When Andy Owen took over furniture company Herman Miller in 2018, he was not expected to get caught up in politics. But these days, it seems that no chief executive is safe from culture wars.
In the past year, a former executive at Gap, Ms. Owen has had to manipulate a task force shaken by similar polarizing forces straining the nation. On her factory floor in Michigan’s battlefield, wardrobe choices – from Make America Great Again to Black Lives Matter T-shirts – sparked arguments among employees. In response to this, Ms. Owen has already tried to put together a company to test for epidemic and recession sales.
“We have tried to create opportunities for people to have an open dialogue, so that they can unite and discuss the difficult topics of the day,” he said. “I don’t think these are new problems. But whether it is about race, or inclusivity, or whether it is happening in the world today, these are all things you have to talk about.”
At the same time, Ms. Owen is operating Herman Miller through an epidemic that has closed offices worldwide – a potential threat to a company that makes office furniture and owns the design within a rowdy retailer is.
Ms. Owen went to Interlochan Arts Academy, a Michigan boarding school focused on the arts. It was there that he first learned about Herman Miller, who created iconic pieces by renowned midisonry designers such as Isamu Noguchi and Charles and Ray Eames, and modern office staples such as Aaron Kursi.
Ms. Owen then studied art history at William and Mary College, and began working in retail. A job at The Gap led the retailer to a series of senior roles, culminating in his leadership of the Banana Republic brand before he turned to Herman Miller.
This interview was condensed and edited for clarity.
Does obtaining a liberal arts degree affect your career?
It has helped me in many ways. I learned a lot about people. I learned a lot about history. I learned a lot about observation. I have always been approached for any job I have ever done as a naturalist and an observer of human nature.
Some people will say that I am not good at any one thing. I’m fine on a lot of things. And that’s fine. I have surrounded myself with people who are much smarter than me. But I have a broader view, and an experience that does not require me to think in one thing or another.
I had a mother who was a teacher and a father who is this free soul musician. And all my mother said to me, “When you go to school, learn what you love. You will have a lot of time for a career and it won’t matter anyway. “So I really spent the time that I loved, and I think that’s an advantage.
Unlike many CEOs, you’ve never done an MBA
I actually applied and got accepted. I was in my late 30s, and as I was talking to a woman at the entrance and she said, “That’s great. We do not have many middle-aged women who are interested in these programs because they are all family-oriented. “And I was like,” I’m not. I’m good. ” And then of course I got pregnant and didn’t go.
You reach a certain point in your career, where getting a standard MBA is a bit of a waste of time, because you’ve learned a lot along the way. But I went back and got an executive MBA at Harvard, which was filled in the gap.
The Gap has clearly experienced its ups and downs. What did the company get right, and what did it go wrong over the years?
Business and economy
I was very lucky to have really, really good years, when the stock was splitting every year. And I went there to watch the fall.
Gap was in the best position when a trusted editor was important, when you played a role that helped people understand what they needed. We got success very quickly. But when you are super successful and you don’t change, you get scared. The ability to take risks – to reinforce oneself from the inside to think about how the company might fall apart – made it impossible. And many great people filled in a wooden sheet in an attempt to bring The Gap back.
When the digital revolution came I moved into the online part of our business. And I remember one of my bosses said to me, “Nobody will ever buy clothes online.” This is going to be the biggest mistake of your career. What are you doing? ”This is really the way people were thinking back then.
We haven’t changed fast enough yet. And we were really out of touch with the customer. When you rely on a playbook that was successful in the past, and you don’t understand where your customer is going, this is a recipe for disaster.
Your time at The Gap shaped your thinking about what Hermann Miller does.
I interviewed a boy who became my head of digital. He worked in retail, and he said, “Do you know what makes me most excited about getting into this industry? I feel like I am going from building a landfill to building a heritage. “
I think so. These are the products that you hope you are going to go by hand. I made some Kashmiri sweaters from Banana Republic, I hope someone downed them. But I know that millions and crores of people are probably not handing out the T-shirts we made.
What happened when the epidemic hit, and how did you find your way out?
We never closed our plant before, and there we were suddenly. We closed all our plants in 12 hours, and every day was a new lesson in crisis management.
There were nights when I sat at the end of the day and shed some tears because of it. The human toll from this epidemic has not only been a death toll, but the lives and jobs of people, entire industries have been wiped out. We cover 400 layoffs and exits [about 5 percent of the work force], And we have tried our best to keep the number where it is. But we have also prepared a new product at such a time, which we had never thought about. So this is the real balance of, “Hey, really crappy right now,” and, “We’re going to get through this.”
Your core business has done surprisingly well during the epidemic. Who is buying so much office furniture right now?
Our international trade is strong. The parts of the world in which the epidemic has spread – Asia, parts of New Zealand – have gone.
Now the biggest questions are those of CEOs and people planning space: “Hey, what does a distributed work force look like? What should my new office see? “It certainly cannot be what it was. People do not want employees to return to who he was.
First it was, “How do I make it safe?” How do I put obstacles everywhere? “Now this conversation has evolved,” How do I make it an engaging environment? “
What are some answers to that question?
It is an attractive variety. The financial companies are like, “We are coming exactly what it was. We are not going to change anything. And then there are some tech companies in Silicon Valley, “Who needs office again?”
I am not sure that one of the two is necessarily the answer. Along that continuum, most people say “Gosh, what do people remember?” So whether it is innovation, creativity or collaboration, how do you create an environment where people can have those kinds of things? Depending on the industry, I think we can see a lot of different solutions in this first year or two.
At Herman Miller, we are taking over all of our office environments and using this time while we have people working remotely to completely renovate them. They are our own small testing laboratory.
Herman Miller is not an inherently political company, so how do you deal with a moment like this when there is so much uproar among your own employees?
We have to be united, we have to talk. We have to be respectful and kind and we have to listen. What happened at the Capitol was not right. On the other hand, I have to make sure that we are listening to each other, and trying to find equality.
Sometimes I yearn for the days when I was back in Berkeley, California, and I could walk down the street and everyone thought the same way. But you know, everyone is in Michigan. So you have to make people on the right feel comfortable, and you have to make people on the left feel comfortable. This is a challenge because we as a society are more and more divisive. Sometimes you have to disagree because you are different yet. But for us, it is about promoting respect and encouraging kindness.