Flexsteel invests in innovation
December 28, 2021 | 11:40 am CST
Flexsteel innovation center

Flexsteel's innovation center.

DUBUQUE, Iowa – Flexsteel Industries is intensifying its focus on innovation and design.   

The number 28 company on the FDMC 300 list has made several recent moves signaling what the company calls a “major shift in product development strategy.” The company has elevated Don Bottorff to its newly created role of senior director of product innovation and design.  

Bottorff was originally lured out of retirement from contract furniture specialist HNI Corp., two-and-a-half years ago to serve as director of products at Flexsteel. Now, according to Tim Newlin, vice president of product management, Bottorff is on the hunt for the “patentable, defined as new ideas and technologies not seen before in the furniture industry where we would own the intellectual property.”

According to a Flexsteel news release, language like that is rather unusual in furniture, a business more typically associated with an over-abundance of iterations of existing ideas, aka knockoffs, than “Eureka!” moments. “I call it the chase,” Newlin said. “Someone comes out with something, and too often, their competitors just tweak it. There's nothing fundamentally new. But you don't get a breakthrough product that way, and because of that, you only get small growth opportunities. Not big growth opportunities.”

Flexsteel said it is already well underway in a multi-year, multi-prong transformation in a bid to become a true omnichannel presence in the marketplace.

Changing the game
The key to the company's new product strategy is to seek out innovations that can be applied multiple times across multiple categories.

“Rather than product by product, Don is looking broader,” Newlin said, pointing for example to the company's Homestyle eCommerce business. “Say, you find a unique way to disassemble a sofa for shipping (or moving) that can be easily reassembled with a strong connection. Rather than use that to bring a single product to life, you can apply that innovation to multiple products currently in development. Patent it, and you have a differentiator and a right to win the marketplace that cannot be copied.”

As game-changing as this might sound for a company that aims its goods squarely at the broad middle of the market, Bottorff noted that Flexsteel was founded on innovation, specifically in seating suspension. Its proprietary blue steel spring™ frame, is in fact, a patented ribbon of steel that revolutionized upholstered furniture manufacturing when it was introduced in the 1920s and one that has not been duplicated since. Indeed, the blue steel seating system has been a true differentiator that thousands of consumers have been associating with quality and durability for generations.

“My job is really about problem-solving what the next legacy will be for Flexsteel Industries,” he said. “Certainly, it has to be authentic to the brand, so to be successful with the masses, to have the tremendous market reach, I'm sure it will have something to do with durable comfort at a great value. The biggest 'aha' moment I've had in the time that I've been with the organization is the simple fact that breakthrough innovation, and being in tune with the consumer, is not just a high-end, niche play.”

Coming from the contract furniture industry, which Bottorff described as “simply understanding the workplace and how to make people more comfortable and functional and therefore successful,” the executive is a fan of “human-based design.” Also known as human-centered design, it's a philosophy that empowers an individual or team to design products that address the essential needs of those who experience a problem. Interestingly, in Bottorff's mind, the most important word in that sentence is the team.

“I define myself as a product collaborator and I've made a career out of collaborating with cross-functional teams and talent to develop and launch relevant products for consumers. That's really what I'm about, and I'll be the first one to tell you that I've done nothing in my career by myself that was earth-shattering. Here at Flexsteel, I have three incredibly talented and gifted designers that I get to collaborate with to find better ways of executing meaningful designs, and while this is my second career to a degree, what I love is that demographically speaking, they represent the next generation of consumer. Who better to be designing furniture for the generation that we need to appeal to moving forward?”

Along with directing and developing internal design talent, Newlin said, Bottorff serves as the interface with designers external to the organization as well, “because you need multiple perspectives to make a thing great. He has always managed the inside design team and the relationships with designers when we look externally, and we do both, that's not new.”

What is a bit more unique is that while many in the industry tend to use words like innovation and design interchangeably (diluting the meaning of both), they are viewed as separate but equal disciplines here. “There needs to be a focus on both, and unless you have someone who owns it, which Don does, it's not going to get done every day,” Newlin said. “The fact that we have someone whose goals are built around that makes it more important to the organization as a whole, and it becomes a true core competency and a differentiator in the marketplace. Though I think from a product perspective we've always believed that, and we've had great designers working with us before, I don't think the organization recognized the unique nature of that skillset. Now, we're honoring it and leaning into it as a meaningful way to win business, and we believe it is a differentiator currently and will be in the future for Flexsteel Industries across all our brands.”

Thinking big
That last comment is particularly notable given that Flexsteel has had such a long and significant history in the upholstered furniture business because many tend to forget there is a lot more going on here these days. “Our team is designing not only Flexsteel soft goods and case goods, but also outdoor furniture, and across Homestyles, which encompasses all of our eCommerce products,” said Newlin. “A lot has to happen given that diversity of product across multiple brands.”

