The 111-Year-Old Office Furniture Startup

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A few products and brands are timeless and built with such quality they will never go out of style. Ray-Ban Wayfarer sunglasses. Barbour Bedale jackets. Schwinn Stingray bicycles. The Jaguar E-Type automobile. Red Wing boots. You get the idea.

Montisa, a 111-year-new furniture brand, was built on such a product — a work tool that has survived the test of time because of its quality, reliability and simple styling.

The company was born in 1906 to make steel and wood milking stools. More than 100 years later, it is still trying to solve practical workplace challenges.

The company has a long and storied history, but when it comes to the office furniture industry, it has been relatively dormant. Of course, demand for milking stools is low in the office furniture industry, but Montisa has found its expertise bending metal, making storage and creating casual, cool “industrial-professional” products is hotter than ever.

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Montisa has a long history — one that few in the industry might remember. It started in 1906 as the Angled Steel Co. making the aforementioned milking stools. In 1955, it was purchased by Gulf & Western, the same conglomerate better known for Paramount Pictures, Desilu Productions and Viacom. In the early 1970s, it was purchased by Kewaunee Scientific. The heyday for the company was in the 1980s, when it made a big splash in metal filing. Another company purchased them in 2003 from Kewaunee, and it faltered.

In the 2000s, Montisa became part of the Atonne Group and made some inroads in the educational furniture market. Last year, the company hired office furniture veteran Larry Leete as chief operating officer and began focusing on the office, officially launching the revamped Montisa brand at NeoCon East. The company wants to return to its roots of creating well-built furniture while addressing the latest trends in work.

And yes, there is still a need for the company's iconic stools — just not for milking cows. In the collaborative workplace, stools are needed more than ever, and with its combination of brightly painted steel and wood, Montisa fits the bill for customers looking for the latest style trend.

Montisa makes a lot more than just stools, though. Leete is working to round out the company's product line, adding storage that also acts as a natural space divider, desks and height-adjustable tables. All Montisa pieces have the industrial cool look but what separates them from the pseudo industrial products out there is the true build quality. The company still knows how to make robust work tools at its Plainwell, Michigan, plant in the southwest corner of the state.

“This company was a big name back in the early days,” Leete says. “It is kind of like Steelcase was to the metal trash can. But this company has been sitting back quietly. We are trying to maintain the history and the heritage and drive it into the future. That resonates with a lot of architecture and design professionals. The pendulum is swinging back to the classic and to artisan manufacturing.”

Montisa wants to continue to build furniture that lasts. That's why it is stamping every stool it sells with the year it was made. The company believes “if you've got what it takes to stand the test of time, you may as well flaunt it.”

NeoCon East was the brand's official coming-out party and the architecture and design community took note. The company launched five desks. It also positioned its filing products as a Lego-like, build-it-yourself office. Though all of the products fit in a modern office environment, they have the look and feel of another era. They range from slightly industrial to thoroughly modern.

“People are looking for atmosphere,” Leete says. “Everyone is focused on collaboration and space. Where's the fun? I'm coming to Montisa from a startup, so I know these fast-paced companies want a palpable sense that they are driving growth, and space makes a big difference in that. That's what we are trying to bring back. We want to be a company that builds out that atmosphere.”

Though Montisa is happy to sell to any size customer, it sees its sweet spot as the five- to 50-person office environment that does not have an unlimited furniture budget, but doesn't want IKEA either. They are the kind of company that wants real office furniture — a brand they can grow with.

Montisa understands how difficult it is to build a new brand in the office furniture industry, the latest examples being izzy+ and Teknion. The industry hasn't had a “big splash” in terms of startups in some time (though many are trying). “Our goal is not to be the next Steelcase,” Leete says. “We feel like we can hit the $25 million to $50 million sales mark and play in that.”

The company hopes to make inroads in the technology sector. Leete was with a tech startup prior to joining Montisa last year, and he says he understands the mindset behind that environment. He also knows the companies and people who operate there.

Montisa's manufacturing still happens at its Plainwell plant with workers who know how to make things that last a long, long time. The company is working on a virtual filing system for storage that blends high tech with paper filing. More about that later.

Montisa is also focusing on its manufacturing. Its lead time is four weeks, but the company is working to get that down to two. It is not showing at NeoCon in Chicago, but hopes to get a permanent space at the event in 2019.

Will Montisa reach the same level as the storied brands and products mentioned earlier? It's impossible to tell. But when it comes to blending classic looks, quality and productivity, Montisa is off to a very good start.