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Modern Office Special Coverage

Getting Up Off the Floor

For those in the office furniture and design sector, the past 18 months have been a long and extremely challenging stretch. Looking ahead, while the pandemic has eased to some extent, new challenges and question marks loom. The questions concern everything from how many people will return to the office to whether they will have their own space if and when they return. And the challenges involve everything from long wait times for ordered products to the specter of skyrocketing prices and the impact they will have on business.

Mark Proshan says a combination of factors

Mark Proshan says a combination of factors makes it difficult to project what will come next for this industry.

Mark Proshan says the e-mail found its way into his inbox earlier that morning. It was short and to the point, but it clearly articulated one of the many challenges still facing those in the office furniture and design business.

“‘I’m in the process of closing my office and moving employees to fully remote work,’” wrote the business owner and client that Proshan, president of the West Springfield-based Lexington Group, opted not to name. “‘I have a lot of office furniture I’m looking to sell.”

As he commented on what he was reading, Proshan started with that last bit of news. He said there are a number of business owners and managers looking to unload unneeded office furniture these days. They should know first that there is already a glut, and, second, that the price they have in the back of their mind is not likely to be the price they’re going to get for what they’re looking to sell. “With the massive amounts of furniture now on the market, selling furniture isn’t something that’s going to realize an amazing return on the investment.”

But that’s just a small part of the story now unfolding, said Proshan, noting that, while this particular business owner knows just what he’s doing with his office, many do not.

Indeed, a full 18 months after the term ‘COVID’ entered the lexicon, there is a great deal of uncertainty regarding what will happen at many offices, colleges, hospitals, and other kinds of businesses moving forward. Proshan has his theories, and we’ll get to some of them later, but he and others believe there will certainly be some downsizing, some hybrid work schedules for many employees, and more of the outright closures and conversion to remote working described in that e-mail.

But at the same time, some businesses and institutions that are waking up (for lack of a better phrase) from COVID are ready to advance plans for new furniture and accommodations.

And they are running into strong headwinds in the form of supply shortages, long wait times for desired items, and, almost certainly, higher prices in a nod to the laws of supply and demand — and the skyrocketing cost of shipping items from abroad.

“We can’t get the products out of where we need to get them from,” said Fran Arnold, owner of Holyoke-based Conklin Office Furniture, which, in addition to selling new and used furniture, manufactures its own lines of products overseas and remanufactures used furniture here. “Every manufacturer in the country is seeing huge delays when it comes to delivering furniture.

At Conklin Office, co-owned by Fran and Rosemary Arnold

At Conklin Office, co-owned by Fran and Rosemary Arnold, new challenges include supply-chain issues, soaring shipping costs, and long wait times for ordered products.

“On the import side, we’re running with massive delays in shipping and huge increases in the cost of shipping,” he went on, with some noticeable exasperation in his voice. “Our shipping costs have gone from $3,500 to $5,000 per container all the way to $23,500 per container. That’s a massive increase for freight; it’s now costing us more money to get the stuff here than to manufacture it over there.”

Proshan agreed.

“Because most of the manufacturers have employee shortages and raw-goods shortages, everyone’s lead times have been drastically pushed out,” he noted. “You try to stock up on what you think might make the most sense for when the floodgates open, but you just don’t know, and it’s going to be a difficult situation when people want products from you and manufacturers aren’t able to deliver them to you until much later than your customer is hoping to receive them.”

Overall, while the worst of the storm might be past for those in this sector — that’s might — there is still considerable cloudiness and general uncertainty about the forecast, and challenges ranging from those inventory issues to simply finding people to drive delivery trucks, to a huge merger in the industry between manufacturers Herman Miller and Knoll, which only leads to more question marks.

Indeed, what happens next is anyone’s guess, as BusinessWest learned as it talked with Proshan and Arnold about has transpired and what is likely on the horizon.

 

Measures on the Table

As he walked and talked with BusinessWest in his huge showroom, Proshan noted that he’s selling a number of items to be used by people working at home, especially chairs — “they want good seating, but they don’t want to spend a lot for it” — and sit/stand desks, because they’re smaller and also because many people want the option of sitting or standing.

