The Maker of the Aeron Chair Grapples with Politics and the Pandemic


When Andi Owen took over the furnishings firm Herman Miller, in 2018, she didn’t anticipate to get caught up in politics. However today, it appears no chief government is protected from the tradition wars.

Over the past 12 months, Ms. Owen, a former government on the Hole, has needed to mollify a piece pressure shaken by the identical polarizing forces straining the nation. On her manufacturing facility flooring within the battleground state of Michigan, wardrobe selections — from Make America Nice Once more hats to Black Lives Matter T-shirts — have provoked arguments amongst workers. In response, Ms. Owen has tried to carry collectively an organization already examined by the pandemic and slumping gross sales.

“We’ve tried to create alternatives for individuals to have frank conversations, for them to get collectively and focus on the arduous subjects of the day,” she mentioned. “I don’t assume these are new issues. However whether or not it’s about race, or inclusiveness, or whether or not it’s about what’s occurring on the earth at the moment, these are all issues you must discuss.”

On the identical time, Ms. Owen has been steering Herman Miller by way of a pandemic that closed places of work worldwide — an existential menace to an organization that makes workplace furnishings and owns Design Inside Attain, an upscale retailer.

Ms. Owen went to Interlochen Arts Academy, a Michigan boarding college targeted on the humanities. It was there that she first discovered about Herman Miller, which produces iconic items by well-known midcentury designers equivalent to Isamu Noguchi and Charles and Ray Eames, and fashionable workplace staples just like the Aeron chair.

Ms. Owen then studied artwork historical past on the Faculty of William and Mary, and began working in retail. A job at The Hole led to a sequence of senior roles on the retailer, culminating in her management of the Banana Republic model, earlier than she moved to Herman Miller.

This interview was condensed and edited for readability.

Did getting a liberal arts diploma have an effect in your profession?

It’s helped me in a variety of methods. I discovered loads about individuals. I discovered loads about historical past. I discovered loads about remark. I’ve all the time approached any job I’ve ever had as a generalist and an observer of human nature.

Some individuals would say I’m not good at anybody factor. I’m kind of OK at a variety of issues. And that’s OK. I’ve surrounded myself with individuals which might be loads smarter than me. However I’ve just a little little bit of a broader standpoint, and an expertise that doesn’t essentially pigeonhole me into pondering one factor or one other.

I had a mother who was an educator and a dad who is that this free spirit musician. And all my mother ever mentioned to me was, “While you go to high school, be taught what you’re keen on. You’ll have loads of time for a profession and it received’t matter anyway.” So I actually did spend time doing what I liked, and I feel it’s been a bonus.

In contrast to a variety of C.E.O.s, you by no means bought an M.B.A.

I really utilized and bought accepted. I used to be in my late 30s, and as I used to be speaking to a girl in admissions and he or she mentioned, “It’s nice. We don’t have that many middle-aged ladies which might be serious about these applications as a result of they’re all having households.” And I used to be like, “Not me. I’m good.” After which in fact I bought pregnant and didn’t go.

You get to a sure level in your profession the place getting a normal M.B.A. is just a little little bit of a waste of time, since you’ve discovered an excessive amount of alongside the way in which. However I went again and bought an government M.B.A. at Harvard, which form of stuffed within the gaps.

The Hole has clearly had its ups and downs. What did the corporate get proper, and what did it get unsuitable over time?

I used to be lucky sufficient to be there for the actually, actually good years, when the inventory was splitting yearly. And I used to be there to observe the decline.

The Hole was at its finest again within the day when the trusted editor was vital, once you performed a job serving to individuals perceive what they wanted. We had a variety of success early on. However once you’re tremendous profitable and also you don’t change, you get afraid. That skill to take dangers — to consider how the corporate may very well be completely different, to reinvent your self from the within — it turned unattainable. And a variety of nice individuals bought fed into the wooden chipper making an attempt to deliver The Hole again.

