Volume 4 | Issue 1 | Year 2001

Ever wonder where companies like Compaq, Microsoft and Sun Microsystems get the work environments that have spurred the brilliant innovations created by their employees? Or who is responsible for the comfortable learning environments in our universities and schools? Let’s face it; if the chair you work in leaves you suffering, so will the work you produce.

No one in the furniture business knows this better than KI, Inc., of Green Bay, Wis. The company invests a lot of time and money in gathering research from real users to help design and manufacture furniture to make our lives easier, and KI has won many design awards to underscore its commitment to excellence. “Instead of trying to be everything to everybody, we try to be very, very good at providing the kinds of furniture solutions conducive to each of our strategically targeted market segments,” explains Barry Swanquist, vice president of marketing.

The markets in which KI is particularly successful include colleges/universities (KI’s largest market), kindergarten-through-12th-grade (K-12) schools, high-technology/fast-growth businesses and health care.

Campus Gestalt
“We are the world’s largest producer of furniture for the higher-education market,” says Swanquist. KI’s thinking goes beyond the portals of those hallowed halls, as it creates virtually both indoor and outdoor campus environments. This includes even the park benches and trash receptacles you normally see on a college campus.

Inside those college buildings, virtually all of the furniture environments are produced by KI. “We make the residence-hall furniture the students study at, lounge in and sleep in,” says Swanquist. “We make the lecture-hall furnishings, computer-lab furniture, classroom seating and desks, lounge furniture and even the cafeteria furniture. KI even designs and manufactures the office furnishings normally found in the offices of college presidents, faculty and administrative personnel.

“We got to be the leader in this market through our ability to focus on handling technological issues and providing learning atmospheres that help schools function better,” says Swanquist. “The advent of computers on campuses brought with it a whole new series of issues colleges had to deal with. For example, they now have to provide power and data connections throughout campuses. We’ve developed and patented furniture with built-in wire ways and connecting points to handle these requirements.”
KI is the recipient of many Best of NeoCon awards. One of the company’s recent awards was for the design of one of its auditorium/lecture-hall products, with built-in power and data connections placed underneath the arm caps. Although KI markets these products worldwide, North America is its major market.

Einstein™ at School
KI’s next featured market segment is the K-12 school market. The company designs furniture that can be found throughout a school, including furniture for the classroom, for the cafeteria, for faculty and staff, and for band students. “Our newest products are designed with the necessary capability to handle computers, so when schools decide they want to install them, the furniture is ready to handle that technology,” says Swanquist.

“This year we won the Best of NeoCon for our Einstein™ classroom-furniture product line, and this is significant because K-12 products have never won anything like this before,” he adds. Three elements led to the best-of award: design appeal, ergonomic design and functionality. Just launched during the summer of 2000, the Einstein™ products took about two years to develop, and were the result of extensive interviews with teachers and administrative officials to determine what would make a better product for a better learning environment.

“Educators asked us to design and manufacture furniture to help students pay closer attention in class, so we hired an ergonomic designer to help us design the seats and back curvatures of the chairs to make them more comfortable,” says Swanquist. The chairs are about 25 percent lighter, so they are easier for children to move around – a very important benefit in today’s classrooms, in which flexibility is a big issue.

“We added a special feature on the back legs of students’ chairs, so it’s hard to lean back and tip them over,” explains Swanquist. “We also made the book box under the desktop movable, so it can be pulled out like a drawer and it can also be removed and stacked if there are special projects.” Remember those pencil grooves at the top of your old school desk? They are now history. “We moved the pencil grooves below the edge of desktop surfaces so there are no more dropped pencils,” Swanquist adds. “That drives teachers crazy.”

KI offers student chairs and desks in four sizes to handle the pre-school student through adult-size high-school students. Its 60-inch-wide, two-student desks offer a less-expensive option that also allows more efficient use of classroom space. The chairs KI designs and manufactures for band students even have a “band pitch” to the backs. “You want students to sit more upright when playing their instruments,” says Swanquist.

