Stocking the workplace
Written by: John Letzing & Klára Smolová
Photo: René Jakl, Tomáš Kubeš
As major local firms centralize operations into large office complexes, fresh opportunities are being created for suppliers prepared to provide everything from copiers to garbage cans.
TONY SHEE has a question: “How do you make office furniture interesting?” Shee, managing director of Kinnarps (pronounced ‘Shin-arps’) in the Czech Republic, an international producer of office interiors, is posing the question in a strictly rhetorical sense. Because he could spend hours, days even, expounding on the fascinating minutiae – from color philosophy to ergonomics – of a proper working environment. Just try him.
The Czech market provides a tough test for Shee’s skills as a salesman (as it does that of salespeople at all office supplies firms here), as its limited number of large potential clients creates fairly intense competition. “It’s not like other countries where the big head offices are located, where they have tens of thousands people,” says Shee. “That’s a juicy piece of bone for me, but it’s a dream.” The reality here is that the biggest single entities, a Czech Telecom or a Česká spořitelna, carry between ten and 15 thousand employees at dispersed locations. Their largest single offices make up a small and much sought after group. Techo, a Czech-owned office interiors firm more than a decade old, has supplied Česká spořitelna for the past seven years. Yet, Techo must still look abroad for the sort of contracts that make or break an enterprise. It recently won a tender to supply the Met, the Meteorological Office in Wales, worth CZK 100 million – which will, according to Techo director Jiří Kejval, effectively double revenues for the year.
Even among what big potential clients there are here, the degree to which they will be willing to tailor an attractive work place is a bit nebulous. Whether a firm will be willing to invest considerably in something like office interiors, for example, “depends on the maturity of the customer,” says Eric Balloffet, general manager of American-based office interior supplier Steelcase. Someone like Shee at Kinnarps can spend an entire sales call discussing the importance of ergonomics or color, but will customers listen, or care enough to spend any extra? According to Shee, soon they won’t have a choice. With EU entry and, presumably, a new set of professional standards on the horizon, employers need to act now – and suppliers need to be ready to accommodate them. “This market has only a certain number of (potential clients), and to acquire them we (suppliers) just can’t do it like the old days, you know, here’s your table and chair, now work there,” says Shee. “People who are qualified will demand a good working environment.”
It should be noted that the Czech office supplies market has already undergone radical change – smaller firms have progressively been stamped out by bigger players capable of offering complete product lines and full services. “Four or five years ago there were a lot of small companies on the market,” says Techo’s Kejval, who adds that progressively tighter quarters draw him into more intimate competition with big foreign players.
Who needs what and why
“Our furniture is like Legos – they can be taken down and rebuilt, and when they’re moved and end up missing a few pieces we replace them,” says Kejval, underlining what separates the serious competitors in office supplies from others – an ability to implement huge and flexible orders. When someone like consulting firm Ernst & Young, for example, announces a tender for supplying the offices of its 400 employees in Prague, including outfitting its new location on Prague’s Karlovo náměstí, it can now afford to be choosy like never before. Petra Di Nicola, facilities manager for Ernst & Young, says, “most of the suppliers, in order to succeed in the (annual tender), constantly improve their services,” and adds, “as competition grows fast on this market… suppliers are trying harder to meet clients’ needs. Some gaps are only in terms of offered goods.”
Kateřina Voráčková, senior manager at Pricewaterhouse-Coopers, which went with Steelcase for the outfitting of the interior of its Czech flagship office on Kateřinská street, also indicates a need for any potential supplier to be as flexible as possible, and to be “able to customize.” What a firm like PwC (with 550 employees in Prague) spends on office supplies is nothing to scoff at – Voráčková says that the firm spends up to CZK 80,000 per month on stationery alone.
Petra Di Nicola
Tony Shee, of Kinnarps, earned his stripes in the Czech market nine years ago by designing offices for a new start-up TV station called Nova. Shee adamantly believes that it’s more than flexibility that his customers are after. To him, the subject of what color to paint an office alone can require lengthy considerations that rely on symbolism more than the financial bottom line. Yellow, he tells us, is a get-up-and-go color, while green means comfort and security, and orange is ideal for meeting rooms. Why orange? Well, it’s the color of fire, around which humans have naturally congregated since we were hunting mastodons and living in caves. Whether you buy this bit of psychologizing or not, Shee makes one point that’s difficult to refute – “20% more sick leaves occur in buildings that are gray or black.”
Kinnarps’ new showroom, now being finished in Průhonice, is meant to be more of an art space, to hear Shee tell it, than a sales office. Physically, the building is a radical new addition to the countryside east of Prague, an unflinchingly modern construction of wood and glass designed to look like a boat floating beneath a suspension bridge. It’s an ambitious venture, clearly indicating that Kinnarps has a good deal of confidence in the future of the office interiors market here. Kinnarps is not alone – most observers agree that as the local economy develops, more and more firms will be able to afford an unprecedented level of style and comfort. And of course, in the face of rigid ergonomics standards imposed within the EU, many soon won’t have a choice.
A key area of the local market as-yet untapped is public facilities. Currently cash-strapped and usually slightly better than putrid to look at, public offices will likely be able to dramatically upgrade their environs in the not-too-distant future. “That’s virgin territory at the moment,” says Shee, adding, “the ministries, hospitals, post offices, police stations, they will all have the possibility to invest in better furniture, a better environment and a better life.”
|Local player makes good
When a young Jiří Kejval launched the firm Techo with schoolmates back in 1991, most offices here were of a piece – dreary, uniform and overwhelmingly bland. Kejval and friends put up an assembly area right on campus in Prague, and things moved fast.
Since the beginning of the nineties, two large firms, Activa and Papirius, have become established on the market of wholesalers delivering office equipment to corporate headquarters. Both of these purely Czech firms started from scratch, and today they have tens of thousands of clients. Their offers include thousands of catalog items, and they set the market’s tempo and trends. In addition to them there are dozens of smaller firms, but they compete on the basis of prices rather than services.
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