Meanwhile, he said he’s also been selling more large conference-room tables — those for 12 to 20 people — than would be considered normal.

When asked why, he gave a quick and definitive “I don’t know, exactly, but we are,” before joking that companies might need bigger tables for all those meetings that will decide what they’re going to do next.

Overall, this interest in large conference-room tables and the possible reasons behind it comprise just one of the many unknowns for this industry. What is known is that the past 18 months have been an extremely difficult time, and the challenges are far from over.

They may just be different challenges.

“Every manufacturer in the country is seeing huge delays when it comes to delivering furniture.”

Looking back, Arnold said Conklin, like all businesses in this sector, saw business evaporate early on during the pandemic as businesses shut down and then hunkered down, with buying new or used office furniture, or redesigning their space, the last thing on their minds.

“We were flying just before COVID, and then we just hit a wall,” he explained, adding that, through a number of efficiency and austerity measures — including a four-day work week for all employees — the company managed to slash expenses to an extent that it was nearly as profitable in 2020 as it was in 2019.

Elaborating, he said that, in hindsight, the timing could not have been better for the company to consolidate operations and move into new facilities on Appleton Street in Holyoke in late 2019.

“We’re able to do more with fewer people,” he explained. “We’re much better organized, and we’re not so spread out. We’re much more efficient.”

Now, as it emerges from those very difficult times, there are new and different challenges to face, including supply-chain issues and a lack of inventory, just as some larger corporations are in a “panic mode,” a phrase he used a few times, to move on from the pandemic themselves.

“These corporations are working our sales teams to the limit,” he explained. “They want numbers, they want to know when things can be delivered … and a lot of the news we have to give them is not good; prices are going up, and deliveries are being postponed.”

Overall, Arnold said, inflation and the skyrocketing cost of shipping product are just starting to impact prices within the industry.

“We’ve just had our first price increase on our imported products; we just couldn’t hold it where it was any longer,” he explained, adding that, as the cost of shipping continues to escalate, more price hikes are likely. “It’s been quite an experience, and I don’t know how it will all play out; it’s a perfect storm that’s developing, and where it will go, I don’t know.”

 

Looking ahead and projecting what might come next, Proshan said this assignment is difficult because many companies are still very much trying to decide what they’re going to do.

“At the moment, business leaders are trying to figure out what their employees want, and employees are trying to figure out what their employers are going to be expecting,” he explained. “With all of that taking place, not a whole lot has happened yet. People have been talking about business getting back up to speed in the spring, and then the fall, which is not here yet, and then, the first of the year. We still have those mileage markers out there in front of us, so there’s a whole lot more that’s unknown than known.”

Proshan theorizes that many companies will create more space for each employee in efforts to create safer environments, and that, in all likelihood, there will be fewer people working in the office and more in remote settings.

“Every time you have a space that was occupied by three people, that had three work environments, they might cut that back to two to create a bigger gap between people,” he explained. “So now you have a work environment that’s going to be for sale or is going to become surplus; that’s one of the things we’re seeing.

“It’s going to be a difficult situation when people want products from you and manufacturers aren’t able to deliver them to you until much later than your customer is hoping to receive them.”

“And I think that when it gets sorted out as to who’s going back and who’s not, and how often they’re going back,” he went on, “I think a lot of personal space is going to disappear. If you work at home, you’re going to have your own workspace; when you go to the office, you may or may not have your own workspace. It may be a space that’s occupied by someone else on the days you’re not there.”

 

Bottom Line

Proshan, who does a good bit of sailing when he’s not working, made a number of comparisons between what’s happening in his industry and what transpires on the water.

Specifically, he talked about wind.

“You can’t see wind,” he told BusinessWest. “What people experience as wind is what they see as the result of wind and its impact on objects. When you see wind blowing through the trees, you don’t see the wind, you see the result of the wind. When you’re on a boat and there’s no wind, if you look at the water and see it start to ripple, you know that wind is approaching you, and it can either knock you over or make you go faster, or help you determine which direction to go in.

“It’s almost as if we’re sailing,” he said of the current conditions in his business, “and not able to see the wind in the trees.”

That was Proshan’s way of saying that an industry that has been blown about for the past 18 months, and not in a good way, is still very much in the dark about what will happen next.

