Stelter said there are many reasons his attraction to the industry has not waned.
“You have fashion, you have fun. It’s diverse — it changes all the time. It’s very engaging,” he said. “You’re thinking of new ways of getting users and designers to use your products, so it’s changing all the time. It’s a very captivating industry and a lot of people get into it and never leave because of that.”
Stelter, who was captain of the varsity soccer team for three years while a student at Michigan State University, graduated with a degree in marketing and spent the majority of his professional career — before founding StelterPartners — with Steelcase, which hired him in 1977 right out of college.
Stelter started in Steelcase’s career-training program in Grand Rapids where he worked in a variety of positions.
“It was kind of, at that time, whoever got sick, I would take their job,” said Stelter.
Name: Jim Stelter
Title: CEO/Founder, StelterPartners
Birthplace: Kansas City
Residence: East Grand Rapids
Family/Personal: Married for 31 years; three adult children.
Business/Community Involvement: Has been heavily involved with many organizations, but now is focused on his current position.
Biggest Career Break: Gaining insight from a top executive at Steelcase in the early part of his career.
After seven months, Steelcase moved him to its Detroit office, where he moved up through several sales positions. Then Stelter, still in his 20s, resigned his position in order to buy an office furniture dealership, but his superiors at Steelcase asked him to come back.
“It was really a turning point. As a youngster, I was making all the wrong mistakes in buying a company, and they were great.”
When he returned to Steelcase in the early 1980s, the company made him regional sales manager of Michigan, overseeing about 20 people. In the mid ’80s, Stelter moved to California to become regional sales manager of the Pacific Northwest region. The change of environment gave Stelter a new view of the entrepreneurial spirit.
“It was Silicon Valley where I learned a lot about starting a business and venture capitalists. It was just fantastic,” said Stelter. “You would see all those people running around — totally different business than an automotive type of environment in Michigan —and it really opened my eyes to the design community.”
Stelter spent four years in California before resigning a second time to buy a furniture dealership. In 1987, Steelcase started its Steelcase Design Partnership, buying and forming partnerships with a group of niche-market contract furniture companies that remained independently run. Stelter said his bosses sat down with him and said, “Look, if you’ve got this entrepreneurial itch, we are looking for people to run these companies. Would you go and be the president of this company in North Carolina we just bought? It’s called Brayton International.”
It was the perfect solution for Stelter, who loved working for Steelcase but also had a strong desire to run his own company. Being president of Brayton International gave him the opportunity to learn how to run a company while remaining under the Steelcase umbrella.
“It’s people, it’s running a company, it’s balance sheets — it’s all the things you want,” said Stelter.
He was with Brayton from 1989 to 1993, when he was asked to become senior vice president of Steelcase’s wood division, which was struggling. Stelter took on the challenge of turning Steelcase Wood around and was successful. Next, Steelcase approached Stelter about running Turnstone, which was a small company at the time. In 1998, he was promoted to senior vice president of sales, marketing and dealer alliances for North America.
“Then, four and a half years ago — it was a downturn, a lot of things going on — and Jim (Hackett) and I sat down. … I said ‘It’s time. I’ve wanted to do my own thing, everybody’s struggling, I’ll sign a non-compete and I won’t compete with you in any areas. In fact, I’ll complement you and work with Steelcase dealers.’ After a couple of months, we came to an agreement that that would be the best thing to do, and I did it.”
It was then that StelterPartners was formed and Stelter began to build his new furniture company. He started by creating a business plan with the counsel of some close friends, then took his plan to the bank and to Peter Secchia, who became a partner in the new business and a mentor.
“He’s a very good partner to have because he tells me what I don’t want to hear and tells me in a way that I need to hear it sometimes,” Stelter said with a laugh. “We call it ‘couch time.'”
Stelter gave a brief overview of his company’s history. “I got a couple people together when we first started, and we started going out and doing some presentations, and then got big enough to where I bought a building — a falling-down building in an urban setting in Grand Rapids — and redid it, and outgrew that, sold that, worked with the city and the state, and they have been great too. Then I moved into an old automotive chrome plant, which was abandoned. I bought that building, redid it and am sitting in that now.”
Creating opportunities for his employees has been a strong source of excitement for Stelter. He said he enjoys watching someone progress from being afraid to give a presentation in front of a group of people to gaining the confidence to be able to do that with ease. StelterPartners currently employs about 16 students and graduates of Grand Valley State University, four of whom, Stelter said, have bought condos in downtown Grand Rapids.
Stelter reflected on his biggest career break: “One of the very high-ups at Steelcase took his time in personally coaching me, and saying how stupid I was … that I was looking at something from one set of eyes. I’ve never had someone affront me like that — and I really respected him, otherwise, I would have been upset — but he said, ‘Jim, give yourself some time to learn that you don’t know, and you don’t know a lot.’ And it was so telling to me that it made me stop and think, and look at situations from different positions.
“This guy di me a favor by absolutely telling me how stupid I was, and he was right. So I’ve always remembered that, when somebody’s talking — that I don’t have the only particular point of view on it.”