HON & Unika Vaev Partner Up

HON Preside Conference Table, Merit Chairs; Unika Vaev Ecoustic Sculpt. Images courtesy of HON ceiling tiles.

I recently noticed that a Unika Vaev ad in officeinsight was about a partnership between it and HON. Ever since reading Strategic Alliances: Three Ways to Make Them Work, a 2008 business best-seller by Steve Steinhilber, I’ve been fascinated by how and why companies choose to partner instead of merging or acquiring and vice versa.

In the book Mr. Steinhilber writes, “I believe there are three reasons why alliances are a must-do investment for any company competing in the global marketplace:

  1. Product life cycles: Product life cycles are becoming shorter and shorter. This requires companies to quickly achieve global share and significant volumes to compete and generate adequate return on investment. Few companies have the necessary ability and capital in all segments of their value chain to achieve these objectives operating solo.
  2. Anytime/ anywhere communication: Enhanced communication technologies and cheap bandwidth are enabling services and capabilities to be delivered from anywhere in the world. That puts severe pressure on companies as products and processes become commoditized and static value chains become disaggregated. You must focus on what you do well while relying on partners to complete the pieces of the value chain needed for your business to grow profitably.
  3. Customer Expectations: Both businesses and consumers expect and demand more integrated solutions to solve their needs, pushing companies to work together to create integrated offerings. No company has enough expertise or capital to go it alone. Having the skills to create, modify, and sustain these integrated solutions will be key for any company in the evolving global environment.”
HON Preside Table and bench, Flock Poufs; Unika Vaev ScreenTrak Alto hanging screen.

Unika Vaev was listening when reports of worker dissatisfaction started coming in, early in the transition from cubicles to benching and open plan solutions. Recognizing a coming opportunity for acoustic treatments to mitigate the distracting noise problems workers were complaining about, Unika Vaev sought the advice of experts in the acoustics field – acousticians, if you will – to guide its product development process. It joined the Acoustical Society of America (ASA) and attended the association’s conferences. And it developed scientifically derived metrics for its products, in order to be able to help specifiers and their clients reach demonstrable results in the real world.

As a result of these efforts, Unika Vaev, a respected textile provider, has become a solid consultative partner to its client specifiers and their clients. Its acoustic products comprise the fastest growing part of Unika Vaev’s offering; and it is growing very fast.

In 2018, HON hired Whitney Architecture to design its NeoCon Showroom, and Whitney Architecture specified Unika Vaev acoustic treatments throughout. So far, business as usual. Not a huge sale, but a sale that none-the-less Wick Wolf, President & COO, and Kurt Hanson, Vice President at Unika Vaev, recognized as a particular sale affording them significantly broader exposure to NeoCon attendees than their own exhibit in their own showroom.

HON Coordinate height adjustable tables, Accelerate panels, Ignition 2.0 Chair; Unika Vaev Ecoustic Foliar Wall Tile, Ecoustic Banner Baffles.

And then the predictable happened. HON dealers and sales reps, who spend their lives on the front lines, recognized that the Unika Vaev acoustics products fill a need they confront every day – a need they didn’t currently have an answer for from HON. So, as you might expect if you’ve ever spent any time with a dealer or a sales rep in our industry, they quietly and calmly requested (joke) that HON add acoustic products to its portfolio.

At that point, HON could have done what many manufacturers have done and set out to develop a set of products similar to the ones Unika Vaev had provided for its NeoCon showroom. But members of the HNI family are well-schooled in the discipline of lean thinking, so rather than setting out to create a redundant set of products they invited Messrs. Wolf and Hanson to Muscatine for an exploratory visit.

HON Preside Mobile Table, Flock poufs & Bar Stools; Unika Vaev ScreenTrak Alto hanging screen.

Commenting on what makes partnerships work, in his book Mr. Steinhilber says, “So frequently in business it comes down to relationships between partners. Building and maintaining these connections requires soft skills that are hard to teach and difficult to quantify.”

I spoke to Anna Wizner, Director of Product Marketing, Open Plan at HON, and Erin Rada, Product Marketing Manager – Systems, Benching, Height Adjustable, in a Zoom interview. Ms. Rada said, “When the team from Unika Vaev came to Muscatine, I thought they were a great group of people; our personalities clicked. That was one of the first things that struck me. I thought, ’Hey we could really do something here, not only with the product, but with the people.’ And I think that has borne-out. We really work well together.

“We learned a little about their backgrounds and what their capabilities are and what they were working on. And as we walked through our showroom and showed them what we were working on, I think everybody’s wheels were spinning in terms of the multiple ways we could benefit each other and each other’s spaces and in my opinion we were really thinking of the big picture right from the start.”

HON Ruck Barstools and Chairs, Preside Tables; Unika Vaev Softline Floor Screen

Anna Wizner added, “Not many of our client companies have the luxury of having great sound insulation systems and acoustic treatments and solutions embedded within the walls and architectural structures. So having free standing screens and acoustic products that can be added to spaces is extremely important.

“We like to look into our customers’ needs trying to really understand what all the challenges are. We see acoustics as part of those finishing touches to a space. They’re not necessarily functional and functional alone, they can almost be considered as a piece of artwork providing a splash of color that really finishes a space off. So Working with Unika Vaev helps our portfolio of products be even more comprehensive.”

HON Coordinate height adjustable table, Solve Task Chair; Unika Vaev Ecoustic Matrix wall tile.

In a completely different Zoom interview (isn’t the pandemic great!), Mr. Wolf said, “HON’s distribution network is awesome, and when they saw our products in the HON showroom at NeoCon, they liked what they saw. We know we’ve got a great group of acoustic products and we have tremendous flexibility, allowing us to respond to the challenges faced by HON dealers. They can sell and install our products right along with the HON products they’re selling every day.

HON Mav Lounge Chair, WestHill Sofa, Scramble table; Unika Vaev ScreenTrak Hanging screen.

“Once we all agreed there was a great partnership in the offing, we worked closely with Anna Wizner, Erin Rada and the product marketing team to develop a portfolio of ceiling and wall acoustic products as well as desk and floor standing screens in a selection of colors that are now standard for HON. The group of products they’ve adopted as standard gives their dealers the ability to respond to most acoustic issues effectively – and with a colorful flair.”

It seems to me the two companies have checked all of Steve Steinhilber’s boxes for making an alliance that will work well for both of them. We will be watching and following up to see if it has legs – whether it grows or shrinks, and whether Mr. Steinhilber’s observations about strategic alliances proves to be on the mark here in our own industry.

HON Astir Collaborative Collection, Scramble tables; Unika Vaev MixMax Freestanding folding screen.