The mission, he said, is to be as prepared as possible, even with all those unknowns.

“If you don’t pay attention to the possibilities,” he said in conclusion, “you’re going to be too late.”

 

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]

Features

All the Right Moves

Fran Arnold and his wife, Rosemary, have guided the family business through consistent growth and evolution over the past four decades.

Conklin Office recently completed the consolidation of its various operations into the former Ampad factory on Appleton Street in Holyoke. The new space tells a story about how this company has evolved over the years — and also about the modern office and what it should look like.

The back wall of the massive showroom at Conklin Office Furniture’s complex on Appleton Street in Holyoke is decorated in a somewhat unorthodox but quite meaningful way.

There, Fran Arnold, owner and president of this multi-faceted, family-run operation, has arranged some of the signs that have hung on the company’s facilities over the years, including one from when he bought the venture in 1981; it says ‘Conklin Office & School Supply Company.’

“I kept them — and I thought this would be good place for them,” said Arnold as he offered a tour of the sprawling facility. “They tell a story, really — they tell how far we’ve come over all these years.”

Indeed, they do.

The ‘Office & School Supplies’ part of the operation was scrapped a long time ago as Staples and businesses like it took over that part of the world. And the ‘office’ part of the equation has evolved tremendously into a company with a host of moving parts — from sales of new and mostly used furniture (including lines the company has developed itself) to recycling and reconditioning of furniture of all kinds, to an office-design component.

It’s all under one roof now — one very large roof — after the company moved its showroom and offices from a facility on Canal Street (sold to one of the many entities now looking to cultivate cannabis in Holyoke’s vast portfolio of old paper and textile mills) last fall. It was quite a move, as one can imagine, and the company is in many ways still catching its breath after that lengthy and logistically complex undertaking.

“We decided to do it like a Band-Aid; we just pulled it off quickly,” he said, noting that the move came in one large stage that ended in October rather than several, and the moving-in process is still ongoing in some respects.

But the new space seems to be well worth all the cost and trouble. And it gives the company an opportunity to not only display all that it sells, but also put the modern office — or the emerging interpretation of the modern office — on full display.

“I don’t think the ink on the contract was dry when Staples opened up. That put such pressure on all the old, local office-supply dealers that many of them went of business. I took a turn toward used office furniture.”

Indeed, the office/welcome area at Conklin employs many of the current trends, said Arnold, from the glass walls that surround his own office to the wide-open spaces, distinct lack of cubicle walls, modern lighting, and sit-stand desks being used by employees.

Meanwhile, the items on the floor, especially new benching models and smaller workstations, speak to how businesses are maximizing the square footage they’re willing to pay for.

The signs on the back wall of the new showroom help tell how far this business has come over the years.

“Everything is moving toward efficiency and budget,” he explained. “The individual workspace is getting smaller, but that’s necessary — office space in New York and these other major cities costs a fortune today, so companies are reducing the size of the footprint the person sits in, but the spaces are open and more conducive to collaboration.”

Conklin’s product lines, and its own offices, speak to these trends, said Arnold, adding that, while the company responds to these movements, it is also living up to the motto seen on many of those aforementioned signs: “What Goes Around Comes Around.”

That’s a nod (and a play on words) to the recycling and re-manufacturing aspects of the business — huge components of the operation — but also to its very ‘green’ mindset (right down to the 2,600 solar panels on the roof) and the way the company does business with a wide range of businesses in sectors ranging from education to financial services to manufacturing.

For this issue, BusinessWest visited the Conklin complex in Holyoke and talked with Arnold about office furniture, the modern office and how it continues to evolve, that motto and all that it reflects, and those signs along the wall in the showroom and how they really do tell a compelling story.

News Desks

While office design and office furniture are obviously serious businesses, Arnold said it’s quite OK — and actually quite necessary, in his mind — to have a little fun with it all.

Hence the names on many of the chairs he showed BusinessWest in one of the showrooms.

There’s the ‘Nellie,’ named after one of his granddaughters; the ‘Roxie,’ named after Conklin’s office manager; the ‘Brode,’ named after one of his grandsons; and the ‘Vito,’ named after … him; that’s what his grandkids call him. There’s also the ‘Junior Vito,’ a slightly smaller version of the original.

