|CWB April 2000
Principle Looks to Become a Fixture in Office Furniture
The next step for a store fixture and architectural millwork company lies in a new line of office furniture.
By Sam Gazdziak
Principle Fixture and Millwork Inc. generated sales of approximately $13 million last year. Its sales growth has been strong enough to place six times in Wood & Wood Products' annual Wood 100 list, which marks the fastest-growing woodworking companies in North America. Among its steady store fixture clients are Restoration Hardware, Smith & Hawken, Gander Mountain and Braun's Fashions. Obviously, Principle is doing several things right.
Still, the 13-year-old company is not taking its success for granted and is looking for ways to grow even more. Earlier this year, Principle moved its operations from Wyoming, MN, to a new facility in Osceola, WI. The company has also branched off from its fixture and millwork offerings into office furniture.
Almost one year ago, Principle became licensed as the exclusive North American manufacturer and distributor of a line of furniture from Duba Mobelindustri AS, a Danish furniture manufacturer. The furniture, marketed under the I.Q. line in Denmark, is called Pique by Principle in the United States.
The agreement came about as the result of attendance at a trade show in Europe in October 1998. Craig Johnson, Principle's president, happened to walk past the line of Duba furniture on display and was immediately impressed.
"He was very excited about it, and when we looked at the Web site, we all had to agree that it would fit us really well," says Eric Saunders, vice president. "When you look at it, it's what we do -- the contemporary lines, the cleanliness of the furniture. It would fit our manufacturing processes and our finishing processes really well."
The agreement was times perfectly for both companies. Duba had been selling the furniture in Denmark and its neighboring countries. It was looking for a company to sell it overseas, and Johnson had been looking for three years for a line of office furniture to make. "I wanted to do something that was a line of furniture that would diversify us a bit, give us a product that we could manufacture that would help us smooth out the bumps and valleys in the retail fixture market," Johnson says.
The Pique line, consisting of workstations in many configurations, has a curved, sleek design that emphasizes flexibility. Desks come in several sizes, depending on the employee's needs. Mobile pedestals can be moved anywhere around the desk. Third-level screens can be added to the desks for extra storage. Other products in the line are conference tables, cabinets and partitions.
One of the most attractive features of the furniture is the ergonomic benefits. A manual or a hydraulic lift can raise the entire desktop to a standing height, giving employees the ability to move around. The cut-out on the desks is also deeper and serves a different function than normal, explains Rachel Stuart, sales director. "Rather than pulling yourself to the keyboard, you actually move into the cut-out, so your forearms are always on the desk [for increased wrist support]."
Johnson says the design of the furniture, along with the ergonomic benefits, appealed to him. "It's not just a dull, boring, functional piece. It's a nice-looking functional piece," he says. "They took the best of form and function and put it together. It has, to me, a classic Scandinavian/Danish design to it."
Principle has been marketing the furniture line since September 1999, when the company opened a showroom in Minneapolis. Showrooms will be opened this year in Seattle, WA, and New York City. Stuart says the initial response has been very positive, particularly because of the furniture's practical aspects.
"A lot of the response is about the ergonomics of it," she says. "More and more people are coming down with carpal tunnel syndrome. Its getting expensive, and it's so painful for people to have.
"What I've found is not too much is taken into consideration about how tall someone is, or what size someone is. Everybody uses the same desk, and then they adjust their bodies for the desk, and in turn, injury occurs."
Duba and Principle came to an informal agreement in December 1998. Immediately after, Principle began a job that was a perfect test for Pique. The company used that opportunity as a trial manufacturing job and found that the furniture was as good a fit for the company as it had thought. Since then, it has been working out all the manufacturing details. The furniture is machined the same way store fixtures and millwork are made, so no drastic changes were needed to accommodate the new designs.
One thing that has made a big difference in production was a move to a larger facility. Principle had been located in Wyoming, MN, but moved its operations about 20 miles west to Osceola when the building's lease expired.
Principle owns the new 72,000-square-foot plant, which is about 20,000 square feet larger than the old facility. Fifty of the company's 65 employees do production work, and the production area is clean and bright. Where the old facility had many walls between departments, the new plant has wide aisleways for lifts to pass through. All of the desks and tables in the building, incidentally, are Pique furniture.
The new plant also has a better layout to ensure a smoother production flow. The machinery is laid out so that parts flow from one to the next with a minimum of material handling in between. New projects are started on a Giben rear-loading panel saw and are edgebanded on a Holz-Her Accord 1444 edgebander. Principle has a Weeke BP 140 CNC machining center from Stiles Machinery and a Shinx CNC router for machining.
All the parts of a project are gathered on one pallet. When the parts have been machined, the pallet is put aside until one of the assembly teams picks it up. Each team generally has three or four people, consisting of a journeyman or two, an experienced builder and an apprentice.
The finishing area, which had been a bottleneck for the company and for years needed a second shift, is now a smooth-running operation, thanks to two important pieces of machinery: a Rhodes finishing line and a DuBois flatline ultraviolet roll coater.
Jobs are often engineered around the roll-coater. Principle prefinishes its 4-by-8 panels by running them through the roll-coater before machining them. Saunders says that the company will soon be prefinishing all of its furniture, and possibly all of the rest of its projects if they can be engineered in that way.
The Rhodes finishing line runs all day. Parts are put on a moving track and move to a spray booth. After being spray-finished, they move along the track into an oven, where they are cured. After that, employees take the finished parts off the line.
Saunders says that employees are currently clamping the edgebanding on the curved parts of the office furniture by hand. When sales get to a certain level that it is impractical to edgeband the furniture by hand, Principle will buy a BAZ machine.
Although the initial sales and marketing campaigns for Pique are still underway, several Minneapolis companies have already installed the furniture. One of the first was AisleFive, an Internet marketing agency. Principle installed 24 workstations, as well as furniture for three offices and a conference room. Other Web companies have also installed the furniture in their offices.
Principle thought that the contemporary look of the furniture would appeal to people with contemporary ideas, Johnson says. "They're like artists," he says, referring to Web designers. "[At AisleFive], they're just thrilled with the furniture. The space they have is very creative. The designer who designed the space for them put hammocks in between posts in the workstations, so these guys can dream a little bit too."
"Most of them have two computers on their desks," Stuart says, "so the size of the desk really helps. Plus, they want to be able to move around. The employees spend so much time on their computers that their employers say it's nice that they have the ability to stand and move around when they want to."
"It's fun to walk into an installation because, depending on the time of day, you'll find some people standing, some people sitting, and some people standing and working at the end of a table," adds Saunders. "It gives people flexibility, and when you ask the people about it, the response is that everybody loves the way it functions."
Principle will continue to grow the store fixture and millwork part of the company that has been so successful in the past, but it also believes the Pique by Principle line will open a new market for a still-growing company.
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