Jim Baker is a senior vice president of Red Thread, the newly rebranded office furniture supplier owned by Steelcase. Baker works with the company’s showrooms in New England, including Portland, where the showroom was just moved from Main Street in Westbrook to One City Center in Portland. Baker has a deep background in the industry through a family company that was founded in Vermont in 1925 and expanded to Maine, then sold to Steelcase in 2010. The company has 14 employees in Maine and 475 in New England. Steelcase had revenue of $250 million in its latest fiscal year.
Q: Why did you move from Westbrook to Portland?
A: We’re closer to our customers and to the hub of activity in the Greater Portland market – closer to our key customers, the design community and the real estate and development communities and we also have greater visibility with our new brand. We were right on Main Street in Westbrook, but it didn’t provide the level of exposure we wanted or the proximity to our customers and partners that we were after.
Q: How is Greater Portland as a market for office furnishings?
A: I think it’s a dynamic market. There’s an increased level of activity that’s been building since the recession of 2008 and 2009 and our staff is very busy today. Were really excited about the timing of the move and where the market is headed.
Q: Have the needs of your customers changed since the recession?
A: Business today is very different since the recession and even 10 years ago or 20 years ago. Health care and higher education (are also) different, and those are some of the key markets that we serve. We need products and solutions that are able to evolve in step with our clients. There are architectural elements and technology elements and then more traditional furniture elements that all have to work together.
Q: I see many of your products are geared toward “touchdown” spaces. That’s probably not a place for midday football games, is it?
A: It’s not. In today’s work environment, clients are looking for their spaces to work differently. They have contingent workers or part-time workers or workers who reside in a space only part of the time. So a touchdown space is typically a smaller scale space that is meant to serve part-time workers. It could be a nurse practitioner who needs a space to do some processing work before seeing the next client or a student who, prior to attending his next class, might have 15 or 20 minutes to work on an assignment. So the space needs to serve a multitude of different functions and suit multiple requirements and different modes of work.
Q: It used to be a new worker got a desk, a chair, a phone and a file cabinet. Why is that changing?
A: There are a couple of forces in play and one is generational factor. For workers who enter the workplace today, it’s not so attractive to them to have a space they call their own. It’s a very different dynamic than what I was accustomed to discussing with clients 10 years or 15 years ago. Many companies today are very focused on innovation, and innovation is driven by an ability to collaborate, so there’s tremendous interest in understanding how space can be reallocated to support collaboration.
Q: People are no longer angling to get that corner office?
A: My generation, it was really focused on that private office. Today the focus is on the various work settings available to support me and support the organization. Many people today are willing to work in smaller work settings to do their individual work if it frees up space for collaborative work settings. So there’s a rebalancing of how space gets allocated.
I’ve got a couple of college-age kids, and today’s students are accustomed to working everywhere. They anticipate they will not have a spot where they’re going to be sequestered eight hours a day. And when you think about where mobile technology has gone, the speed of change has intensified. And the speed by which businesses need to be able to react and change and adapt has increased exponentially, so it’s important that work environments can respond at the same tempo.
Q: What’s your office like?
A: I am the poster child for today’s world of work. I work virtually and have touchdown places in Hartford, Boston, Portland, Manchester, N.H., and Burlington, Vt. I work everywhere.
Q: So where do you put your pictures of your wife and children?
A: I have them digitally. I carry them with me everywhere I go. They’re on my phone and on my laptop and I would rather have what we call a pallet of place, posture and presence than an office where I can have some personal stuff displayed.
Staff Writer Edward D. Murphy can be contacted at 791-6465 or at: [email protected]