Conklin’s new facilities were designed to reflect the changes that have come to the modern office.

These chairs, all on the cutting edge of ergonomic trends, are part of the Gateway line of furniture the Conklin company has developed itself. The products — everything from chairs to benching to laminate furniture — are made in China, said Arnold, and they’re selling well as companies large and small look for value, quality, and chairs that are ergonomically friendly.

‘Fun’ isn’t a word that word that would be used to describe Conklin’s recent move — Arnold shook his head as he thought back on all that was involved — but it was necessary in some ways, and now that it’s over, the company is in a better place than it was — figuratively but also quite literally.

Arnold was able to take advantage of the soaring interest in Holyoke real estate, and the company, as noted, is now able to put everything together under one roof.

And as the tour clearly showed, it is a huge roof, and there is a lot under it.

The many components have come together over the past 39 and a half years, and there has been constant evolution, said Arnold, noting that, as that sign said, the Conklin company he bought in 1980 sold office supplies.

“I don’t think the ink on the contract was dry when Staples opened up,” he recalled. “That put such pressure on all the old, local office-supply dealers that many of them went of business. I took a turn toward used office furniture.”

And that has been the company’s main focus for most of its existence — buying and reselling used furniture, often refinishing, refurbishing, or ‘remanufacturing’ it (the term the company prefers to use) before it lands in the showroom or the warehouse. This mindset is captured succinctly in another one of those old signs hanging on the back wall: Beside the company name and logo, it reads ‘Don’t Monkey Around with the High Cost of New Office Furniture.’

Companies of all shapes and sizes have heeded that advice, and Conklin has taken full advantage, growing into one of the largest operations of its kind, with other offices in Red Bank, N.J., Philadelphia, and Chicago.

The company’s showrooms are filled with furniture bought across the country from a variety of sources. Very often, it arrives via liquidations — large companies either closing or moving from one space to another and selling the furniture it leaves behind.

“You can’t move more than 100 people over a weekend and move the furniture at the same time,” Arnold explained. “They need to move into furniture that was already set up.”

The Conklin company spent the ’80s and a good part of the ’90s building up the vast amounts of capital needed to properly run a business like this one and expanding operations. The company was located on Lyman Street in Springfield for a number of years, and also operated out of property on Warwick Street.

“You used to be able to put 100 8-by-8 cubicles on a floor; today, you can put 250 people on that floor. And what the employees are getting back by having so little space are big open areas.”

In 2005, Conklin moved its headquarters to the massive facility on Canal Street that was formerly home to American Thread and one of the first factory buildings built in Holyoke, and later moved the showroom (still on Lyman Street) there as well.

“We never thought we’d fill up Canal Street, but we did,” he Arnold went on, adding that the company eventually needed additional space and found it, ironically enough at the former Ampad facility on Appleton Street (Ampad made the legal pads and other office products the Conklin company once sold), which it purchased in 2008.

And in that 233,000-square-foot facility, the company greatly expanded its reconditioning and remanufacturing operations, adding a powder-coating operation, reupholstering, and more. Eventually, it was decided that operations needed to be moved there as well.

“I thought that the building on Canal Street was not really conducive to what we do,” he said. “We need higher ceilings and big areas to move in, and I started thinking about selling Canal Steet.”

Those thoughts coincided with the start of the cannabis era in Massachusetts and broad interest in Holyoke’s old mills for a number of possible reuses — cannabis in particular, but also condominiums and apartments.

“There were two or three serious possibilities in play working with condominiums or apartments,” he recalled. “But, lo and behold, cannabis was legalized, and they came after the building.”

‘They’ is True Leaf, a Florida-based medical-marijuana dispensary, he went on, adding that things moved quickly after that, with Conklin having to move out 150,000 square feet of space cram-packed with furniture.

Space Exploration

And eventually move it into space Arnold described as “totally raw” and, like much of the used furniture that comes his way, in need of some refurbishing. His staff now occupies the former administration area of the Ampad operation, space that looked like offices used to look, with enclosed private offices against the windows and tall cubicle walls outside — “people really couldn’t see much further than eight or 10 feet away from where they were.”

