After a childhood spent in a turbulent period, the office furniture company that Chuck Saylor formed three years ago is moving into adolescence.
And like a nurturing parent guiding his youngster toward eventual adulthood, Saylor is carefully laying the groundwork for the future growth of Izzydesign.
Saylor, an award-winning designer who holds 21 patents and has worked in senior management positions at Haworth Inc. and Knoll Inc., sees the company he launched in June 2001 with Grand Haven-based JSJ Corp. as approaching its “sweet 16”birthday and is now unveiling a new wave of product introductions that will take the company to the next level.
“Izzy’s just getting out of being a freshman in high school right now and starting to become a serious high schooler,” said Saylor, who affectionately named the company and his products after his grandchildren.
In the years to come, Izzydesign will roll out many more products as it matures and evolves.
“We’re going to keep ramping the company up,” he said.
To that end, Izzydesign this month introduced three new seating lines, known as “Paige” and “Hollie,” an updated conference table called “Jack,” and an office screen, SmartScreens, that’s marketed and distributed under an agreement with Dallas, Texas-based Merge Office Interiors.
Like previous offerings, the new products are designed following the basic premise behind Izzydesign: Offer the marketplace furnishings that are well-designed, foster collaboration and productivity in the workplace and, on the strength of lean manufacturing techniques, are affordable and have short lead times.
That philosophy is what enabled Izzydesign to get through what is probably the most difficult period in the history of the office furniture industry: The devastating sales downturn saw some 40 percent of industry-wide sales volumes disappear in less than three years, leading to plant closings, the loss of thousands of jobs and massive restructurings of industry players.
Given the business environment, Saylor couldn’t have picked a worse time to start a new office furniture company. Yet the industry downturn and the overall sluggish U.S. economy that is now on the rebound also helped in many ways to sustain Izzydesign.
Even as Corporate America cut back and downsized, Izzydesign was finding customers for its furnishings that are built to improve the efficiency and productivity of office workers, enhance collaboration between individuals, accommodate teams and reduce the corporate hierarchy.
Izzydesign, Saylor said, was positioned to meet that “sea of change” in the workplace, even as the company had to quickly change its business plan in response to the deteriorating business conditions of 2001, 2002 and 2003.
“People were saying, ‘we need to do more with fewer people, which means we have to be more efficient and productive with what we have,’ and how do we create places and products that support that,” Saylor said. “The whole landscape is physically, as well as philosophically, changing.”
As a company, Izzydesign was affected by the very dynamics it sought to take advantage of and has had to do the same things as other firms competing in a harsh business environment.
That included relocating Izzydesign’s corporate office from downtown Grand Rapids to Spring Lake in January. The move into a JSJ Corp. factory where Izzydesign products are produced enabled front-office staff and designers to become more integrated into the manufacturing process, helping to reduce the research and design cycle.
At the same time, and taking a cue from the lean manufacturing practices for which JSJ Corp. is renowned, Izzydesign continues to work to drive efficiency within its corporate structure, essentially taking the entire premise of the company even further.
“We’re leaning out,” Saylor said. “We’re doing the same things in the office environment as men and women have been doing in the plants in the past two decades.”
Financially, Izzydesign has been able to “hold our own” during the industry downturn, posting 2003 revenues that were nearly equal to 2002 — a performance Saylor considers “a win” given the industry’s further decline last year.
Among the key lessons learned over the three years since he formed Izzydesign is a greater appreciation of the importance to partner with and choose the right people and talent for the company. Business will always have its ups and downs, he said. How you deal with those cycles is what matters most.
“The bigger question is who you’re going to go through those tougher times with,” Saylor said. “Being associated with the right people and having the right values makes all the difference.”
Another lesson was one that’s learned by every entrepreneur with a dream and a goal: “It’s not nearly as easy as you think it is at the start.”
“It’s hard,” the 55-year-old Saylor said in offering the advice, “don’t wait to get entrepreneurial when you’re 50-something.”
A Holland native who studied mechanical engineering and industrial design at Western Michigan University, and marketing and strategic planning at Harvard Business School, Saylor began his career in the automotive business.
The son of an automotive engineer, he believes he was destined to become a designer. He never looks at anything the same way twice and is constantly intrigued by the details of how things work. He recalls growing up always drawing, sketching or doodling — a habit that remains with him today.
“I didn’t have a choice,” he says of his career path. “It’s one of those things. When you are given a gift, you don’t have a choice.”
In the early years of his career he worked for two business leaders who became icons in the West Michigan business community and their respective industries: Ed Prince and Dick Haworth, whose companies each altered the landscape of Holland during the past three decades on their way to becoming world-class manufacturers.
After graduating from college, Saylor went to work as a design engineer for Prince Machine Co., which at the time was a small die-cast machine shop in Holland. He recalls the incredible entrepreneurial spirit he witnessed during the months he spent at Prince and how Ed Prince was so willing to take a risk, try something new and “never heard a bad idea.”
But automotive work, as Ed Prince delicately told him one day in urging him to pursue something “more flamboyant and design-related,” wasn’t where Saylor belonged. As Saylor searched around for a better fit, he met and interviewed with Dick Haworth — who at the time was taking on the new role of leading new product development at his father’s company, which was then known as Modern Partitions, a small maker of wooden office partitions.
After going to work with Dick Haworth in 1973, Saylor became part of a three-member design team that changed the office furniture industry. They created the world’s first pre-wired modular office panel, the product that makes up office cubicles. Introduced at NeoCon in 1976, the pre-wired panel, known as ERA-1, went on to become the biggest product introduction in the history of the newly renamed Haworth Inc.
ERA-1 also helped to usher in the era of systems furniture by enabling companies to better arrange large, open office areas and organize the tangle of electrical cords needed to power the electric typewriters, adding machines and other devices that were becoming commonplace in the office.
Saylor remembers going into the job “with no real job description” other than “we were going to create new things, and that’s what we did.”
“It was an amazing process. I think back about it often,” he said.
Saylor spent 10 years at Haworth and then joined Greenville, Pa.-based Knoll, where he worked for 12 years.
In 1996, spending most of his time on the road and wanting to return to primarily doing design work and move back to West Michigan to be closer to his children and grandchildren, he left Knoll. He calls the move “one of the most difficult decisions I ever made professionally.”
Returning to the area with his wife of 35 years, Sheri, he formed Jump Start Consulting, a Grand Rapids design firm. Reconnecting with Haworth, he helped to design the award-winning Jump Stuff office accessories that earned a Gold Award at the Best of NeoCon design competition in 1999 and Haworth’s “if” furniture system that received a Silver Award when introduced at NeoCon in 2000.
During that period, he began thinking about the potential for an office furniture company that could leverage the manufacturing and tooling expertise around West Michigan to produce furnishings that were well designed, well made, affordable, delivered quickly to customers and played into the changing office environment and culture that was placing a far greater emphasis on teamwork and collaboration and less on the corporate hierarchy.
“As I got older, I wanted to leave a legacy, I wanted to make a difference,” he said.
He ultimately partnered with JSJ Corp., a diversified manufacturer that had two office furniture divisions producing tables and seating. Saylor now runs both of those divisions, Counterpoint Furniture Products in Spring Lake and Belton, Texas-based Superior Seating, in addition to Izzydesign.
In looking to the future, Saylor said Izzydesign plans to roll out three or four new products a year that build on the premise of creating “corporate campsites” to accommodate teams of people working in flatter organizations.
“We’re going to grow in meaningful and measured ways,” he said.