New Steelcase CEO steps into challenges

Sara Armbruster brings diversified background to tackle the future of work.
President and CEO Sara Armbruster said Steelcase built on its 2019 Flex Collection, adding extensions such as the Flex Active Frames, for NeoCon this month. Courtesy Steelcase

Sara Armbruster took on every leadership opportunity that came her way at Steelcase before her promotion to president and CEO this month, and she expects to draw on that well-rounded experience as she guides the company into its next era.

Sara Armbruster. Courtesy Steelcase

Armbruster became the first female president and CEO of Steelcase on Oct. 4, taking the reins from Jim Keane, who plans to retire in January 2022.

She has a 14-year history at Steelcase, having held global executive leadership roles in multiple businesses, including Steelcase Education, Steelcase Health and PolyVision Corporation, which the company since has divested. Her responsibilities have included leading information technology, global design research, new business initiatives and the company’s global COVID-19 crisis response team.

“I have been really fortunate to have a chance to work with customers, with dealers, with different internal teams and globally over my tenure at Steelcase,” Armbruster said. “…I think those experiences will certainly be things that I draw on as I now take on the CEO role.”

Armbruster credited her achievement of becoming CEO to hard work and willingness to try everything and lead wherever she was needed, as well as to the fact that she had many mentors, bosses and leaders who challenged and guided her along the way.

She said one of the things she is passionate about ensuring is Steelcase is a company where people from all genders, backgrounds and identities can share in the same opportunities for growth she was fortunate enough to receive. 

Armbruster said Steelcase is amid a lengthy diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) assessment process initiated under Keane’s tenure that is revealing its strengths and weaknesses in terms of living up to its core values of empowering and including all people and treating everyone with dignity and respect.

“We maintain a strong commitment to moving forward on that journey. A couple of areas where we’ve recently set DEI commitments and focus areas are related to building diverse teams that reflect our communities, ensuring equitable development opportunities — so that ties a little bit back to (my experience); I had great opportunities given to me that helped me develop — but how can we aspire to be a place where everyone has access to opportunities to grow and develop, and then, thirdly, continuing our emphasis on inclusion and making sure that our culture is a highly inclusive one,” she said.

“We are working with detailed action plans against each of those areas and really ensuring that we continue to keep our people at the heart of what we do and continue to ensure that our focus on people remains one of the reasons that our employees find meaning in the work they do and continue to love working for Steelcase.”

Armbruster said Steelcase has had historically good retention rates that have slipped a tad recently due to a few factors, including the impact of COVID-19, as well as the global demand for technological skills that have given employees other job opportunities to consider. She said the company does use attrition as an opportunity to hire diverse talent, but Steelcase also is working to diversify its workforce as it grows into new markets and creates jobs in those areas.

“The more important way that we’re looking to attract lots of different kinds of people to the organization is through the growth and change in our business,” she said. “As we have the opportunity to explore new types of business or hybrid work or the investments we’ve made in starting to build more of a consumer business … those have created terrific opportunities to bring new people into the organization. Even though we have high retention, we’re still doing new things that allow us to say, ‘Hey, we want to go out and find the best people we can who have expertise in an area that can contribute to our growth.’”

Steelcase reported second-quarter fiscal year 2022 results on Sept. 23 that showed orders grew 24% compared to the prior year and 12% over the first quarter, while revenue declined 11% in Q2 compared to the prior year, which had a stronger order backlog due to pent-up demand from COVID-related manufacturing shutdowns. The company is projecting Q3 revenue growth of 22% to 27% over the prior year based on the current order backlog.

Armbruster said the fluctuations in Steelcase’s revenue seem to be par for the course for a global company that is affected by various parts of the world experiencing and recovering from COVID-19 surges at varying times.

“Different parts of the world went into the pandemic at different points in time and have started to recover from the pandemic at different points in time, and we’ve also seen some variation in terms of that same dynamic by segment of the market,” she said. “For example, (in) our education business, there’s quite a bit of, in the U.S., federal stimulus money to support investment in education, so we certainly anticipate that education, as a result, will be a strong market segment for a period of time due to that funding. We’re seeing different parts of the business ebb and flow as the whole world works its way out of the pandemic and back to a new normal.”

As Armbruster spoke, she was in Chicago attending NeoCon 2021, the commercial design world’s largest conference, which was delayed nearly a year and a half due to the pandemic.

The delay, however, gave Steelcase time to perform and analyze volumes of research on how the pandemic changed the office work landscape, and how the company can make the new hybrid work experience “easy, engaging and equitable.”

Fortunately, Armbruster said Steelcase was an early adopter of video telecommunication software such as Microsoft Teams going back a decade, and it was able to continue designing products that integrated well with video technology to help businesses navigate the transition to 100% remote work, then to more of a hybrid model as the world began to reopen for business.

For example, an innovation on display at one of Steelcase’s NeoCon showrooms is a mobile cart developed to pair with Microsoft’s 85-inch Surface Hub, which is used in collaboration studios — the screen size giving virtual meeting participants the opportunity to appear life-sized on the screen — and then it can be moved to other rooms for other purposes.

“It creates, to me, a very engaging and natural experience when you’re talking to somebody via video,” Armbruster said. “And then, of course, that device has whiteboard capabilities and a whole host of things that create a really great technology experience for people coming together.”

She said among Steelcase’s goals are that every shared space should offer intuitive, easy-to-use mobile technology.

With that purpose in mind, for NeoCon, Steelcase built on its 2019 Flex Collection, adding extensions such as the Flex Active Frames — adaptable, customizable, modular structures that allow for different shelving, open or closed storage, and infills or insets that allow technology, whiteboards or tackboards to be mounted as needed.

The collection also offers the Flex Media Carts that hold monitors up to 65 inches, and the new Flex Perch Stool for touchdown spaces. The latter is made through a partnership with BASF and reduces the use of fossil resources through CCycling, an innovation that transforms post-consumer waste from electronics production — once impossible to recycle into like-new raw material needed for high-quality products — reducing waste and reliance on fossil resources associated with carbon emissions.

Armbruster said the Perch Stool fits well into Steelcase’s sustainability goals.

“There’s a lot of great user needs that it supports in very active, collaborative types of sessions, but it also has a terrific sustainability message that we’re really proud of,” she said.

NeoCon gave Steelcase a chance to demonstrate its relevance and ability to meet evolving needs, Armbruster said, adding she is full of hope for the future. 

“I feel positive about Steelcase’s future and really optimistic for where the company is headed, because we understand the experiences that people want and need to have to thrive at work, and as Steelcase always has been, we remain committed to being a trusted partner, both to our customers, as well as to the architecture and design community, because everybody is trying to rethink the role of workplace, and they’re thinking about how they shape their culture and what they need to do to thrive in this new era of hybrid work,” she said. “I feel … that we have the insights as well as the solutions to help be that trusted partner and help people move forward.”

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