As workers untether from their desks and a new generation enters the workforce, it’s finally time to bi adieu to the dull, gray cubicle. Discover how one firm is speeding up this trend.
Who says the office can’t be sexy? The dark days of “Dilbert” and rows of boring gray cubicles are officially dead.
In their place are fun, colorful and collaborative environments, where innovation and technology drive new ideas and smart design enables new efficiencies.
That same creative, design-driven, entrepreneurial spirit lies at the heart of the business Todd Rieke has built. The CEO of Rieke Office Interiors (ROI), 2000 Fox Lane, Elgin, has carved out an impressive niche within Chicagoland’s office scene. On its surface, the company can outfit your office, either with used and refurbished furniture, or with custom-built furniture manufactured in-house. But at its heart, ROI is something more; it uses creative design to innovate interior spaces.
“Our industry is the opposite of custom,” says Rieke. “Custom doesn’t exist in our industry – it usually means a different type of fabric, honestly. If you go to any of the manufacturers in our industry and say you want a desk that’s an inch wider, it won’t happen unless you’re ordering 1,000 of them.”
As a full-service office equipment producer, ROI takes an idea from concept and design through manufacturing and installation. Just about anything you can imagine, ROI can create. Its Elgin showroom is filled with fresh takes on familiar objects: conference tables covered in shiny materials, workstations of all sizes, reception desks, filing drawers, to name a few. The team also installs flooring and has designed its own solutions for wall accents and artwork (markerboard cabinets, anyone?).
“The advantage is that we can completely maximize a client’s space,” says Rieke. “So, if they have columns – and many do – and if they have curved or angled walls – as some do – we can go wall to wall with their furniture.”
ROI’s ability to design custom solutions goes beyond catalog, cookie-cutter designs. For some of Rieke’s national clients, simple design choices can help to solve important customer problems. One example is the reception desk that assembles with thumbscrews. It’s been a perfect solution for a national hearing aid company, with roots in the suburbs.
“They’re always a little storefront, with no loading dock, and one doctor who works inside,” says Rieke. “They like a big reception desk, but it’s very cumbersome to ship that across the country on a semi, then get it off the truck without damaging it, then install it – or even just get it into a small storefront. Our design is so important because it’s all in modules. You don’t need a dock, and if something’s damaged, we can easily replace it.”
Rieke started his career in 1976, repairing office equipment for a Des Plaines dealer, but he quickly advanced.
“I saw that all the fancy cars in the parking lot were driven by salespeople, so I decided I wanted to be a sales person, because I like fancy cars,” he says. After seven years in sales, Rieke became a dealer manager for Haworth Inc., launching his own Haworth dealership a year later, with two partners. That partnership gave way to a new company, which led him to create his own dealership in 1992.
“I saw a need for used office furniture in the Chicago market,” Rieke says. “It grew very quickly, because I knew a lot of the designers and end users, and many dealers knew me from 18 years of experience in the industry.”
One year in, Rieke started refurbishing and repainting used equipment. By the second year, he had consolidated several warehouses into an 80,000 square-foot warehouse, where crews also manufactured new furniture. In 2004, ROI moved into its current 150,000-square-foot showroom and production center, located just off Randall Road along I-90.
That highly visible location provides a competitive advantage for ROI, despite its distance from downtown Chicago. The property taxes are much lower here than in neighboring counties, says Rieke, but equally important are the estimated 90,000 cars that pass his building each day.
“We have enjoyed the visibility,” he says. “When we moved in here 10 years ago, we experienced strong growth, I think from our longstanding credibility and the additional visibility.”
Although the location is a drive for downtown Chicago clients, Rieke has found that his colorful showroom is an important selling point.
“One thing we’ll do on occasion is to send out a limo to Chicago, and have a meeting with the client on the way to Elgin,” says Rieke. “We know that if we can get a client out here, we can get the deal. We’re not a big player like Steelcase or Norman Miller, or Haworth, so for us, seeing is believing.”
