Step into the office of the future

Julie Sharp and Jacqui Withnell
Julie Sharp and Jacqui Withnell
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One of the UK’s largest office furniture dealers, Steelcase Solutions, has moved into Yorkshire as part of its national expansion plan.

The company, which specialises in office fit-outs, refurbishments, and design, will officially launch its new base today at Brewery Place in Brewery Wharf, Leeds.

It is headed up by regional manager Jacqui Withnell and Julie Sharp, customer liaison manager, but there are plans to grow to 15 staff in the next five years.

The team is already working with a number of high-profile clients, including a football club and a Yorkshire university.

Mrs Withnell said: “The university scheme is a design and build project driven by technology to bring it into the 21st Century. There is a lot of social networking in mind in the design but face-to-face rather than online, with plenty of communal and social areas.

“It’s a fantastic design which is future-proofing the building in terms of its flexibility. It’s very modular so it will be able to adapt and change.”

Steelcase solutions is a wholly-owned subsidiary of US firm Steelcase Inc, which has spent $115m (£73.4m) in the last three years on research and development in the workplace.

Mrs Withnell said: “The company looks at how we will work in the future and our products are designed around that research. People are collaborating more now and products are being developed and designed around that collaboration.

“More ideas are exchanged around the coffee machine than formal meetings these days.

“Steelcase goes into businesses with its research information to help them make decisions about future-proofing their interior designs.”

Under its previous business model, Steelcase’s route to market was through independently-owned dealerships. Mrs Withnell previously owned a Steelcase dealership and worked with the company for 25 years.

But in 2006, just before the financial crisis, a number of dealers went into receivership and the company decided to create a subsidiary – Steelcase Solutions – and switched to a handful of regional offices instead.

There are currently bases in London, Birmingham, Manchester and Glasgow as well as Leeds.

“It started in London and gradually moved through the country,” said Mrs Withnell. “Leeds is the last piece in the jigsaw.”

Although the office is only a few weeks old, it is already very active, despite a subdued commercial property market.

Mrs Withnell said its early success was due to its different approach with clients.

“We are being told that the market is not very good at the moment, but that’s not what we’re seeing at all,” said Mrs Withnell. “The way we go to market is different to other people. We work in a very collaborative way.

“We are not just turning up and saying ‘do you want to buy some furniture?’

“We are passing on research to the community and sharing our findings. A lot of these companies don’t just see us as a provider of products.”

One of the key product areas Steelcase sees requests for is recycled and recyclable furniture.

The firm’s Manchester office recently completed a contract with a large law firm for its Think office chair, which is 99.9 per cent recyclable and adjusts itself intuitively rather than requiring the user to adjust it.

“It fitted in with their sustainability programme and their corporate message,” said Mrs Withnell. “The fact that it adjusts itself also means there are fewer parts that can go wrong with it.”

Steelcase Solutions is also in the early stages of working with Bradford University on a large event which addresses the topic of recyclable furniture.

Mrs Withnell said despite the tough economic climate, now was a good time for Steelcase to open an office in Leeds.

“Why not open a base in Leeds?” she said. “Through our dealerships we used to have a presence in the area and clients like to have someone locally to talk to.

“We have lived through a number of recessions. This is not something that has happened for the first time. Businesses still have to move forward.”

Looking to the future, Mrs Withnell said a new trend would see companies bringing the outdoors into an indoor office environment. “Companies are now looking at their wasted atrium space and thinking about growing things within that space – greenery and shrubbery and real grass.”

She added: “It would be a space where people feel they are walking through a park and maybe even have a picnic on the grass.”

Company that is showing its metal

International office furniture business Steelcase is a global, publicly traded company on the New York Stock Exchange with 2011 revenue of approximately $2.4bn (£1.5bn).

The company, which employs 10,000 staff worldwide, was founded on March 16, 1912 in Michigan as The Metal Office Furniture Company.

It received its first patent in 1914 for a steel wastebasket.

That led to metal desks and the company went on to specialise in file cabinets and safes.

In 1954 the company changed its name to Steelcase.

Today, the company sells products related to interior architecture, furniture and technology.

It has invested $115m (£73.4m) in research, design and development over the past three years and has more than 1,300 active patents and design registrations worldwide.

It has served 80,000 clients over the past five years

Steelcase Solutions was formed in 2006 in London. It has since expanded throughout the UK with bases in Leeds, Birmingham, Manchester and Glasgow.