Research and development departments are typically reserved for big-dog companies, but for Nucraft, a furniture manufacturer with roughly 235 employees, R&D is simply a group of employees coming together from different departments to collaborate on innovative solutions — and it’s working.
Excluding 2007, Nucraft has always had at least one product place gold at NeoCon World’s Trade Fair since 2001. In 2002, the company won NeoCon’s Best of Competition award, meaning judges saw Nucraft’s product as the best among all presented. In 2008, Nucraft’s feature products were Tavola, a conference table that won silver; and Neos, a casegood solution that won gold.
“I think the one thing that differentiates Nucraft from our competitors is that we tend to be a little more innovative,” said Robert Surman, director of marketing for Nucraft.
On top of winning awards, the Comstock Park-based company also recently received LEED-NC Silver certification for its corporate office expansion and renovation. The project began in September 2007 and was completed in March 2008. Grand Rapids’ Via Design was the design firm; Rockford Construction executed the 22,300-square-foot project.
It had been 20 years since the last building update for the 64-year-old company and the decision to go for LEED certification was a no-brainer.
“We knew early on in the process that we were committed to making it a green building,” said Surman. “As a company, we’ve always had a pretty strong history of environmentalism in terms of recycling and being smart with the materials we use. It was really just a continuation of the core beliefs of the company and the Schad family that owns Nucraft. There really was no decision there; it was just a function of, ‘We’re going to do this and make sure it’s green.’”
Surman said Nucraft aimed for the silver LEED certification from the beginning.
“We felt like we should be able to attain silver and we did. It was an educational process for us. We had never been through that before as a company. Our products meet certain criteria of the LEED rating systems that relate to furniture, so we’ve been able to offer our customers products that help them in their attainment of a LEED certification. We all learned a lot.”
Nucraft added 5,000 square feet to the existing building and remodeled 17,300 square feet. Some of the building’s highlights include cork flooring, large windows, waterless urinals, a garden roof, a natural irrigation system for rainwater and unique skylights that bring natural light down into the building through tubes.
Out of the six categories in which LEED projects are scored, Nucraft earned perfect marks in the Innovation and Design Process category, exemplifying the company’s commitment to creativity. That commitment continues to be seen in its product development, as well.
“I think the key is really listening to what your customers are asking for and then just being creative,” said Surman. “There’s a broad cross-section of people we’ll pull from here at the company for brainstorming sessions, just to talk about ways we can solve some of these problems. Anybody can develop another case good line: You just hire a designer, they design it for you, and you create it. You do something different not just for the sake of being different, but because that difference answers a problem that exists.”
BIFMA (the Business and Institutional Furniture Manufacturers Association) predicts the furniture industry will dip by 9 to 10 percent in the coming year, and Surman speculates there may be more used furniture on the market due to so many companies downsizing or going out of business. Still, he said, the company is “cautiously optimistic” and plans to focus on its areas of expertise, such as boardrooms, lobbies and private offices. And with plans to bring six new products to market at the 2009 NeoCon, Nucraft is showing no signs of slowing down.
“We were pretty optimistic going into last year that it would be a good year. We had a lot of things going in our favor,” said Surman.
He said that while the furniture industry as a whole is down, Nucraft was slightly up from last year, which was a record year, and had enough deals backlogged to last them for the rest of 2008.
“The best we can go on is what BIFMA is saying about our industry, so it’s anybody’s guess. There’s so much uncertainty right now,” said Surman. “We want to continue to be the best we can be in the markets we’re currently in.”