The used furniture business makes up just 3 percent of ROI’s sales today, but it provides another impoartant advantage. Clients are twofold: Those who want to get rid of their furniture, and those who need to outfit their offices quickly and affordably.
“The biggest reason we continue to sell used furniture is because it’s an unintentional loss leader,” says Rieke. “When someone’s updating or moving to a new office, the costs add up very quickly. You can’t cut corners on very much – you can’t buy used carpeting, you have to paint the walls, and you have the costs of moving furniture and equipment. There’s no good way to get a deal, but people feel like they can get a deal on used furniture.”
Occasionally, these businesses simply upgrade to a custom solution.
Rieke’s experience with used furniture has given his company a natural edge for some of the latest design trends. In particular, architects and companies keen on sustainability find benefits to locally repurposed, refurbished equipment.
“We’re a local manufacturer, and we’re not shipping from out of state with a lot of cardboard and Styrofoam packaging – not to mention fuel usage – like our competitors,” says Rieke. Thus, Rieke’s company can accumulate quick points toward LEED, the nation’s highest measure of sustainable construction.
A few years ago, ROI helped Rexam, a beverage can manufacturer in Chicago, to refresh its workspaces by integrating sustainability principles.
“Those panels between workstations were used panels, and we put new fabric on them and painted them,” says Rieke, pointing to a mockup sitting in the showroom. “It earned them a point toward LEED. We make a good partner because not many companies can offer local manufacturing and partially refurbished product that’s integrated with new product.”
The Rexam job also demonstrates another, very noticeable trend, in office design: the walls are coming down. This setup, like most products in ROI’s showroom, occupies a smaller footprint and uses short dividers between workers. Today’s office, unlike the cube farm, is far more open, more collaborative, and less in need of storage systems.
“When we first started out with office solutions, employees couldn’t get enough overhead storage and drawers,” says Rieke. “Now, it’s the opposite. They need almost none. If they have one set of drawers, that’s really all they need. They don’t need file cabinets, because everything is done electronically. File cabinets used to be huge for us. Now, we give them to the scrapper for $10 because there’s a glut of them and nobody’s buying.”
Technology also empowers workers to untether themselves from a single desk. Now, these mobile workers can go wherever they’re needed.
“The future office looks like this: Workers will have multiple places to work with their portable technology, and they will have different types of collaboration spaces, depending on privacy needs,” says Rieke. “When it comes to things like phone calls or meetings, we can go into another room. People are compressed, but there are more breakout areas and conference rooms. If people are on their cellphones, they can get up and walk out of the room.”
The shrinking footprint of our workstations has had an unintended consequence for furniture manufacturers, but a boon for businesses: Smaller workstations mean lower cost of equipment per employee.
“The kinds of cubicles that companies used to buy were maybe $3,000 or $4,000 per person,” says Rieke. “The taller panels, the overhead storage, the fabric, all the storage below, and the bigger cubicle – it all added up. What we’re selling nowadays is much smaller. And, it’s fun and cool.”
Nearly everything about the modern office is fun, cool and collaborative. Bright colors are accenting walls. New synthetic materials, some of which look and feel like wood or metal, are dressing up the boring gray landscape.
ROI’s “Impact” wall art enables companies to wrap a printed fabric covering around an aluminum frame. It’s perfect for massive wall art of photographs and company logos.
“You can change out the image whenever you want to, by having something else printed,” says Rieke.
The company’s “Liquid” panels, a plastic-like material with a wavy contour, can dress up signs, desks, walls – just about any space. Little touches like these, says Rieke, go a long way toward employee retention, especially when it comes to the younger crowd.
“There’s an awareness that the millennial is the future employee for all of our companies,” says Rieke. “A lot of influence that’s going on in the office space today is because of millennials, and that will continue in an aggressive way.”
