Just Like New - Conklin Office Furniture Remanufactures Its Way to Profits

January 13, 2005
by Joesph Bednar

Taken from January 2004 (vol. 20, #9) Business West Magazine
It’s not easy making money selling chairs. Ask Jeffrey Hart. In the years after helping company president Fran Arnold move Conklin Office Furniture from an office-supply story to a used office furniture dealer, he realized just how much opportunity there could be apart from pens, pencils, file cabinets, and chairs.

You have to sell a lot of chairs to make a significant amount of money,” said Hart, the company’s sales manager. Although Conklin was launched selling office supplies 60 years ago in Springfield, in the late 1980’s the company was getting a different vibe from the business world.

Specifically, Arnold sensed an opportunity in used office furniture – not just chair, but desks, cubicles, shelves, the whole shebang. Word on the street was that companies were buying used in larger numbers, and Arnold and Hart were listening.

“I learned in college that you have to find a need and fill it,” Hart said. “We heard that companies were looking for used furniture, that they didn’t want to spend money buying new, especially for back-room furniture.”

That led the pair to their first auction in Vermont, where they had to rent a truck on the fly to bring home their purchase because the seller couldn’t hold it for them.

Things are much more efficient today, as evidenced by Conklin’s multiple offices in Western MA as well as New York City and Philadelphia, and its range of services, which now encompass wholesaling, delivery, design, and remanufacturing of used furniture.

It has also proved to be a much quicker money-maker that selling pencils and chairs, as Conklin has progressed from about $180,000.00 in annual sales early on to between $6 and $7 million per year today. That success shows what can be done with a need when it’s identified and filled with skill.

“If you treat people right,” said Jeremie Kadzik, account executive, “they’re going to come back.”

Moving On Up
And soon, they’re going to come to a different location. Conklin boasts 300,000 square feet of space in three area locations, but almost 200,000 of that is in Holyoke.

“We have them come here, and it’s the smallest facility,” Kadzik said. That’s why Conklin is moving most of its operations to Canal Street in Holyoke, Massachusetts.

While ‘refurbishing’ is a buzzword in the used office furniture business, Hart prefers to use remanufacturing because it better conveys just what’s involved in the process. Furniture purchased by Conklin for resale is often stripped down and completely reupholstered, repainted, even rebuilt as necessary.

“We’re talking about a total teardown and remanufacturing,” he said. “We’re not just touching up.”

As a result, businesses are getting high-quality pieces at a much lower cost than they would find at new-furniture stores. “They don’t want to buy new,” Hart said. “They want good stuff, but they don’t want to spend a fortune on it.”

That trend happily collided with another in the late 1990’s when the dot.com industry imploded, leaving, in many cases, entire floors of furniture available to be snatched up at wholesale prices.

Even better, Kadzik said, because many of the dot.coms spent freely in heavier days, these were top-shelf, top-drawer items.

“There were large volumes of brand name furniture - $5,000 chairs that were never used,” he said.

“I could never buy up a $20,000 office for $5,000,” Hart added. “If a cabinet originally cost $10,000, I could buy it for $1,200.”

The downside of that situation was the inevitable glut of high-quality, nearly-new furniture available – which let to Conklin seriously considering phasing out its remanufacturing arm three years ago, Kadzik said.

But the company soon realized that there will always be a need for less-expensive options, especially if the economy is suffering. “When it’s a down time, people like to save money,” he explained.

Conklin boasts a $15 million inventory of contract lines including Steelcase, Haworth, Herman Miller, and Knoll, selling across many sectors of business, including financial services, manufacturing, communications, design, pharmaceuticals, education, law, accounting, insurance, and medicine.

While Conklin does sell as-is furniture – often providing savings up to 90% off the new price – remanufacturing remains its main emphasis, and the company is quick to point out that the benefits extend beyond the buyer and seller – the environment also wins.

For example, the firm claims that every 40 refurbished workstations prevent one full trailer-truck load of waste from heading for landfills, while using and reusing organic materials – on environmentally friendly fabrics and paints, for instance – serves to conserve natural resources.

Design Elements
That emphasis is partly why Conklin’s motto is, “What goes around comes around,”

But at the same time, the firm has seen plenty of trends come and go as well, and in the office furniture world, few trends are hotter than office design.

Conklin has developed a design arm over the years, working with architects and interior designers to create floor plans and work strategies, said designer Andrea Johnston.

“We have to consider important ergonomic issues and make sure people can work well together, and we help with the planning of that,” she said. “No job is the same, and every company is different. We work with home offices and with large companies employing hundreds of people.”

Of course, some businesses don’t have design strategy on their mind, Hart said, and Conklin is happy to serve these types of firms – telemarketers, for example – as well.

“Some companies are looking just to save money,” he said. “They want to fit 20 people into an area, and they don’t care about the ergonomics. They just tell us that they want a work surface as cheaply as possible.”

That flexibility is one key to success for Conklin, as is the firm’s commitment to small businesses and local organizations. For example, in late 2002, inspired by the hit interior-deign TV show Trading Spaces, Conklin redesigned and furnished offices belonging to the Junior League of Greater Springfield and a homeless shelter run by the Children’s Study Home of Springfield. As on the show, volunteers from each agency worked on the other’s office.

It’s this kind of outreach, combined with Conklin’s catering to the area’s mom-and-pop businesses, that keep its name on people’s minds - and “word of mouth is a great way of advertising,” Hart said.

“It’s all about meeting customers’ needs,” Kadzik said. “That’s why we’re here to stay.”

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