Ultracreative Environments
“We’ve achieved success in the high-tech/fast-growth business market because we truly understand their needs and can create the specialized solutions they really need,” says Swanquist. “These companies are very much like our own company because we, too, use a great deal of technology and are growing at a fast rate.”

This segment is driven by some of the most successful and innovative companies in the country, producing products that make life and business easier and more productive. These are companies expecting only excellence in the products they buy for their creative staffs. “KI uses a particular ‘market-of-one’ philosophy in dealing with this segment,” explains Swanquist. “We treat each of these companies as if they were a market all to themselves. We sit with them to discover their exact requirements for their particular business. Sometimes we can take a standard product and tweak it a bit and other times we have to develop a brand-new product for them.”

If one word could describe the solutions to the major issues facing these companies, it might be “ability.” These fast-growing companies are looking for height adjust(ability), flex(ability), and mobile(ability). “The ability for these companies to quickly rearrange furniture and working environments is key,” says Swanquist.

Often, special work projects at these companies require people to be clustered in specific working configurations or teams. This requires furniture that can be easily and quickly arranged and rearranged. “Our furniture allows this flexibility,” says Swanquist.

Details like desktop surface-height adjustability are very important in creative environments, where employees need workstations that are as flexible as employees’ work habits. Even the walls of an office must be reconfigured to suit changing work requirements on the fly. KI’s Systemswall™ movable wall system creates private offices or conference rooms with built-in power and data connections.

Furniture for Healing
With today’s focus on getting patients in and out of hospitals as quickly as possible, hospital administrators want furnishings that enhance the healing process. “Our products can provide pain relief – for instance, via our spring-motion rocking seats,” says Swanquist. “We make other hospital chairs composed of mesh material, allowing better air flow and less pressure points on the body. These chairs can also be steam-washed to ensure sterility.”

Other products to make patients’ hospital stays more pleasant and less hospital-like include intravenous poles hooked to comfortable and homey wing chairs. KI’s Add-a-Day-Bed™ won the Best of NeoCon two years ago. It is a sofa that converts to a bed for family members wanting to spend the night with the patient. KI also manufactures single chairs, resembling living-room furniture, that convert into beds.

In administrative sectors of hospitals, KI’s presence is very much evident in providing more efficient use of office space while also offering secure hospital records, pharmaceuticals and supplies. “Our Space Saver™ High Density Storage system is a storage solutions system that allows file or storage cabinets to roll back and forth along floor tracks,” says Swanquist. “So hospital personnel can create aisles as needed to get to a particular file. At night, all of the file cabinets can be clustered together and locked for high security.”

Nimble Thinkers
KI has come a long way from its humble beginnings in Aurora, Ill., where founder Al Kruger established Kruger Metal Works in 1941 to produce steel folding chairs. “We still make a lot of those chairs today, but we’ve moved way beyond that,” says Swanquist. Today, KI operates 11 facilities in North America, one in Germany and one in Italy, totaling more than 2.2 million square feet of production space.

KI is one of the top 500 privately held corporations, and each of the company’s 4,200 employees is an owner. “Everyone in the company knows how well the company is performing because we offer monthly reports on our sales, profits and other key operating metrics,” says Swanquist.

Using the cellular-manufacturing approach, KI can be nimble, flexible and responsive to customers’ needs. This is especially important in the educational markets, where “these products are highly seasonal and our clients want the furniture to be delivered in the summer, before schools open for the year,” says Swanquist.
With 2000 revenues expected to exceed $600 million, KI plans to continue to identify and penetrate specialty markets. “We will continue to lead in these market segments while we search for other markets with similar opportunities for growth,” concludes Swanquist. “Dick Resch, our president and chief executive officer, has been very instrumental in the strategy employed to identify these successful market segments, and in positioning KI for leadership in them.” More information on KI can be found at the company’s Web site, www.ki.com.