The Aliens Amongst Us

"The pool is shallow," is how one industry executive describes the lack of available senior management in the contract furnishings industry today.

It's been a problem ever since 1990 when Steelcase went out and hired Jerry Myers, a non-member of the contract furnishings tribe, to run Steelcase. Students of history will recall it didn't turn out well.

Domain Experience?

Fast forward to 2007 and the executive ranks were buzzing with the news that Knoll had hired Lynn Utter, a former chief strategy officer for Coors Brewing Company. Her job description included taking a “fresh look at our Knoll Office sales, marketing, and supply chain activities," said Knoll CEO Andrew Cogan at the time of her departure in January of 2015. Previous to marketing beer she was with Frito-Lay, the potato chip folks. Today she serves as a Chief Talent Officer of Atlas Holdings LLC., a diversified group of seventeen manufacturing and distribution businesses.

Last week we got word that Herman Miller found a replacement for the retiring Brian Walker, who served Miller as CEO for 14 years. Though Walker's tenure is a mixed bag to be sure, the most glaring issue now seems to have been his total failure to mentor and develop a suitable replacement from among Miller's ranks. This no doubt isn't going down well with long-time Miller executives who will now experience new leadership more attuned to the world of fast fashion than stable and secure office furniture.

Herman Miller has a reputation for being the best in the business. It is a privilege to lead the Company and continue the evolution of its world class portfolio of brands. I’m excited to work with the management team and the broader organization to build upon the legacy of innovation and design excellence that is at the heart of Herman Miller.
— Andi Owen

The hiring last week of Andi Owen is a sure sign that Miller was sailing off course, and there were no available hands on deck to fix it. Owen, who departed (or was departed) left the GAP in 2017 after failing to turn in suitable positive results at the helm of the Banana Republic division. More on point, reports at the time said that the GAP had failed to understand the full effects of the rapidly changing casual clothing marketplace. The GAP was blindsided (year after year) by H&M, Uniqlo, and Zara. As for Banana Republic, it was additionally blindsided by the rapid move to casual work clothes.

And now comes Owen into a rapidly changing contract marketplace that appears to value tables, phone booths and lounge seating over desks, task seating and cubicles. On a bright note, she has over 25 years of experience in retail, which can't go unnoticed by the folk running Miller's DWR (Design Without Reach?) division. As a lover of modern furniture, I for one hope that she forces on DWR GAPish style sales with 50% off coupons (plus combined with other email coupons equals 80% off). Some wonder (mostly as a joke I assume) whether or not she will try to position DWR as a competitor to Ikea. Actually, that's not too crazy given the upscale moves Ikea has been making recently.

Of course we have to credit the Herman Miller board with finding and hiring a female executive to be CEO. It's an industry first and long long overdue. The question, putting aside any gender issues, is whether or not someone with zero domain experience can lead what was once arguably the industry design leader (think Eames, Nelson, etc.). Certainly GAP had its heyday, but few today would consider GAP a leading fashion retailer. A good marketing company, maybe, but Owen's role in the GAP's past success is unclear at best. Moving from San Francisco to Zeeland, Michigan can't be easy. I wish her well helming Miller. The pressure to preform will be enormous and no doubt the long knives will be out for her in Miller's C-suite.