Prep Continues for the Chicago CBRE Furniture Forum: Unraveling Furniture Frustrations

03/15/2017 04:13 pm ET

When panelists committed to joining CBRE’s April Furniture Forum: Unraveling Furniture Frustrations, few – including the planning team – had a complete picture of what, exactly they were signing up for. What started as an idea to drive a healthy discussion around issues within the contract furniture specification process has already evolved into a complex – and sometimes heated – discussion about parts of the process that can and cannot be changed … and the Forum is still officially two months away.

The process started with a mapping session on February 9th in CBRE’s Chicago offices, facilitated by Contract Consulting Group (CCG). Strategically selected individuals from three categories were brought together: dealer, manufacturer, and architecture and design (A&D).

Panelists included the following:

Christina Brown, Eastlake Studio

Scott Delano, Wright Heerema Architects

Russell Frees, Henricksen

Bernie Donaldson, Office Revolution

Jill Stewart, Haworth

Diana Brogen, Ruder Group

All were asked to “take off their competitive hats” and work through a mapping exercise that defines the process – and challenges – from their category’s perspectives. One of the biggest, clearest takeaways from the February 9th session was that the corporate real estate project management (PM) role was missing in the room, and desperately needed to be part of the discussion.

In response, Julie Deignan, head of CBRE’s Furniture Advisory Services Group, pulled in Project Management Leaders Abe Gamboa and Lauren Brightwell to take part in the process. The team quickly caught up with the rest of the forum prep team by conducting their own “mini-mapping session” with a small group of Project Managers. Then, all three original mapping teams (Dealer, Manufacturer, and A&D), plus the Project Management team (Lauren and Abe) were invited to present and discuss with all 51 Chicago-based CBRE Project Managers on February 24th. Each of the Dealer, Manufacturer, and A&D panelist teams presented their maps, followed by the Project Management team. Many of the teams were self-deprecating in order to bring humor to what might otherwise feel like a finger-pointing discussion. One team even kicked off with this cartoon:

dilbert.com

While many laughed at the preposterousness of this cartoon, the truth is that with awareness, some simple yet impactful changes can be made by multiple parties within the furniture specification process. Brightwell said, “What surprised me most is that there are a few relatively easy adjustments we can make from a project management standpoint that could have big impact in addressing primary pain points and challenges in the current process.” Many others were surprised to learn all that happens “behind the scenes” from their categorical counterparts. Gamboa echoed, “It was surprising to see how much time is required to even get an opportunity, let alone the effort in amount of reiterations required to win business.” Both agreed that with a bit of education and transparency, we as an industry can do better for our clients.

By presenting each map as what is happening today, it was easy to create an open, honest, and unassuming discussion between the 51 PMs, and six panelists. Direct questions were asked without defensiveness, such as, “How many A&D truly understand the details of the product that they are specifying?” to which an incredibly honest answer was given in response by Scott Delano of Wright Hereema. (We’ll save the details of his response for the Forum.) And, in fact, Christina Brown, Partner with Eastlake Studio said, “One of the biggest surprises for me in this process has been the attitudes. All parties have truly left their ego at the door and are working together to get to the root of the issues.”

One of the most deliberated topics in the room was around when to bring on the furniture team. When asked, “What do you hope this conversation will change about how CBRE approaches projects?” Gamboa responded, “First, I do hope this does exactly that – changes the way we approach projects and, in fact, engage furniture dealers/manufacturers sooner.Jill Stewart, Regional Manager with Haworth stated, “This certainly would help with the ‘chutes and ladders’ approach to how we as manufacturers have to tackle projects today. With every rebid, it’s like we are either climbing a ladder or sliding back down.”

There simply was not enough time to get through all the discussion that wanted to happen in that room, and, in fact, many side conversations and additional mapping sessions will be happening in preparation for the April 20th Forum. The goal of the Forum is not to have another session to complain about what is wrong, but to facilitate a productive discussion from which participants feel they have the ability to affect change. In response to the discussion, Neil Pendleton, CBRE’s Senior Managing Director, Midwest Region, said, “This just reaffirmed why we have our Furniture Advisory Services Team. There are so many assumptions that people think they know, that even those ingrained in this industry really don’t. Until we all recognize what we don’t know, the furniture specification process is not going to change or improve.”

Much of the discussion affirmed the reason we are having this discussion NOW. Today, we are in a fascinating period of change in the Contract Furniture industry where complexities are on the rise – with ancillary becoming an increasing percentage of each floor plate – while expectations of project timelines seem to be getting faster and faster. While the ancillary category in theory is simpler to specify than systems furniture, it is requiring more manufacturers to be included on one project, which may ultimately, fundamentally change the principles this industry was structured upon: specification of panel systems. What will those changes be? Well, we still have a lot of work to do, and we look forward to involving many more people in a productive, proactive discussion around driving the change that needs to happen for the good of our clients.

Pendleton shared his thoughts looking forward to the Forum, “In just under two months, to think we will have over 100 people in our Chicago office to hear what we have learned through this process all because they recognize that there are challenges with the way things work today. They want to be there to listen in and see if they can be a part of changing the game. It’s not a game that will change overnight by any means, but if you are going to change the process it has to start somewhere. This will be the start of real change.”

The CBRE Furniture Forum: Unraveling Furniture Frustrations is sponsored by Bellow Press, publisher of Business of Furniture and Workplaces magazines; Allsteel, Knoll, Teknion, Herman Miller, Humanscale, and KI, and is facilitated by Contract Consulting Group.

This article originally published in the Business of Furniture publication from Bellow Press on March 8, 2017.

About the author: Amanda Schneider, LEED AP is a trends researcher, blogger for the Huffington Post, and the founder of Contract Consulting Group www.contractconsultinggroup.com, a research-led strategy firm serving the Contract Interiors Industry.

As the author of this post, it is required that I disclose that Contract Consulting Group is involved in the facilitation of CBRE’s Furniture Forum event and is in a paid relationship with CBRE. The Furniture Forum is scheduled for April 20th in Chicago, IL and is by invite only.

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