Sunday, September 26News That Matters

Herman Miller C.E.O. Grapples With Politics and Pandemic

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.

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.

The Gap has obviously had its ups and downs. What did the company get right, and what did it get wrong over the years?

I was fortunate enough to be there for the really, really good years, when the stock was splitting every year. And I was there to watch the decline.

The Gap was at its best back in the day when the trusted editor was important, when you played a role helping people understand what they needed. We had a lot of success early on. But when you’re super successful and you don’t change, you get afraid. That ability to take risks — to think about how the company could be different, to reinvent yourself from the inside — it became impossible. And a lot of great people got fed into the wood chipper trying to bring The Gap back.

When the digital revolution hit I went into the online part of our business. And I remember one of my bosses telling me, “No one will ever buy clothes online. This is going to be the biggest mistake of your career. What are you doing?” That really was the way people were thinking back then.

We just didn’t change fast enough. And we were really out of touch with the customer. When you rely on a playbook that was successful in the past, and you don’t understand where your customer is going, it’s a prescription for disaster.

How did your time at The Gap shape your thinking about what you do at Herman Miller?

I interviewed a guy who became my head of digital. He had worked in retail, and he said, “Do you know what excites me most about coming to this industry? I feel like I’m going from making landfill to making heirlooms.”

I feel similarly. These are products that you hope you’re going to hand down. With some of the Banana Republic cashmere sweaters I made, I hope somebody hands those down. But I know the millions and millions of T-shirts we made probably aren’t getting handed down.

What happened when the pandemic hit, and how did you find your way out of it?

We’d never closed down our plants before, and there we were all of a sudden. We shut down all of our plants in 12 hours, and every day was a new lesson in crisis management.

There have been nights when I have sat down at the end of the day and shed a few tears because of it. The human toll from this pandemic has been not just the death toll, but people’s lives and jobs, whole industries wiped out. We capped out at 400 layoffs and people who opted out [about 5 percent of the work force], and we’ve done our best to keep that number where it is. But we’ve also designed a new product in times that we never thought we could. So it’s been a real balance of, “Hey, right now is really crappy,” and, “We’re going to get through it.”

Your core business has held up surprisingly well during the pandemic. Who is buying so much office furniture right now?

Our international business is strong. The parts of the world that have gotten out of the pandemic — certain parts of Asia, New Zealand — they’ve moved on.

Now the biggest questions that C.E.O.s and people that are planning space have are: “Hey, what does the distributed work force look like? What does my new office need to look like?” It certainly can’t be what it was. People don’t want employees to come back to what it was.

At first it was, “How do I make it safe? How do I put barriers everywhere?” Now the conversation has evolved to, “How do I make it a compelling environment?”

What are some of the answers to that question?

It is a fascinating variety. Financial companies are like, “We’re coming back to exactly what it was. We’re not going to change much of anything.” And then some of the tech companies in Silicon Valley are like, “Who needs an office ever again?”

I’m not sure either one of those are necessarily the answer. Along that continuum, most people are landing in a place of, “Gosh, what do people miss?” So whether that’s innovation, creativity or collaboration, how do you create environments where people can have those kinds of things? Depending on the industry, I think we’re going to see a whole lot of different solutions in this first year or two.

At Herman Miller, we’re taking all of our office environments and using this time while we have people working remotely to completely renovate them. They’re our own little test labs.

Herman Miller isn’t an inherently political company, so how do you deal with a moment like this, when there is so much rancor, including among your own employees?

We have got to unify, we’ve got to talk. We have to have respect and kindness and we have to listen. What happened at the Capitol was not OK. On the other hand, I have to make sure that we’re listening to one another, and are trying to find commonality.

Sometimes I yearn for the days when I was back in Berkeley, Calif., and I could walk down the street and everybody thought the same way. But you know, everybody is in Michigan. So you have to make the folks on the right feel comfortable, and you have to make the folks on the left feel comfortable. That’s a challenge as we get more and more divisive as a society. Sometimes you have to agree to disagree because you’re so far apart. But for us, it’s been about encouraging respect and encouraging kindness.