When the digital revolution hit I went into the web a part of our enterprise. And I bear in mind certainly one of my bosses telling me, “Nobody will ever purchase garments on-line. That is going to be the largest mistake of your profession. What are you doing?” That actually was the way in which individuals had been pondering again then.

We simply didn’t change quick sufficient. And we had been actually out of contact with the client. While you depend on a playbook that was profitable previously, and also you don’t perceive the place your buyer goes, it’s a prescription for catastrophe.

How did your time at The Hole form your excited about what you do at Herman Miller?

I interviewed a man who turned my head of digital. He had labored in retail, and he mentioned, “Have you learnt what excites me most about coming to this trade? I really feel like I’m going from making landfill to creating heirlooms.”

I really feel equally. These are merchandise that you simply hope you’re going handy down. With a number of the Banana Republic cashmere sweaters I made, I hope anyone arms these down. However I do know the hundreds of thousands and hundreds of thousands of T-shirts we made most likely aren’t getting handed down.

What occurred when the pandemic hit, and the way did you discover your method out of it?

We’d by no means closed down our vegetation earlier than, and there we had been hastily. We shut down all of our vegetation in 12 hours, and day-after-day was a brand new lesson in disaster administration.

There have been nights when I’ve sat down on the finish of the day and shed just a few tears due to it. The human toll from this pandemic has been not simply the demise toll, however individuals’s lives and jobs, complete industries worn out. We capped out at 400 layoffs and individuals who opted out [about 5 percent of the work force], and we’ve executed our greatest to maintain that quantity the place it’s. However we’ve additionally designed a brand new product in instances that we by no means thought we may. So it’s been an actual steadiness of, “Hey, proper now could be actually crappy,” and, “We’re going to get by way of it.”

Your core enterprise has held up surprisingly effectively throughout the pandemic. Who’s shopping for a lot workplace furnishings proper now?

Our worldwide enterprise is powerful. The components of the world which have gotten out of the pandemic — sure components of Asia, New Zealand — they’ve moved on.

Now the largest questions that C.E.O.s and folks which might be planning area have are: “Hey, what does the distributed work pressure seem like? What does my new workplace must seem like?” It definitely can’t be what it was. Folks don’t need workers to return again to what it was.

At first it was, “How do I make it protected? How do I put boundaries in all places?” Now the dialog has advanced to, “How do I make it a compelling setting?”

What are a number of the solutions to that query?

It’s a fascinating selection. Monetary firms are like, “We’re coming again to precisely what it was. We’re not going to vary a lot of something.” After which a number of the tech firms in Silicon Valley are like, “Who wants an workplace ever once more?”

I’m unsure both a kind of are essentially the reply. Alongside that continuum, most individuals are touchdown in a spot of, “Gosh, what do individuals miss?” So whether or not that’s innovation, creativity or collaboration, how do you create environments the place individuals can have these sorts of issues? Relying on the trade, I feel we’re going to see a complete lot of various options on this first 12 months or two.

At Herman Miller, we’re taking all of our workplace environments and utilizing this time whereas we’ve individuals working remotely to fully renovate them. They’re our personal little check labs.

Herman Miller isn’t an inherently political firm, so how do you cope with a second like this, when there’s a lot rancor, together with amongst your personal workers?

We now have bought to unify, we’ve bought to speak. We now have to have respect and kindness and we’ve to hear. What occurred on the Capitol was not OK. Alternatively, I’ve to guarantee that we’re listening to at least one one other, and are looking for commonality.

Typically I yearn for the times after I was again in Berkeley, Calif., and I may stroll down the road and all people thought the identical method. However you recognize, all people is in Michigan. So you must make the oldsters on the proper really feel comfy, and you must make the oldsters on the left really feel comfy. That’s a problem as we get increasingly more divisive as a society. Typically you must comply with disagree since you’re to date aside. However for us, it’s been about encouraging respect and inspiring kindness.

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