School Climate & Safety

School Furniture Industry Tries To Get Its Desks in a Row

By Catherine A. Carroll — March 10, 2004 6 min read
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Whether schools are trying the latest experiment in cooperative learning, going back to basics, or trying some newfangled educational theory, students have to sit somewhere.

That keeps the school furniture industry in business, although lately its financial results have been showing some scuff marks.

School furniture represents an approximately $2.05 billion annual market, according to a study from the National School Supply and Equipment Association, an industry trade group based in Silver Spring, Md.

The market for new desks and chairs and other items, however, has been hurt by the cramped or shrinking budgets of many school districts.

According to the NSSEA, the seven top school furniture manufacturers in the country, based on sales volume, are Artco-Bell Corp., based in Temple, Texas; Bretford Manufacturing Inc. of Franklin Park, Ill.; CampbellRhea of Paris, Tenn.; Hussey Seating Co. of North Berwick, Maine; Irwin Seating Co. of Grand Rapids, Mich.; KI Inc., of Green Bay, Wis.; and Virco Manufacturing Corp., based in Torrance, Calif.

Larry Wonder, the vice president of sales at Virco, said sales at his company decreased from $287.3 million in 2000 to $244.4 million in 2002, the latest year for which figures are available.

Christine DeBrot, the director of marketing for Interior Concepts, a Spring Lake, Mich.-based furniture designer and manufacturer, said the market isn’t down; it’s just more competitive.

Ms. DeBrot noted that the office furniture market “took a nose dive” in 2001 because of the economic downturn. That spurred those furniture providers to begin bidding for school contracts, thus expanding the field of competition.

Working Harder

“You’ve got to work harder to get it; before it maybe fell into your lap,” Ms. DeBrot said of school sales.

Tight budgets are also affecting the way schools and districts order furniture. Ms. DeBrot said that when districts are looking to spend proceeds from bond measures, they buy higher-quality furniture because they believe they will only have such a large sum of money once.

Ron Schram, of the Norix Group, a West Chicago, Ill.-based furniture manufacturer and distributor, agrees.

Classroom Furniture from Virco.

This classroom furniture from Virco Manufacturing Corp.'s IQ line features a bold color and lumbar support in the chair.
—Courtesy of Virco

“I think that, for the most part, you see quite a bit of tradition—'This is what I ordered last time; I’ll order it again,’” he said. “But if you’re talking about a new school or a complete renovation of a school, there will be more research into what new products are available.”

Schools tend to defer to traditional styles when ordering replacements for broken or aging pieces, and they place such orders throughout the school year. But even that market has decreased significantly, said Mr. Wonder of Virco.

“Replacement furniture has gone by the wayside, because [schools] prioritize their funding,” he said.

Blake Myers, the national account manager for Royal Seating Ltd., in Cameron, Texas, has seen the same trend. Noting county, state, and federal budget gaps, he said districts “tend to make do with what they have for a little longer, or put off making a big [furniture] purchase for another year or so.”

Ergonomic Era

One of the focuses of new school furniture is providing a healthy indoor environment for students and teachers.

Barbara Worth, the associate executive director for public policy for the Council for Educational Facility Planners, International, said the landscape of today’s classroom differs from that of a generation ago. More schools these days prefer tables and chairs, enabling students to sit in groups, in contrast to single-pupil desks lined up in rows with the teacher at the front.

“Teachers don’t teach that way, and kids don’t learn that way anymore,” Ms. Worth said. Nevertheless, “more than half the schools in this country are 50 years old, and in lots of schools, kids are still scrunched in little desks,” she said.

Ergonomics has also come to the forefront in classroom furniture.

Richard Holbrook, who designed an ergonomic series of desks and chairs for Virco, said purchasers should take a number of factors into consideration when it comes to ergonomic school furniture, including who will be using it.

“The student body has changed over the past decades in America,” Mr. Holbrook said, using “student body” in its literal as well as figurative sense. Students now come from all over the world, he noted, and have all sorts of body types.

“Kids are also getting bigger earlier,” he added.

While budgets are tight nationwide, many principals have gained greater control over their schools’ spending, including over furniture ordering. That delegation of authority can cause tension in districts because principals will order what they view as best for their schools, but not necessarily for the district, said Anne W. Miller, the executive director of the Association of School Business Officials International, based in Reston, Va.

Individual school purchasing misses out on discounts that might be available for a larger district order, she said.

For the 163,500-student Fairfax County, Va., school district, that problem is mostly solved by its ordering structure. The district provides each cluster of schools with a district buyer. Principals are given “numerous options” for selecting furniture, said Anthony E. Crosby, the director of the district’s office of supply operations. In the cases of new schools or large-scale renovations, district officials meet with the principals to discuss how to furnish the schools.

“A principal might get this big pot of money once to either renovate or get a new school,” said Mr. Crosby. “They are always wanting the best look possible, but quality is the thing that we keep them focused on.”

The district then places the orders centrally for all of its 241 schools and centers, a practice that results in bulk discounts of as much as 50 percent, he said.

Mergers and Acquisitions

Meanwhile, the school furniture marketplace has been buffeted by corporate change and acquisitions in recent years. In 2002, Virco acquired Furniture Focus Inc., a provider of packaged furniture, fixtures, and equipment for public schools.

Also that year, School Specialty Inc., a major distributor of educational supplies based in Greenville, Wis., bought ABC School Supply, a competitor of its children’s-furniture division, Childcraft.

Last year, Excelligence Learning Corp., of Monterey, Calif., acquired Marketing Logistics Inc. Marketing Logistics’ Early Childhood Manufacturers Direct was a competitor of Excelligence’s Discount School Supply, which provides early-childhood furniture and equipment to preschools and child-care centers.

And in perhaps the largest acquisition in the sector, a private equity group made up of Harris & Hoimes, Key Principal Partners, and Leeds Weld & Co., and led by Jesse.Hansen & Co., acquired SAGUS International, of Temple, Texas, one of the country’s largest providers of school furniture, with approximate annual sales of $175 million.

Matthew Stein, a senior analyst for Eduventures, an education-industry research firm in Boston, suggests consolidations are happening now because school furniture companies are a good investment. Because of slow sales, companies are undervalued, he explains, and larger school suppliers gain an even stronger market foothold.

While the school furniture market is growing slowly right now, the acquisitions are smart because companies are likely to see increased growth over the next several years, Mr. Stein says.

“These are not ... fly- and-die companies,” he said. “You’re talking about stable, steady companies because there’s always going to be a demand for school furniture.”

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