Furniture Suppliers Meet High Demand for Temporary Office Space

Southwestern Michigan's furniture manufacturers are working round-the-clock for companies whose offices were destroyed by the terrorist attacks on the Pentagon and World Trade Center.

The Defense Department called Steelcase Inc., the nation's largest producer of office furniture, soon after the Sept. 11 attack to provide its 1,700 displaced Pentagon employees with desks, seats and filing cabinets.

Standard lead time to deliver office furniture is four to six weeks. The Grand Rapids-based company assembled and delivered the furniture and employees resumed work in temporary offices six days after the attack.

The region's furniture companies have clients in the World Trade Center and many have contracts with the Pentagon. Employees at the companies lost friends and clients.

"It's a fine line we're walking," Steelcase general manager Mike Best said. "We certainly don't want to appear opportunistic. But we want to help as much as we possibly can."

Steelcase employees inserted a personal greeting with the furniture that read, "Our hearts and our hands are supporting you."

Herman Miller Inc.'s New York sales office has been inundated with calls since the attacks, said general manager Pete Gottmeier. The sales staff has worked seven days a week, he told The Grand Rapids Press for a Saturday article.

"There's a guilt qualifier at the beginning of every conversation," he said. "People feel so guilty that they are talking about furniture. Everyone here knows someone who died. Then the conversation turns. People begin to realize that it is OK to talk about business again."

The Zeeland-based company is shipping in 10 business days or less, said spokesman Mark Schurman.

Holland-based Haworth Inc. has changed its business practices to deal with the immediate needs of companies, said marketing director Jim Hook.

Before the attack, it took a multipage contract to set an order in motion.

"All we're looking for now is a letter of commitment, basically a signature on a letterhead, and we will ship it," Hook said.

Haworth also has eliminated the haggling. It promised to provide furniture at the same price or less than customers paid in the past, Hook said.

The rush to fill orders was not expected to significantly improve sagging profits for the three furniture makers.

Tom Reardon, executive director of the Business and Institutional Furniture Manufacturers Association, said the industry will see "some kind of bounce."

But he added that, "I don't think we'll see any real, sustained influence until they rebuild the office space, whenever that is or wherever that is."