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Via targets ‘sweet spot’ in seating market

John Seelmeyer

Trenton Harris became president and chief executive officer of Via Inc. in September 2008, just in time for the moon, the stars and all the planets to fall on him.

During four difficult years, Harris spearheaded projects ranging from a major re-branding to development of new suppliers to creation of a new management team for the Sparks-based manufacturer of office chairs.

It’s paying off.

Sales during the first six months of the company’s current fiscal year are up 34 percent, a new product line is generating substantial buzz among interior designers and office planners, and Harris was invited to the White House to discuss Via’s efforts to improve its sustainability.

The company’s employment about 90 workers is nearly back to its pre-recession level.

“The things we’ve been working on are going from the investment mode to the harvest mode,” says Harris.

Founded 25 years ago, the privately held company initially made its name as a quick-turnaround manufacturer, promising to ship any seating in its catalog within 48 hours.

That promise still remains, even though Via Seating’s multitude of chair styles executive, conference, task, lounge, multipurpose and fabrics and accessories mean that buyers have their choice of 1 million options.

The company’s 100,000-square-foot factory and warehouse at 205 Vista Boulevard is filled with fabric and chair components ready for fast assembly.

But Harris and Nora Fenlon, Via’s vice president of sales and marketing, have reoriented the company’s focus so that it’s not just a quick-ship outfit anymore.

Today, Via targets what Fenlon describes as the “sweet spot” in the office interiors business mid-priced chairs, somewhere between the cheapies sold at big-box stores and the expensive seating sold by national manufacturers such as Herman Miller.

At the same time, Harris and Fenlon, both of whom have suffered from serious back ailments, also focus on ergonomically sound seating.

The “sweet spot” it’s the slogan that drives the company’s new branding also includes a tight focus on sustainability.

The company, for instance, is among participants in a pilot program sponsored by the federal government to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

That effort brought an invitation for Harris to participate in a White House roundtable on sustainability last March, and the company has earned third-party certification of its sustainable practices through a office-furniture industry group.

“It’s a competitive opportunity, an opportunity to take a leadership position,” says Harris. “It’s also the right thing to do.”

That sort of work is also easier to accomplish, he says, while the company is growing. It’s far more difficult to retrofit sustainable practices than it is to introduce them into production that’s just beginning.

The past four years also have seen a dramatic shift in the company’s supply chain.

About 75 percent of its raw materials and components were sourced from foreign suppliers before the recession. Today, Harris says, more than half are coming from American suppliers.

With its renewed focus, Harris says he expects the company to reach $50 million in annual sales and more than double its current employment within the next five years.

The company sells its seating products through a network of independent sales representatives who work with office designers and furniture retailers.

The experts in Via’s distribution channels, along with consultants in specialized disciplines such as marketing, provided important feedback as the company repositioned itself.

“We had to listen,” Harris explains, “and we were smart enough to know that we had to listen ….”

“… and not just to each other,” adds Fenlon.

SIDEBAR

More than fresh geography

Via Inc. got more than a new home when it moved to Sparks in 1987.

Entrepreneur Thomas Sorensen had launched the manufacturer in Hawaii under the name “Interiors Via European Design Team.”

A receptionist in Sparks, however, said the name was far too long for her to say every time she picked up the phone, and executives agreed to rename the firm.

At three letters, the new name is about as short as it gets.