Rearranging The Furniture Business

To boost a business dedicated to letting people sit comfortably on their duffs, Herman Miller Inc. had to get off its own. So, the No. 2 office-furniture maker tripled tech spending in 1995 in a bid to do better. "Without technology, we couldn't lead," says CEO Michael Volkema.

With it, Herman Miller is rearranging the furniture business. Its Web-powered SQA unit--it stands for "Simple, Quick, and Affordable"--can deliver custom-ordered desks, cubicles, and chairs in just two weeks. The industry standard: two months. Rivals "are trying to do something similar, but Miller is out ahead," says consultant David Bovet at Mercer Management Consulting.

SQA's spirit is infecting the rest of the company. Miller has trimmed a week from the time it takes to fill non-SQA orders, and more than 98% ship on time, up from 75% in 1995. Profits have tripled since 1996, to $139 million on $1.9 billion in sales. In October, Volkema will roll out Herman Miller RED, a furniture line targeting small businesses. RED aims to make and ship furniture the day it's ordered. Now, that's something rivals might want to take sitting down.

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