Indeed. To begin with, the company's designers needed a place that enabled them to approach their work in new ways. That led to the opening of a dedicated Innovation Center earlier this year, located about one mile, and a far cry, from the corporate headquarters. Positioned in the trendy Millwork District, an area that ironically enough was home to many of Dubuque's woodworking and industrial businesses back in the day, the design team now calls a historic, 1882 building home. The size of a city block, “the architecture is full of character, with exposed metal beams and brick, authentic factory carts and metal doors with all the original rivets and metal latches,” said Alek Eglinton, senior designer.

The evocative atmosphere of the space allows for creativity and collaboration in a way that was just not possible when the designers were housed at corporate. Said Eglinton, who spent seven years at the company before the shift to the new space, “Working in the corporate office kind of felt like being in a doctor's office, meaning it was sterile, with lots of glass and contract materials and finishes.”

While that “was great for business meetings and heads-down work, our leadership recognized that we didn't have a space to review furniture or build prototypes. Designers have different needs, and one of those is space to work through concepts.”

“When people think of design, they think of a sketch, or a concept,” Newlin said. “But it's the material choices, the color, the fabrics, all of the things that go into it and you need space to curate those items and make those choices.”

Part think tank and part concept modeling shop and part research and design lab, the Innovation Center “allows us to get messy,” Eglinton said, “with foam models and sawdust everywhere. Here we have the liberty and the tools and the space and the references to collaborate and think outside the box. Or, to work on modular projects since there's been such a need to flatpack almost anything since the pandemic. We can have furniture in here to look at for dimensions or be inspired by shape, or scale or fabric, to be hands-on, and to ask ourselves 'Is this human-based design, based on ergonomics and research, or is it just subjective? It's impacting our work from a creative standpoint and it's enabling us to get ahead of the market in developing design standards.”

As might be expected in a space devoted to innovation, one wall is devoted to whiteboards and cork boards where the designers tack up pictures, sketches, materials, and more as visual references. Given the speed at which product development and innovation are happening here, Eglinton shares that this invaluable visual tool is updated four times a year. “We do quarterly product meetings across all of our categories that bring the entire team together,” Newlin notes, “where we share our open projects for the next 12 to 18 months and Don goes through what needs working on from an innovation standpoint and how it might be applied.”

Of course, Flexsteel Industries is a global company with people working on projects not only in Dubuque but all over the U.S., Europe, Mexico, and Asia. For this reason, the company recently invested in a new software platform developed for movie production companies that replicates the whiteboard experience virtually and allows for collaboration in real-time with colleagues and partners around the world.

“Our team is spread out and we need to keep the creative juices flowing no matter wherever they might be,” Newlin said. “The technology makes projects visual so you can collect photos, any type of document, any inspiration, everything you love and put it up on the board instead of in file form. It's one thing to be on Zoom or Teams, but this is kind of a one-stop repository with everything on one platform. When the pandemic began, with everybody working remotely off-site, we tried to create something like it, but it was not an easy way to conduct business. Plus, having partners in multiple countries means communications can be limited to whatever is local, like WeChat. But after a meeting is over, where does the content go? You might have photos of an item or a video review, but this is a place for all that information to live and always be right at our fingertips.”

In other words, when it comes to innovative product development and design, Flexsteel is very, very nimble. “We're doing things differently and changing every day and we're going to start hitting price points that are lower, to start offering furniture that is smaller and easier to transport, and that is, at the same time, higher fashion and higher design,” Eglinton said. “There is such a receptiveness to new ideas, to ask, 'what if?' “

Bottorff agrees. “Never have I been around a group that is so focused on making things better, that is so motivated to have an impact on the consumers that we get the opportunity to serve,” he said. “It's incredibly unique, and frankly kind of rare.”

Expect it to pay off. “We're being thoughtful about the process, we're doing the research, and 100 percent focused on delivering the quality promise of a great, differentiated product that will be incredibly successful for the retailer or the e-tailer because of the work we put in upfront,” Newlin said. “At a time when the product development cycle has been disrupted by supply chain, just like manufacturing has, managing the process is tricky, but we think that taking this new approach to bringing a more meaningful product to the marketplace is the solution.”

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About the author
Larry Adams | Editor

Larry Adams is a Chicago-based writer and editor who writes about how things get done. A former wire service and community newspaper reporter, Larry is an award-winning writer with more than three decades of experience. In addition to writing about woodworking, he has covered science, metrology, metalworking, industrial design, quality control, imaging, Swiss and micromanufacturing . He was previously a Tabbie Award winner for his coverage of nano-based coatings technology for the automotive industry. Larry volunteers for the historic preservation group, the Kalo Foundation/Ianelli Studios, and the science-based group, Chicago Council on Science and Technology (C2ST).