Geoff Miller, left, now serves as president of the company his father, Dave, right, founded. Photo by Michael Buck
Grand Rapids Chair Co., which announced plans this winter to move to a larger manufacturing facility in Byron Center, has been awarded a $200,000 Michigan Business Development performance-based grant, dependent on its commitment to add 50 new employees to its current full-time roster of 93 over the next three years.
In making the announcement in late April, the Michigan Economic Development Corp. said Grand Rapids Chair plans to invest $2.5 million in its expansion, and Byron Township has offered the company eight-year property tax abatements valued at $390,000.
The company — which is in the throes of moving to Byron Center — has been located in several rehabbed old manufacturing buildings at 625 Chestnut, just off Godfrey Avenue a short distance southwest of downtown Grand Rapids.
It was founded in the 1990s by Dave Miller, who previously was an owner and executive with the John Widdicomb Co., according to Geoff Miller. Dave Miller now serves as CEO of Grand Rapids Chair, and Geoff, his son, is president.
The original Grand Rapids Chair Co. was in operation from 1872 to 1957, when it was purchased by Baker Furniture Co. Baker stopped using the Grand Rapids Chair brand name in 1973.
The Millers’ company manufactures tables and chairs for two markets: one they define as hospitality, which is basically dining facilities ranging from restaurants to cafeterias; the other they refer to as contract — mainly higher education facilities but also corporations.
The company’s seating is made of steel and aluminum, or wood. The tables are mainly steel with surfaces ranging from wood to plastic laminate.
The new facility in Byron Center is about 147,000 square feet — a former metal manufacturing factory that dates from the 1990s. Located at 1250 84th St. about a mile west of U.S. 131, it will allow the company to consolidate its operations in one plant.
Geoff Miller said his father was working in the 1990s as a manufacturers’ rep, at a time when many U.S. contract furniture manufacturers were cutting production here and relying on offshore manufacturers. Dave Miller saw an opportunity in getting into light production to supply his customers in the U.S.
“Between 2000 and 2005, before you knew it, we had a legitimate manufacturing firm,” said Geoff Miller. “In the last six to seven years, we’ve had prolific growth in sales, and we’ve developed a great brand in this two-fold market,” he added.
The higher education market in the U.S. has been keeping Grand Rapids Chair busy.
“They’re still doing a lot of building — new construction and renovation, year after year,” he said, despite the impact of the Great Recession on the rest of the economic sectors.
Grand Rapids Chair does not divulge its annual sales revenues, but Miller said he believes the company is probably in the top 10 of all contract manufacturers in the state market and perhaps the Midwest market.
He said the company offers a high degree of customizing options to its customers, which is particularly appreciated by the A&D community and interior designers.
Its niche market is helping it grow despite the fact that the contract furniture market as a whole really isn’t in growth mode, according to Geoff Miller. He said the BIFMA projections he has seen for the industry indicate the growth rate is barely keeping pace with inflation.
“The companies that are showing good growth within our market are just taking others’ market share,” said Miller.
In the past, Grand Rapids Chair saw a lot of competition from overseas “but I think it’s really declining,” said Miller. He attributes that to the risk of inferior quality from Asian manufacturers and the rising costs of production there, which are eating away at the price advantage.
Miller is happy to cite a recent headline in The Wall Street Journal that jokingly identified the United States as “the next emerging market.”
His company is particularly excited at this time because after a few years of maintaining a temporary NeoCon presence on the eighth floor of the Merchandise Mart in Chicago, it now has a permanent showroom on the third floor. It will be exhibiting all of its new products there for this year’s NeoCon, June 10-12.
The new showroom — in fairly close proximity to some of the big names in West Michigan’s office furniture industry — “is a huge statement for a Grand Rapids brand … in what we see as the mecca” of the commercial furniture industry, said Miller.