An Interview with Kimball President Phyllis Goetz
In July of 2019 Kimball International announced it had hired my friend Phyllis Goetz to be the president of the Kimball office furniture brand. I immediately fired off a congratulatory note saying, among other things, that once she’d had a chance to settle in, I wanted to schedule an interview. Time passes quickly (unless you’re quarantined) so it was seven months before we actually sat down to talk in her beautiful, bright new office at Kimball’s beautiful, bright newly redesigned headquarters.
While Phyllis has a warm and gregarious personality that immediately puts people at ease, she has the energy of a person who is driven – living life fully at an almost frenetic pace. Her career accomplishments are widely varied but demonstrate a laser focus on people and networks of people that has been central to her success. And plenty of success is what has brought her to this new position, where I’m completely confident she will succeed once again.
While I’ve known Phyllis professionally for a long time, I didn’t know a lot about her back story, so I asked her to share some of her personal background. She said, “My father was with Westinghouse, and in those days Westinghouse moved people around often, so I was in two grade schools, two middle schools, four high schools, and two universities. When you have that kind of experience, you either become very quiet and withdrawn, or you find a way to be very social, because otherwise you’re going to become very lonely.”
“But it’s funny – because we moved around so much, I think the impact my father had on my life was even greater. He was that constant when everything else was changing. He was the crazy one at Westinghouse – the first executive to wear a blue shirt back in the day when everybody had to wear a pressed white shirt. And he promoted women at Westinghouse. My dad pushed me. He’d ask me, ‘What do you want to do?’ ‘What is going to be satisfying for you?’ Throughout my career his wisdom has helped me with the big decisions, and I’m fortunate in that I still talk to him frequently.”
But building a career in the world of business was not the original plan for Phyllis. She graduated from college Magna Cum Laude with a double B.S. in Education and Special Education. While she has not spent much of her career as a teacher at the school level, she has continuously treated her jobs as if they were classrooms – sometimes learning and sometimes teaching, depending on what was appropriate in the moment. It’s a wonderful gift she has. I consider myself to be well educated, knowledgeable about our industry and fairly smart. But when I’m with Phyllis, I’m always aware that I’m learning things and that she’s open to learning anything I have to offer.
Her first job after graduating from college was as a merchandising manager with the shoe brand Hush Puppy. It didn’t take long for her to realize that the shoe company wasn’t a great fit, when she surmised that she was pretty much the token female in the company’s effort to meet certain employment standards.
“At that time my family was living in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and I got in a little skiing accident that had me laid-up for a couple of weeks, so I asked my dad to bring me the list of BIFMA companies,” Phyllis said. “I told him I was just going to apply and see what happens. I started with A and got a job with American Seating [laughs], and they brought me down to Texas. They had a neat program that allowed you to rank where you wanted to go based on where their offices were, and then the regional managers in those areas would interview you for fit with their team. I started in sales training with American Seating and then moved into sales. The funny thing is that the man who hired me in the Dallas office got transferred six weeks after I started there, so I say I learned how to sell from my showroom manager, but I didn’t think I really liked sales.”
A friend introduced Phyllis to Nigel Ferrey who had been hired by HON Industries (before it was HNI) to manage the merger of two of its disparate acquisitions, Corry, a predominantly steel manufacturer from Jamestown, New York, and Hiebert, a predominantly wood manufacturer from Southern California. She said, “I ended up joining Corry Hiebert as their director of training, because I knew how to sell, but didn’t think I liked it, and I knew education. Since they were trying to bring together wood people and metal people, they knew they had a significant training task ahead of them.”
While the merger of Corry and Hiebert wasn’t to be a lasting success, contacts she made along the way led her to Steelcase, where she landed a job as a dealer market manager assigned to work with BKM in Dallas. She was promoted to area sales manager, leading the sales team in the Dallas office. Next, she was asked to lead Steelcase Health, which she accepted with trepidation given that she felt she had little knowledge of the healthcare vertical market. But characteristically her concerns were swept aside by what she saw as the learning opportunities involved.
From that role and with the mentorship and collaboration of Steelcase Design Partnership President Mike Love, Phyllis co-founded Nurture, Steelcase’s healthcare division reflecting her vision of a healthcare company driven by providing research-driven solutions developed purely for healthcare.
“The market was so needing of things of beauty – things that give dignity and respect,” she said. “At the time, everything was so institutional and commercial. When we launched Nurture, I became the Vice President of Sales with the understanding that I wouldn’t have to move to Michigan. My husband is an aerospace engineer in DFW, and I didn’t want to move. But time passed and as Mike Love retired, it became clear that eventually I would need to be at the company headquarters.”
“When Herman Miller bought Nemschoff, I was offered an opportunity to join the team that was being led by Bob Von Kaenel, who had been recruited to help orchestrate expansion of Herman Miller’s healthcare vertical market, including development of the business strategy.
Bob was an amazing leader, and I loved working with him. I was at Herman Miller for six years when I unexpectedly found myself in the position of trying to decide what I wanted to do next.”
When she joined HKS in Dallas as Senior Vice President, Chief Development Strategist, Phyllis really believed she’d made her final career move, but when Kristie Juster, CEO of Kimball International, offered her the presidency of the Kimball brand she couldn’t pass up the opportunity. Approximately eight months in, she is being handed the additional challenge of managing through the COVID-19 outbreak. But that aside, she is settling into the new role, meeting dealers and clients, assessing the strengths of her organization and making plans to address the weaknesses, all with the intelligence, energy and people skills that are her hallmarks.
Another measure of a person’s energy is the degree to which they engage with the broader community in professional and service organizations. Kimball’s announcement of Phyllis’ joining the company said, “She has held numerous professional affiliations including Chair of the Planetree Visionary Design Network, a member of the AAHID Advisory Board and for The Center for Health Design, Goetz has served as a member of the EDAC (Evidence based Design Accreditation and Certification) Advisory Board, a founding member of the Built Environment Network (BEN) and a co-author of the first EDAC Study Guide. Goetz is currently affiliated with the College of Architecture, Planning and Public Affairs at the University of Texas, Arlington, holds an EDAC certificate through The Center for Health Design and is an Evidence based Design Mentor. In addition, she serves as President of Women in Healthcare Texas, is a jurist for the Touchstone Awards for the Center of Healthcare Design, and is Lean Six Sigma Yellow Belt Certified (LSSYB).”
I think Phyllis is a great role model and an excellent choice for the leadership position she holds. We wish her continued success.