Furnware – reshaping learning outcomes
Hamish Whyte, owner of school furniture manufacturer Furnware, says the company is committed to producing furniture that enhances educational environments, leading to better learning outcomes – as Michael Smith reports.
Opening its doors for business in 1934, Hawkes Bay-based Furnware concentrated on producing high-quality wooden furniture. The firm’s expertise was put to good use in the immediate post-war period as it took advantage of opportunities in the expanding education sector – making furniture for schools nationwide.
Initially school chairs and tables were all about durability and functionality, gradually evolving to emphasise comfort and support. By the 1980s, Furnware had expanded its range to include mobile units, trolleys, lab benches and stools – as it looked to support the growing focus on better learning.
New financial model
A critical point on the timeline of the firm’s development came in 1989 when the Government introduced ‘Tomorrow’s Schools’ – major educational reforms that allowed schools to take control of their budgets and administration.
Whyte says Furnware went from one customer, the Ministry of Education, to 2,500 customers. “The school gates opened and we relished the chance to find out what teachers and students really wanted. Our sales force was born … and we gained some genuine insights into how schools operate.”
The reforms proved a godsend for the firm, coming at the back end of a period of economic deregulation that hit New Zealand manufacturers hard. “We had already experienced the effect of cheaper imported furniture on our domestic kitchens and caravans businesses, and it taught us a valuable lesson – we had to innovate or die. As a result we obtained a point of difference by concentrating on great Kiwi design, ergonomics and, most importantly, the students who were using our furniture.”
By the end of the next decade – following extensive research into what schools overseas were doing to improve learning spaces – Furnware was marketing its products in Australia, the USA and Europe.
Whyte says the firm continued to develop and refine its product offering. “We measured over 20,000 children, and developed chairs and tables that were sized to match students’ dimensions and ergonomically designed to support students in their different activities – whether leaning back and listening or leaning forward and concentrating. Through the application of innovative design, Furnware was now producing high value-added product with protectable intellectual property.”
Bodyfurn®He adds: “In collaboration with partners in academia and government, we then commissioned an independent report from the University of Waikato’s Institute of Educational Research to investigate the introduction of our Bodyfurn® range to a cross-section of students.
“The institute used a ‘before and after’ analysis of four classrooms of primary and intermediate students using Bodyfurn® chairs and desks for the first time. Data was triangulated from video analysis, interviews, questionnaires and focus groups to include both qualitative and quantitative data from students and teachers.
“The researchers videoed the classes and, using computer software, carefully observed the classroom dynamics and behaviour before and after the new furniture was introduced. They also asked the students and teachers what they thought – individually and in groups.”
The report concluded that Bodyfurn® furniture was more comfortable and easier to use, increased concentration and reduced off-task behaviour. Put simply, Bodyfurn® made classrooms better places for learning.
Whyte is keen to emphasise the important strategic role played by the firm’s sales and marketing team. “Our approach to business is dictated by our customers. Unlike other furniture sellers – who compete on price and operate via brochures – we spend time with teachers and pupils, talking about their learning spaces and working with them to find solutions to their problems.
“We utilise knowledge of best-practice teaching and apply furniture solutions following a questions-based sales methodology. This has led us to gaining a deeper understanding of the changes in schools brought about by technological advances and new pedagogies, and we are seen as world leaders in the field.”
Also key to Furnware’s success has been its investment in design over the years. Design Manager Scott Fitzsimons says most of the current designers have a background in industrial design, mixed with extensive experience in spatial/kitchen/product design, cabinetmaking and education.
“Our mandate is to build on the firm’s strong history, and to further enhance the learning experience through creative, user-centred design. We are constantly refining/improving our current range to ensure our products remain relevant to the ever-evolving landscape of today’s innovative learning environments.”
Fitzsimons says the team works closely with sales and marketing, “enabling us to get a holistic view of potential commercial opportunities, capturing valuable customer insights and identifying latent needs in the market. Yet it is equally important for design not to be swayed or influenced by any preconceived notions or expectations from within the business, and to ensure we design and develop our products with the focus firmly on the user experience.”
Materials of choice
According to Fitzsimons, that focus includes a thorough investigation of appropriate product materials. For example, the Bodyfurn® range of high-tensile steel and injection-moulded polypropylene seats – designed to be flexible and dynamic so students “can sit forward or lean back in comfort with no pressure points” … keeping them on task.
He says the seats “are extremely robust, able to stand up to the heavy use of the learning environment. Our products are put through rigorous strength and endurance testing to ensure they exceed international standards, which is why we stand by them with a 10-year warranty.
“Using polypropylene allows us to produce high-volume, high-accuracy, high-quality products fast and efficiently. And all our polypropylene items [tote trays, seats, etc.] are recyclable – as is the steel in our products. Where possible we strive to use more sustainable materials with a view towards recyclability at end of life. Many of our products also have an Environmental Choice New Zealand certification.”
The success of Furnware’s product range is reflected in the firm’s impressive sales growth – exemplified in recent years by an increased domestic market share and expanding sales in Australia and Asia. Whyte says the business grew by 13% in 2015, 24% in 2016, “and we are currently looking at 39% for the 2017 year. This growth has come with a significant investment in employees – from 87 casual and permanent employees in 2015 to 151 today.”
And Whyte says the logistics team works with Furnware’s global partners to minimise any potential limitations associated with the firm’s Hawkes Bay location. “Our product is designed to maximise the space savings in containers. The convenience of Napier port ensures as good a service as anywhere in New Zealand – and our partnership approach with schools means we can plan optimum delivery times to coincide with each school’s timetable.”
The Furnware experience shows there is a future in New Zealand for furniture manufacturing. However, according to Whyte, “it is not in low-cost bulk supply, as New Zealand’s geography and economies of scale make it uncompetitive. Through clever design, quality, pride and, most of all, a focus on adding value and having a deep understanding of what the customer needs, New Zealand companies can compete on the world stage.”