Wood & Wood Products sits down with Kevin Kuske to talk about experiences and lessons learned during his time in the office furniture industry.

Q: Did you always envision having a career in the contract furniture industry? What steps led you to this point?

A: Absolutely not! I am a chemical engineer by training who started his career in the pharmaceutical industry. I was fortunate to start with a great company, Eli Lilly.

After being there about eight years, my wife and I chose to relocate for family reasons. I was very interested in finding a company that had a similar culture, family heritage and strong leadership potential. In that search, I found Steelcase.

I pursued the opportunity while getting my MBA. I felt right at home with the people and culture. After all, it is the people that you spend each day at work with, so that was the most important factor.

Q: What experiences have helped you to be successful?

A: Every day is a new experience if you are open to learning. The experiences that make you better come every day, so it is hard to single any out. In general, I will say that those times you can put yourself in someone else's shoes (a customer, a partner, another part of the company) and have your eyes and ears open you will learn something that makes you better personally and professionally.

One of the earliest experiences that shaped me was while I worked at Eli Lilly. We were launching a truly new treatment for the devastating mental illness - schizophrenia. Sitting safely in the four walls of the office, the team had reached an impasse on how many formulations we would take to market at launch. The simple path was to launch the pill formulation, and if needed, follow with others later. The physicians involved were passionate about the need for a liquid, a pill and a patch. We had never launched a product like that.

To resolve the deadlock we took the team to spend a full day with some patients and the parents of the patients. These happened to be patients that had schizophrenia. Alignment was quickly reached after story after story of what these families go through to keep their loved ones on the medication, and how each formulation had an important role. Observing and listening and looking at the problem from the customer’s point of view made the solution obvious, and the team passionately went home to launch all three formulations.

Before even starting with Steelcase, I had a chance to put this principle to test to prepare myself for the contract furniture industry. Mark Baker, our current head of global operations, helped me arrange time to work at two different Steelcase dealers. These two fantastic businesses (Office Concepts in Chicago and Ohio Desk in Ohio) took me in for several weeks. In each case, I loaded trucks, worked in the warehouse, went on customer calls, installed furniture and spent time observing the dealer at work. Eleven years later these insights still help me. Perhaps, more importantly, they also inspired me to insist that all of my teams spend time observing our customers, our dealers and our partners as much as possible, regardless of what part of the company they are in.

This concept is the very foundation of innovation at Steelcase - the power of observation and design thinking. Cross functional teams spend hours observing people in their office environments, and then many more hours experimenting and developing solutions to solve for needs the users sometimes don't even know they have. This approach of using user-insight and design thinking can apply to any business or any business process opportunity.

My family taught me probably the most important lessons. At home growing up I learned the value of hard work and perhaps more importantly the power of being curious and the love of learning. My wife taught me more than anyone about the power of listening and the difference between helping people solve their problems and solving them for them.

Q: What has been your proudest achievement as it relates to the industry? (This could include awards received, environmental initiatives, association work, etc.)

I am fortunate to have worked for great companies with exceptional values and people. That gives me the luxury of being proud of so many things. My time at Turnstone leading the marketing efforts is certainly one of those times. I was able to join the business at a crossroads of great change. Working with one of the best groups I have ever worked with, we were able to reinvent the business and start a cycle of many years of incredible growth and exciting product launches. It was a time of making significant improvements in performance, profitability and driving rapid pace product development. During this time we won design awards every year for new products launched at Neocon.

More recently I had the chance to work with another fantastic team charged with reinventing our wood business from the ground up. This is by far the most significant challenge I have ever faced - the rate and scale of change required was amazing. In this case everything had to change - our processes, our products, our pricing and our performance. In just a few years we have created huge improvements in profitability, brought truly innovative products to market and set new standards and expectations for performance. The EE6 product has won awards and set new standards in growth rate, size and a reinvented the private office.

On a very personal level, it also gave us a chance to take a business (part of a larger company) that has a tremendous and long history related to sustainability, and instead of moving incrementally forward, to take a leap forward. In the last two years we have eliminated formaldehyde from our finish and PVC completely from our newest platforms (obtaining indoor air certification). This allowed us to certify 50% of our portfolio in one year (led by EE6, Walden and Garland) as the industries very first Cradle to Cradle designed casegood collection. For our customers, this offering offers more possible LEED points than any other product by a wide margin. As I said, this is not a new topic for Steelcase or for me, however we are at crossroads where the market, the technology and the passion to solve problems are all peaking. This is a very exciting time to be in business where sustainability, the principles of lean and just plain good business strategy are all converging in a powerful way.

In each case I was able to participate in a significant reinventions of a business. I was lucky enough to work with people who tolerated my quirks, taught me to be a better leader, rallied around a tough problem and found a way to build something special. Being able to be some small part of their success is what I am proudest of.

Q: What has been your greatest challenge with regards to staying successful in the contract furniture industry, and how have you overcome/or are overcoming it?

A: Patience. I personally believe that rate of change with which we need to be innovating is orders of magnitude more than the industry is moving. No matter how fast you are moving you need to improve, innovate and lean out everything you do faster than you are. Creating a sense of urgency and the behaviors of never being satisfied with what you did yesterday are the biggest challenge, and as the organization you lead gets bigger it is harder and harder to do.

Q: What key strategies have helped you improve business? Please elaborate.

A: Providing superior value to customers and partners, innovating around real needs, focus and having a continuity of direction. Have a good strategy and stick with it. Never stop helping people understand where you are going and why listen? The closer to the problem or opportunity you are, the better those right there know the answer, or can help you find it. There is no difference between being lean and being sustainable - both are great business.

Q: What would you like to see President Obama do in his first year in office to help your company, and why?

A: Re-engage the nation (and the world) in working together to solve our problems. To put the partisan politics aside and return us to a clear leadership position in the world. I’d like him to move America to future energy sources and reignite the economy.

Q: What are your goals for Steelcase over the next five to 10 years?

A: I am specifically responsible for two areas of the company – Turnstone and Steelcase Wood. In both cases we have a huge opportunity to help people love how they work and be more productive.

We all spend too much time away from our families to not be passionate about our time at work, wherever that might be. People are working in ways and in places they never did before. Part of that today is by creating a portfolio of solutions that not only help people connect and work more effectively but allow people to be proud of their company and their spaces, because they feel good that their office is the most sustainable solution available to them.

We are now applying the principles of lean to sustainability and working for the goal of zero impact, just like zero waste, but with a bigger scope. To that end we have partnered with many folks across the nation and the world to find new solutions.

Specifically we just launched an alliance with the Hardwood Tree Regeneration Center at Purdue. We are looking at how we can more rapidly renew hardwood trees, improve yield and dramatically shift the carbon balance related to wood manufacturing. Wood is a sustainable and renewable resource with an extremely low embodied energy due to production, and offers great promise to solve many of our problems.

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