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Furnware Knows What Kids Like

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It would be apt to grade Furnware as an A+ Hawke’s Bay company. After all, the school furniture manufacturer employs 160 full-time staff, and its products are sold in to over 30 countries and territories, with more than 80,000 school chairs alone landing in classrooms worldwide during the 2017-18 financial year. All of this from its head office in Omahu Rd, Hastings.

On the day Great Things Grow Here visits, owner Hamish Whyte is standing behind a modern lectern with laptop atop, chatting to a client in Australia. Around him office staff go about their tasks in a relaxed manner seated in, or standing behind, Furnware furniture. There’s even a couple of naughty schoolboy types having a laugh not far from Hamish. It’s a scene from a modern classroom.

Flash back to the turn of the century. Furnware’s long standing imprint on the business landscape was under threat from cheaper Asian manufacturers. You could say they were sitting on a solid B average, facing a slide to the dreaded D.

It was time for focus, and a good deal of swot.

“When my wife Sarah and I got involved Furnware was the classic New Zealand manufacturer that did many things, but wasn’t really strong in one thing,” Hamish says. “It employed 18 people, and was really easy to run.”

The company’s proud manufacturing history – their postal address is PO Box 1, Hastings – had included products as diverse as caravans, coffins, state house kitchens made from Rimu, and police truncheons.

But it was the company’s history in the school market, which Hamish turned towards with scholarship like focus.

Furnware’s involvement in the school market went right back to its beginning in 1934 when the factory designed and manufactured high quality wooden furniture.

Then durability and functionality was the major selling point. By the 1970s the trusty plywood chairs had been replaced by new plastic models, but there was still no real point of difference.

Schools were beginning to change. By the end of the 80s they were able to control their own budgets and this allowed them to order the furniture they required. These Government-led reforms opened the way for Furnware to employ its own salesforce and the company’s sales staff relished the chance to find out what schools, teachers and students really wanted.

Hamish and his family had become the sole owners of Furnware in 1993, but by 2000 he was worried for the company’s long-term future as cheaper Asian product flooded in. Rationalisation and innovation were needed.

“We rationalised the business back to the school market,” Hamish says. “With the belief that cheaper doesn’t mean better we went out to schools to learn what was going on.

“We measured 20,000 kids in New Zealand because we knew everyone was getting bigger and one size did not fit all.”

Furniture trials in Hawke’s Bay followed and the sheer volume of time spent in school classrooms led to a pivotal lightbulb moment. “We thought that schools were our customers but in reality, the students and the teachers were our customers,” Hamish says. Armed with this new user-centricity, they partnered with University of Waikato to dive deeper and commenced a year-long classroom study.

“The Waikato schools had rows of old furniture and rows of our new furniture. At the end of every day they videoed and interviewed the students. Our ergonomically designed Bodyfurn* range reduced the off-task behaviour by more than 80 percent. In other words we made them more attentive by providing a comfortable product.

“We discovered that about 38 percent of all New Zealand children have headache and back pain while they are in class. We found out the biggest distraction to any child learning in school was noise.

“Through our research we learned more about our customer than they knew about themselves.

“That was a 2 1/2 year journey – $2 million. I literally mortgaged everything I had to do it.”

Despite the former chair’s cost of $30 jumping to $130 for the Bodyfurn model the demand arrived via the proof provided by the research and the new target market of teachers and students, which was way beyond the previous narrow focus on principals.

The company’s slipping B grade began to scale upwards from that moment on.

The investment made in the Bodyfurn research and chair design was always based on a global market, Hamish says, and these days he lives an international lifestyle, travelling for up to three months every year.

Behind him is a team working two shifts over 20 hours, five days a week, all year round. From the Hastings factory, built as the result of the Bodyfurn success, they will have moved 530 TEU containers of school furniture around the world by the end of the 2017/18 financial year.

It’s a multi-million dollar business.

“Our point of difference is quality and understanding our customers. We are at the higher end of cost, we over-engineer because we want things to last. We have to compete on price all the time, and have to prove the added value which is what we are good at.

“If you sit in a Bodyfurn chair you’re in a pretty healthy space. We stand behind that.”

Furnware is experiencing significant growth in Australia, where it has 12 staff, and is finding more emerging markets all the time. South-East Asia and the Middle East are two markets where the company is experiencing considerable growth.

There is no complacency, Hamish says.

“We’ve got to be good at what we do, or it’s never going to happen is it? We are all about customer experience, and have an above and beyond philosophy of customer expectation and service.

“Students are at the centre of our DNA. We today still spend a lot of time researching, observing and videoing. We want to know more about what goes on in the classroom than the teachers.”

Hamish says Hawke’s Bay is a great place to manufacture from that point of view, and many others.

“We have a strong working relationship for research and development with the schools here.

“We’ve got the Port of Napier, and we’ve got great carrying companies based here.

“We have a loyal and steady staff, and bring on university students in summer to prepare for back to school.

“Yes, there is a bit more travel involved. But life is short, so if you want some balance I think it’s a pretty good place to be.

“I’m seeing a lot of clever people moving here which is great for the region. They will have business ideas and create added value.

“Then there’s the climate. I’m inspired daily by seeing things growing – horticulture, grapes.

“As a business we keep growing and growing. We’ve come a long way and we’ve got a long way to go.

“Furnware will continue to work hand in hand with schools around the world, designing and creating furniture so children can thrive in the most inspiring learning spaces imaginable.

“We’ve just approved very progressive budgets. It’s going to be a good year.”

*The Bodyfurn range was awarded the Designer Institute of NZ’s Design Innovation Award in 2005. 

Photo: Hamish Whtye – Owner Furnware

Posted: 10 August 2018

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