"Employees are our greatest asses"

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From: Rohit Khare (rohit@uci.edu)
Date: Tue Apr 25 2000 - 16:03:37 PDT

Herman Miller made office chairs cool, sleek and profitable. Now
rival Steelcase wants a seat at the table.

Bottom line

By Terril Yue Jones
Steelcase Inc., the world's largest maker of office furniture, claims
the two bestselling ergonomic office chairs, named the Criterion and
Sensor. But Herman Miller, second to Steelcase in office furniture
sales, commands the cachet lead in comfortable office chairs, with
its four-year-old Aeron. This mesh-backed sleek number is a must for
the status-obsessed. The Aeron redefined what's behind the desk much
the way the iMac redefined what sits on top.

No way Steelcase could let that distinction stand. So after eight
years and $35 million of development costs, the Grand Rapids,
Michigan, company is introducing Leap, a high-end, high-tech chair
with 23 patents (pending) and a boast to do away with back pain.

Priced in the $1,000 range, about the same as an Aeron, the Leap aims
to be as cool for the architects, designers and home-office workers
who buy this type of chair. But the thrust of Steelcase's marketing
will be comfort and ergonomics.

Working with researchers at Michigan State University, the University
of Vermont and Cornell University, Steelcase (fiscal 1999 revenue,
$2.7 billion) studied 700 subjects, using light-emitting diodes and
computerized spinal analyses. The experts determined that
individuals' "spineprints" are as unique as their fingerprints, so
that the most ergonomically correct chair would have a flexible back
that would support users' upper and lower backs.

Seating represents about a quarter of the $12.3 billion U.S. office
furniture business. But while to most workers a cubicle is a cubicle,
chairs have become corporate icons, especially for Zeeland,
Michigan-based Herman Miller, which still sells chairs Charles Eames
designed in the 1950s. So the Leap is more than just another chair
for Steelcase. It needs to turn it into an instantly recognizable
flagship product, as the new Beetle has become for Volkswagen.

"The Aeron experience taught us that people like to be playful and
more expressive in their offices," says Steelcase Chief Executive
James Hackett. "Leap is the kind of technology that will change
peoples' demand for comfort."

Herman Miller says it's unperturbed. Aeron sales have grown 50% to
70% annually since 1995, though the company won't disclose the
numbers. Now it's extending the line into a less expensive version of
the Aeron, called the Caper, that will list for about $500.

In this chair war, being first gives Herman Miller a nice cushion.
Here's what David Manthey, office furniture analyst with Robert W.
Baird & Co. in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, says: "I'm sitting in an Aeron
right now and I wouldn't give it up for anything."

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