?
(17:37) Geoff: Great question. This is actually our fifth facility since 1991. The first facility was my parents garage in downtown East Grand Rapids. This is our fifth facility, and the primary reason and the precipice for the last move, was it was an interesting time in the history of Grand Rapids Chair. My mom and dad had just retired and when you look at their infrastructure of the buildings, there was three, and the land that we were on, it was old, decaying infrastructure. It was very inefficient,
We occupied 250,000 square feet on three floors. It was about a half mile radius in-between the campus of what was Grand Rapids Chair. It was very hard to make things, because of the physical structure that we had. At that time, we were completely debt-free. We decided to move because we decided to reinvest in the company.
I was thinking of as my mom and dad were retiring, what did that mean for me? Was I going to stay in the company, was I going to leave the company? There was a lot of flux and turmoil in that inter-generational change between mom and dad and me. When we decided to move that was when I decided I was 100% committed, we are moving this thing to the second generation, we are going to do this! If we are going to do this, we are going to do it right.
(19:11) Diana: Well, it is a beautiful facility.
(19:13) Geoff: We are really proud of it!
(19:14) Diana: Yeah, it is really beautiful. One of your qualities is being American-made. Was that a conscious decision to stay American-made within the company?
(19:24) Geoff: Yeah, definitely. My dad and I would always joke that the reason we do what we do is that we don’t know how to do anything else. [Laughs] We are really good at using our hands to make things, we don’t seek to sell things that we don’t make. We are really proud of manufacturing things. You ask other employees, “Why are you here?”, it usually will embody itself in two different comments; “I love the people I work with, and I’m really proud to see our stuff in the restaurants that I go to”. It’s inter-laden with the pride of craftsmanship, and the pride of craftsmanship is we make stuff where we live, and we live in Grand Rapids, we live in Michigan, and we live in the United States.
(20:11) Diana: That’s terrific. Sounds like the employees are very committed to that as well. So, as a family business, is that something that you find to be an advantage or a disadvantage in marketing to the companies that you work with?
(20:24) Geoff: I know that it’s an advantage. The reason that I know it’s an advantage is a brand is only as strong as the people working in the brand, whether they are independent sales reps or internal marketing teams, sales team, manufacturing teams. The whole collection of people that work for Grand Rapids Chair is what makes that brand better than another brand, in my opinion.
When you really start to try and unpack why people are here, they really love the people that you work with and they’re really proud of the products that they make. It will come out as different words, but the meaning I take away from a lot of those statements is that people are comforted in knowing that a family is here and is here for good, they have a long run perspective on the business. You can rely on someone, you can trust someone. They’re your rock.
(21:29) Diana: Well, I want to switch gears a little bit, and I want to talk a little bit about you personally. As a friend, I know that you are a big biker. I would love to hear how that helps you in running your business, how the biking has challenged you and how that is something you have integrated into being an owner and CEO of a business as well.
(21:49) Geoff: Well cycling is a bit of a double-edged sword, because it is very much addicting. If I do one thing too much, it’s cycling. For me, cycling is my outlet. I’m a firm believer that every person needs to manage their mental health, their physical health, their spiritual health, the health of their family and friends.
For me, managing my physical health helps me manage the rest of my overall being. I know when I’m not exercising like I should, that is when the other parts of me start to have troubles. So, I definitely bike a lot. It helps me maintain a physical vigor, and with that physical vigor comes mental vigor and spiritual vigor and a commitment to be the best with my family.
(22:48) Diana: Geoff, what does the phrase “Sit happy” mean to you, and what do you think it means to your customers?
(22:53) Geoff: Sit happy is really our purpose at Grand Rapids Chair. The “sit” is connected to the happiness because of the great products that we make. We are seeking to keep people sitting happy is mostly to define how we want to define our culture, and improve our culture, and keep our people doing better and better and better every day. Closely connected to the products that we make, we make chairs and tables, and we are seeking not only for employees to sit happy, but for customers to be sitting happy.
(23:26) Diana: Well, thank you. We are almost out of time, but I have one last question. How do you think your founders feel about where the company has gone?
(23:34) Geoff: Well I do get antidotal feedback from Mom and Dad in fairly informal ways. It may come as a text message, it may come as a casual pat on the back at a family dinner, it may be a phone call, but all in all I think my parents are very satisfied with the legacy that they have left having built something from nothing. To have successfully transferred the ownership and the management of the business to their little boy, me, I think they are very gratified in that. It gives them great satisfaction. They are happy. I hate to speak for them, but they tell me that a lot!
(24:24) Diana: Good, well thank you so much for having us today, and joining us, and sharing your experiences with the company. We appreciate it.
(24:31) Geoff: Thank you Diana.