The Maker of the Aeron Chair Grapples with Politics and the Pandemic

Here is another superb article from for The New York Times in which he shares his conversation with Andi Owen. To read the complete article, check out others, and obtain information about deep-discount subscriptions, please click here.

Credit: Emily Rose Bennett for The New York Times

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As the C.E.O. of Herman Miller, Andi Owen has had to navigate a polarized work force while thinking about the future of the offices her company makes furniture for.

When Andi Owen took over the furniture company Herman Miller, in 2018, she didn’t expect to get caught up in politics. But these days, it seems no chief executive is safe from the culture wars.

Over the last year, Ms. Owen, a former executive at the Gap, has had to mollify a work force shaken by the same polarizing forces straining the nation. On her factory floor in the battleground state of Michigan, wardrobe choices — from Make America Great Again hats to Black Lives Matter T-shirts — have provoked arguments among employees. In response, Ms. Owen has tried to hold together a company already tested by the pandemic and slumping sales.

“We’ve tried to create opportunities for people to have frank conversations, for them to get together and discuss the hard topics of the day,” she said. “I don’t think these are new problems. But whether it’s about race, or inclusiveness, or whether it’s about what’s happening in the world today, these are all things you have to talk about.”

At the same time, Ms. Owen has been steering Herman Miller through a pandemic that closed offices worldwide — an existential threat to a company that makes office furniture and owns Design Within Reach, an upscale retailer.

Ms. Owen went to Interlochen Arts Academy, a Michigan boarding school focused on the arts. It was there that she first learned about Herman Miller, which produces iconic pieces by famous midcentury designers such as Isamu Noguchi and Charles and Ray Eames, and modern office staples like the Aeron chair.

Ms. Owen then studied art history at the College of William and Mary, and started working in retail. A job at The Gap led to a series of senior roles at the retailer, culminating in her leadership of the Banana Republic brand, before she moved to Herman Miller.

[Note: This interview was condensed and edited for clarity.]

Did getting a liberal arts degree have an impact on your career?

It’s helped me in a lot of ways. I learned a lot about people. I learned a lot about history. I learned a lot about observation. I’ve always approached any job I’ve ever had as a generalist and an observer of human nature.

Some people would say I’m not good at any one thing. I’m sort of OK at a lot of things. And that’s OK. I’ve surrounded myself with people that are a lot smarter than me. But I have a little bit of a broader point of view, and an experience that doesn’t necessarily pigeonhole me into thinking one thing or another.

I had a mom who was an educator and a dad who is this free spirit musician. And all my mom ever said to me was, “When you go to school, learn what you love. You’ll have plenty of time for a career and it won’t matter anyway.” So I really did spend time doing what I loved, and I think it’s been an advantage.

Unlike a lot of C.E.O.s, you never got an M.B.A.

I actually applied and got accepted. I was in my late 30s, and as I was talking to a woman in admissions and she said, “It’s great. We don’t have that many middle-aged women that are interested in these programs because they’re all having families.” And I was like, “Not me. I’m good.” And then of course I got pregnant and didn’t go.

You get to a certain point in your career where getting a standard M.B.A. is a little bit of a waste of time, because you’ve learned too much along the way. But I went back and got an executive M.B.A. at Harvard, which kind of filled in the gaps.

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Here is a direct link to the complete interview.

David Gelles writes the Corner Office column and other features for The New York Times’s Sunday Business section, To learn more about him and his work, please click here.


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