Furniture that responds to technology innovation
~ By Emily Innes
Nienkämper, a leading fine furniture manufacturer with a home base in Toronto, Ontario, has requalified for the Gold Standard as one of Canada’s Best Managed Companies.
The Gold Standard level of the program, sponsored by Deloitte, CIBC, the National Post, Queen’s School of Business and MacKay CEO Forums, requires a company to maintain their Gold Standard status for four consecutive years — 2014 was the fifth year in a row for Nienkämper.
Owner Klaus Nienkämper is no stranger to awards as his company’s designs have been attracting attention for years. Another recent accolade was the prestigious 2014 GOOD DESIGN award handed out by the Chicago Athenaeum Museum of Architecture and Design, which recognizes innovation and superior design produced worldwide.
“I find that, especially when we are dealing with clients outside of North America, they get some comfort in knowing that we are one of the best run companies,” Nienkämper told Business Elite Canada. “That has great value for us and we certainly work hard to maintain that status . . . It really helps give (us) credibility.”
Nienkämper has also received recognition by designing furniture for royalty, celebrities, politicians, and high profile buildings. The company was commissioned to build furniture for former Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau.
Notoriety and awards, however, were not why Nienkämper got into the furniture business when he first arrived in Canada in 1960. He was seeking to forge his own path away from his mother’s “musty” antique business in Germany. Nienkämper began by importing furniture from Italy, but the process was too slow and not cost-effective enough, so he and his partner, Beatrix Nienkämper, began manufacturing European furniture with a licensed agreement to use designers works. In 1968, Nienkämper opened his first showroom in Toronto, which is still there today. In the 1990s, they opened a 120,000-square-foot factory, also located in Toronto, where all of their manufacturing takes place.
The company grew to incorporate Canadian and American designers and moved into the American market. They opened showrooms in major cities including Chicago, New York, and Los Angeles. Some have since closed, but the Chicago location remains open and this is where new furniture designs are introduced during NeoCon, an event held annually in June to showcase the latest offerings from the commercial interiors industry. New York still hosts a Nienkämper sales office.
“Over the years we have basically changed somewhat because with the Internet showrooms became less important. The website really was where people were going to, and we closed some of the showrooms,” said Nienkämper.
Technology has had a major impact on the company’s path and 15 years ago, in response to new innovations in the workplace, they shifted gears to design for corporate spaces.
“We saw that the offices were changing, they were getting smaller, but the meeting rooms and boardrooms were basically growing in great numbers,” he said. “We decided to focus on conference and boardroom tables and meeting room tables that have connectivity to voice, data, and power. That became a huge business because everybody wants to be connected.”
Though Nienkämper admits that they are beginning to lose count, he estimated that the company is producing at least 10,000 meeting and conference tables each year. The tables can be customized with a variety of power, data, video and audio solutions for singular or group requirements. Nienkämper sells their unique conference tables in a variety of shapes and designs, with a wide selection of features. This ability to diversify products is what Nienkämper believes sets his company apart from competitors.
“We are highly specialized and we have a factory set up in such a way that with an existing collection of furniture we can address clients’ special requests and special designs,” he said. “Since we have the flexibility, almost close to half of our business is customizing specific designs to suit the client’s needs and I think that separates us from a lot of other companies.”
Working closely with the information technology field has also influenced operations within the company’s warehouse and it is now highly computerized to increase speed, accuracy and, ultimately, quality. Nienkämper attributes much of the company’s success to their partners in the IT field who have helped them produce their award-winning conference tables, and to their aluminum manufacturer in Toronto that supplies the materials frequently used in their designs.
“We have always maintained if there are other companies that can do things better than we can, we should go there and let them do it for us,” he said. “And that has worked very well and that is always what we do.”
While Nienkämper began his business by bringing European designs to Canada — since Europe is considered more avant-garde in terms of fashion and furniture than North America — he ended up bringing their unique conference table concept to Europe.
“When we designed the boardroom tables that connect practically to the world and we went to Europe with it, they did not have any of that,” he said. “This was totally unknown and unheard of there. This was 10 years ago and though they have now adopted it . . . it took them a lot longer for them to do it than it took us to do it.”
Keeping up on evolving technology can be challenging, but Nienkämper said their in-house team of eight designers always keeps their fingers on the pulse. They attend trade shows, including events in Europe to learn about new machinery and concepts.
“We are constantly out there to see what is new and what is better,” he said. “It is an ongoing process.”
Investing in their employees is an important company value. “Many of (our employees) have been with us for 30 years, so we have a very stable, experienced workforce and I think that is also our strength.”
Nienkämper’s son, also Klaus, has followed in his father’s footsteps, but also explored his own path. The company has been severed and the 300 King St. E. location in Toronto has been revamped by the younger Klaus to focus on home furniture. The residential line, Klaus by Nienkämper, buys and sells from the original Nienkämper company.
As for Nienkämper senior, he wants to continue designing furniture that incorporates new technology and innovation for as long as he can. Though, he adds, he does have very capable employees who would be able to carry on the contemporary tradition.