We interviewed R.J. Stelter about his new role and his team’s exciting crusade to elevate the Elements portfolio.
The Bootstrapping Phase
Q: How did the Elements team get started?
A: It started with a problem, one that was keeping some of the leadership up at night: a need to organize our family of brands to deliver a viable solution to win more share of the ancillary market. Given Herman Miller’s research-based approach to understanding the workplace, we saw the floorplate shift towards ancillary coming. We knew that we had a compelling ancillary offer, but it was fragmented across six brands and there wasn’t a clear strategy to stand out and win mindshare.
Q: Wow, so how did you stand out as the person to lead this huge opportunity?
A: My boss at the time nominated me to be the mobilizer of a special team. They wanted someone to be fast, creative, and really be a little bit of a rabble-rouser in terms of how Herman Miller would normally approach something. Partly due to the success of a “side project” I had taken on during a recent acquisition. This was the brilliant way they got me hooked, and I think it was a nice little life lesson on, "Hey, you do a good job on something and you never know what might happen…it might lead into this cool, new job.”
Q: What was the mission?
A: Our team was tasked with bringing six different brands together towards a common goal of creating a better ancillary solution for our clients. That was the mission - it was a blank sheet of paper, which was scary, but also exciting. It was like, “Go out and be fast, be creative, and understand what the marketplace wants, then come back with a great solution.”
Our small, nimble team knew we had to gather data to deliver a real game-changing solution, so we partnered with our Continuous Improvement team. Together we set a disciplined approach to understand the facts around the ancillary landscape. The discovery turned into a 15-market journey, with two days in each key market with A&D and dealers. It was the most important piece of our early success because we got an incredible crash course in what is needed for our customers in this category.
Elements of Success
Q: What did the research and feedback tell you?
A: Turns out there were some distinct themes that emerged early on. I’ll focus on the top three:
1. Product Breadth
Herman Miller traditionally has been considered mainly for our mid-century modern classics in the ancillary space, and these products are super important to us. They're timeless and people aspire to have them in their space, but we consistently heard from both dealers and designers, "What if I have a more contemporary space? Or what if I need something more playful or a bit more residential?” Then they would go on to other manufacturers because they didn’t know what the breadth of brands like Geiger, Naughtone, Nemschoff, and Design Within Reach had available to them. And then having the capability to re-imagine those products with a brand like Maharam - it’s a powerful, but an under-advertised combination! We heard a clear need to build awareness around the breadth and depth of our products.
2. The Gift of Time
Looking at how A&D approaches ancillary, they are going to 30 different places to find inspiration, 20 different places to find images, and 5 different places to get inspiration on materiality. Being easy to work with is key, and with our product breadth, we can focus on giving A&D the gift of time. We are all under tight deadlines and over-scheduled, so being quick and nimble is very powerful and hopefully a huge game-changer for us.
3. Touch & Feel
In this increasingly digital world, furniture is still very much a touch and feel experience. There is a big focus on AI, virtual reality, and all the digital tools, but we still see a need for physical presence. Having our Elements products in showrooms and as samples available to touch and feel helps build confidence in our breadth and brand. After all, these are the products that make a space, help a company express their brand, all while fostering engagement, collaboration, and allowing employees to have fun!
Take Naughtone for example. I’ve heard from several designers, "I've got to see a couple of their pieces to get a feel for the story, the craftsmanship, the quality. Once I see it and touch it, I’ll know if I like it. Don’t think I'm just going to look at a catalog, never see it in person, and then start putting it in as an option for my clients. As a designer, I have to put my good name on the line and thus want to be able to say I’ve experienced a product and recommend it.”
The Man Behind Elements
Q: Tell us about your background, what made you right for this role.
A: My first job was being an Inside Sales Rep for a tech company and it was a great learning ground. It was brutal and I was making 120 calls a day for very little money, but it was also the best possible training for being persistent, being disciplined, having a plan, time management, and doing your homework. I found out fast that I needed to find a way to be impactful to get people to take my calls and eventually order products.
Q: How are you applying those lessons today?
A: The Elements team is like a startup inside a larger organization. The coolest part of our job is that we work with the stakeholders of six brilliant companies, all working towards a common mission and purpose. It takes a lot of communication, planning, rigor, and passion to deliver exceptional results. We aim to be disruptively different in how we inspire people, how we mix our brands together, and how we serve up options based on what the customer wants. If we combine our breadth with a great contract experience, that is how we will win, and we think that is very exciting.