Do It Yourself
Constructing your new office equipment begins in ROI’s 150,000-square-foot manufacturing space. Most furniture is built from composite wood and sheathed in synthetic materials. It comes with a lifetime warranty.
“We guarantee everything we make for life, except in cases of abuse, and that covers labor and materials,” says Rieke. “Nobody else has that warranty. We build things to last. It serves our clients well, and it serves us well, because we know we won’t have to go back in two years and fix something.”
About half of the company’s 65 employees build and assemble the final product. Several computer numerically controlled machines slice and drill the boards before the finishing materials are added. Stacks of finished boards await assembly, while finished products await shipment. Rieke estimates that it takes about four weeks to complete each of the nearly 25 projects the company handles each month.
Thanks to the computer-driven technologies in ROI’s design and manufacturing processes, creating custom elements is a breeze. Using parametric programming techniques, someone can quickly adjust any product’s dimensions without re-engineering that product.
“We can change the height, width, or depth of anything we’ve ever designed, just by plugging in a number,” says Rieke. “The software in the machine does everything else. So, if we wanted to build a bookcase that was an inch taller, two inches deeper and three inches wider, we can do that. Normally, a manufacturer would have to go back to scratch and reprogram or re-engineer every part of that bookcase.”
No Idea Left Behind
Ever the innovator, Rieke and his team constantly explore new ways to integrate custom office solutions. In early 2014, the company unveiled its 52/25 Challenge, a bold move to develop 25 new office furniture products in one year.
“We’re branching away from just being an office furniture company,” says Rieke. “Last summer, we started a new division, called Vertical Interior Design. Our new focus is on creating Chicagoland’s most creative workspaces.”
Every week, Rieke meets with a team of three designers, two salespeople and an operations manager to brainstorm new ideas and review prototypes. The first products present some clever solutions.
Want a sit/stand desk but can’t afford the expensive lifts? Try Bravo, an L-shaped desk, where one leg is a standard seating height and the other is built for standing height. Or, maybe you need a quirky flower planter that holds most anything and makes a great room divider? Try Grow.
Inside ROI’s new innovations laboratory, Rieke shows off a few more products that are either market-ready or nearly there. He stops at a long desk with a hole cut into its surface. A row of hanging folders fills the space.
“This comes from our sales department,” says Rieke. “When they’re working on a project, they won’t put a file away in a drawer because it’s ‘Out of sight, out of mind.’ If you look at their desks, they’ve got these stacks of files covering their desks. It doesn’t look very good, so this approach keeps them where they’re not out of sight and out of mind.”
Embracing the Google-esque collaborative environment, the 52/25 team also created a unique conference table.
“This is a dining table for 12 people,” says Rieke, pointing at an oversized white table, with a table tennis net stretching across. “The Ping-Pong net is just a quick-release handle, so once you take it off, it’s a whiteboard dining room table that has everything on board.”
One drawer contains pegs and dividers for holding plates, silverware and cups. The other drawer conveniently holds the table tennis equipment and markers. It’s so popular that Rieke can’t keep the prototypes in stock for long.
Rieke rolls open a retro-looking barn door (another 52/25 project), and reveals another gleaming space, filled with radical new ideas. This R Lab, as he calls it, has a roundtable and videoconferencing screen, small breakout spaces and a series of shelves for employees to assemble their own next big idea.
Rieke smiles; he’s just getting started.
“Our focus is on creating inspired workspaces,” he says. “And so, furniture can only take you so far, as it relates to having a cool office space. But what happens with the walls, the ceiling, the floors, the lighting, the acoustics – those are our big focuses right now, as a company.”
Rieke is such a believer in these custom solutions that he and wife Libby have built their own home within the ROI complex, using the company’s products.
Wherever you look, Rieke is using creative design and engineering to carve out his own niche.
“From our perspective, we’re such a small player in such a big market,” he says. “We’re so innovative that we see nothing but exciting possibilities.”