The Revival Guy
How Joe Gammons transformed a failing office furniture business into a major success.
JOE GAMMONS’ FIRST CHALLENGE when taking over a struggling Fort Myers office furniture dealer in 2003 was repairing its image. That meant a lot of groveling, he recalls with a laugh. He basically went door-to-door, office-to-office trying to drum up business. Many of the sales pitches were to the company’s former clients, an attempt to convince them that the new ownership would be more reliable than the previous one. The Collier County government had been one of those former customers.
Gammons called the facilities manager, who told Gammons, rather directly, “You guys don’t do a good job.” Gammons asked for a second chance. The manager agreed—giving a job to install two cubicles. Not a big sale, but Gammons jumped at the opportunity. He and another employee went down and installed it themselves. He sees it now as a big step in repairing the relationship with the former client, and, eventually, Southwest Florida Office Furniture & Design Concepts now has clients
that stretch from Sarasota to Marco Island. The company worked with some of the region’s biggest names: Arthrex, Lee Memorial Hospital, Florida Gulf Coast University. The headquarters for its 38 employees has a 7,500-squarefoot
showroom full of mock office setups—a faux boardroom by a café bar set up next to rows of desks and stacks of chairs. But office furniture was a foreign concept to Gammons when he took over.
He was a 26-year-old former political campaign manager who had scant business background. But he helped bring it back to life, guide it through a recession and now puts it poised for expansion.
Gammons uses the government job as evidence of the roll-up-your-sleeves mentality it took to get the business successful again. It was a humbling experience,
but an example of just how important trustworthiness is to Gammons. Even with an area as fast-growing as Southwest Florida, he says it still has that small-town feel.
Translation: Word gets around quick; so, you better do the job right.
“It’s a small enough place that people all know each other. We’ll see you in the grocery store or at church,” he says. “We can’t say we’re going to do something and not do it.”
Gammons got his beginning running political campaigns in his native Michigan. Then-state Sen. Glenn Steil, who had owned several other office furniture businesses, proposed that Gammons come to Florida to partner in a new one he had recently bought. Gammons was already worn out from the grind of politics—long hours for low pay. Instability. Not a great career for a family man.
He remembers a snowy day in Michigan. It was 5 p.m. and already dark out. He was shoveling snow off his driveway in a thick jacket, scarf and rubber boots. The sunny skies of Florida started to appeal more and more.
“I just went for it,” he says.
The business was a “financial mess” when he took over. The reputation was worse.
“What I didn’t understand was that [the financial problems] were solvable,” he says. “What was far more challenging was that the reputation was bad.”
“We had to get into something more than office furniture,” Gammons says. Gammons and his team started looking into related fields and settled on commercial flooring. It was a good move. The business survived the recession with mostly flat revenue.
“Those five years were not fun,” he says. “I didn’t have an MBA but I felt like I got one.”
The company ended up doing what so many others that survived the last two recessions did, says Tom Reardon, executive director of the Business and Institutional Furniture Manufacturers Association.
The office furniture business had actually been stable for decades leading up to the recession of the early 2000s. It saw growth just about every year since the ’70s, when the trade group started up, Reardon says. Then, the bottom fell out. Consumption fell by a third between 2001 and 2003, according to data from the association. Then, it dropped by about 30 percent just in 2009. To ride out this roller coaster, manufacturers and dealers started eyeing other markets. Demand for office furniture was going down, but demand for educational furniture was going up as laidoff workers went back for degrees, for example.
“[Manufacturers] got into other vertical markets,” Reardon says.
Last year, Office Furniture & Design Concepts brought in about $18 million in gross revenue, Gammons says. Commercial flooring is now half of its business. The business also expanded into office interior design and commercial window shading and next plans to go into other markets in the future—although Gammons is unsure of which.
The breadth of operations is what appeals to commercial broker Randy Mercer, a founding partner with CRE Consultants in Fort Myers. He first contacted Office Furniture & Design Concepts about four years ago to help a client plan its office space. He now uses it as a one-stop shop for clients not just to design their office but also to provide the furniture and flooring.
“I’ve seen a lot of people come and go,” says Mercer, who’s been in the area since 1989. “Rarely do you find a business that provides so many services so effectively.”
Gammons notes that the company’s connection to the community stretches beyond business. He estimates that it donates about $50,000 per year to charities such as Habitat for Humanity. He also sits on the boards for the Lee Memorial and Florida Gulf Coast University foundations.
Looking back, he admits that one flaw in his thinking was his mindset in how office furniture should get sold. Initially, he was trying to convince people that he had the best products imaginable; that his Steelcase chairs would be the best chairs they ever sat on. But it’s not really about product. It’s finding people who can bring to life that smile-and-a-handshake way of business. He sees his job as hiring good people and letting them do their jobs. That’s why he often looks outside of his industry to hire. One of his most recent employees came from a high-end hotel because Gammons liked the customer service skills that come with catering to resort guests.
The lesson: “Focus on people, not product.” Turns out all that groveling worked. GB
What's In, What's Out
The look of a business is starting to change. Open spaces have replaced the walled-off offices. Water cooler talk isn’t a bad thing anymore. Joe Gammons notices a generational shift as Gen Xers and millennials are looking for a different office environment than Baby Boomers. A few examples:
IN: MODERN LOOK
The concept of the boss sitting behind the big oak desk is starting to fade away. Gammons said the past few years have started to trend toward a “crisp and clean” look instead. Desk design has started to reflect a more healthconscious workforce, as well. Gammons sells sit-stand desks that can be adjusted so employees aren’t chair-bound all day. Steelcase also sells the Walkstation that incorporates a treadmill into the desk.
IN: COLLABORATIVE SPACES
OUT: PRIVATE OFFICES
Employers are looking tear down those walls. Work stations are arranged so people can talk, instead of keeping them confined to offices. Even cubicle walls are shorter, allowing for more open discussion. If Gammons had a redo his office, he’d put his desk in the middle of his showroom.
OUT: WATER COOLER
The water cooler talk is now being turned into café talk. Instead of a separate break room, employers are installing bar-like cafés in the middle of their office. “It’s a communal place where people can get a cup of coffee and talk about their weekend. Eventually, that leads to talk about work,” Gammons says.