That has all been replaced with what most are saying the modern office should look like, said Arnold, who, as he talked about trends in modern office furniture and design, abruptly stopped talking and started walking toward a showroom area at the front of the store where the ‘Roxie’ and ‘Nellie’ are on display.

Talking again as he walked, he said offices everywhere, but especially those in large cities where real-estate prices are soaring, are getting smaller, and every square foot is being put to efficient, meaningful use.

Many people are doing some work at home, he went on, and companies are encouraging more people to join those ranks. For those who do come to the office, their employers are seemingly in a mood to trade more of those aforementioned wide-open spaces for smaller actual workspaces.

“You used to be able to put 100 8-by-8 cubicles on a floor; today, you can put 250 people on that floor,” he said. “And what the employees are getting back by having so little space are big open areas to continue their productivity — areas for collaboration, coffee bars, and just communal areas where they can be themselves. And windows are being left open, so they can see what’s going on outside.”

To get this point across, he referenced a product the company is selling a lot of these days — benching. These are small workstations — a desk with a drawer or two underneath — arranged in rows, or benches, with fabric screens separating the workers on either side of these benches.

While some of these workspaces measure 30” by 72”, said Arnold, many companies have moved to 60” and others to 54” or even 48”. The goal, as he said, is to put more people into a smaller amount of space, knowing they only spend some of their time at these spaces, with the rest in those collaborative areas mentioned earlier.

The Conklin website now lists a number of benching options, many part of what it calls its Stretch line, as well as what would be considered today’s ‘private’ office — a desk (often one that can be raised or lowered), credenza, and pedestal, all of them small in comparison to what was popular years ago.

And while staying at the forefront of these trends, with its Gateway line and items on the showroom floor, Conklin is working hard to respect that motto and be ‘green’ in every way it can — from the solar panels, which produce enough power for roughly 125 homes, to every aspect of the recycling operations.

“When we take a [cubicle] panel apart, all the fabric gets sent down south; it gets ground up and recycled,” Arnold said. “The shrink wrap gets baled and sent to a local company that makes oil from it. All the cardboard is baled … very, very little goes to the landfill.

“We’ve been ‘green’ from the very beginning,” he went on. “It’s a big part of who we are.”

Chair Man

As he walked around the office area at the new headquarters building, Arnold noted that all it might be missing, that’s might, is a large aquarium — a touch he might look to add in the near future.

Other than that, it represents all that the modern office is — or should be — in terms of space, light, glass, work areas, amenities for employees, and space-saving strategies for employers.

It also represents change and evolution for this company, which has come a long way since it sold office and school supplies on Lyman Street.

Like Arnold said, those signs on the showroom wall tell a story — one of ongoing growth, evolution, being ‘green,’ being proactive, and introducing products like the ‘Vito’ and the ‘Junior Vito.’

A story with a number of intriguing chapters still to be written.

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]

2019

Mark Proshan says that, scattered among the hundreds of items on the showroom floor at Lexington Group, one can still find a few of the office chairs that were popular, if that’s the right word (probably not) when the company was launched 30 years ago.

“They’re akin to Medieval torture devices — it’s like sitting on a rock,” he joked. “The evolution of the chair has been quite dramatic, but then … these days, we’re telling everyone to stand up, not sit down.”

With those comments, he made it clear that despite what some may think, office furniture evolves and changes with the times. And for three decades, Lexington Group has stayed on the cutting edge of these changes.

And while being current is important for this company that specializes in new, refurbished, and used office furniture, cubicles, workstations, and interior design solutions, staying true to the values and operating principles that have guided the company from the beginning is even more important.

“At the end of the day, the fundamentals and doing things the right way to get a desired result for your customer is what it’s all about,” he said. “And when you’re done with that, it’s about doing as much good as you can as a business to give back to the community you’re working with. And that’s we’ve been doing.”

He summed up 30 years in business — and what’s to come next — this way.

“If, in your gut, you truly believe that what you’re doing is right, and that you’re doing it for the right reasons, the rest will likely work itself out.”

Suffice it to say that things have worked themselves out for Lexington group.

 

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