During NeoCon 2019, we sat down with two Coalesse leaders — Director of Global Design John Hamilton and General Manager Lew Epstein — and talked about the role and importance of the Coalesse partner relationships. Here’s their take on why these partnerships work so well.
From its start over 10 years ago, Coalesse has collaborated with a handful of select partners providing complementary products and capabilities. Why are partnerships so important to Coalesse?
John Hamilton: We are looking for companies that can complement us but at the same time bring something to the table that adds to what we’re doing and fits with the mindset or the approach that we take. We start with a business perspective: Is it a great business opportunity for both parties, for us and for our partner?
The partners we’ve chosen, they’re not quick decisions and they’re not made lightly. When we go into these partnerships, we’re always thinking they’ll be for the long term. It’s like a personal relationship — you want to make sure that people that you’re going to be partnered with, you can work with well, collaborate with well. And that they’re going to make us better, and that we can make them better.
I think that’s what we found over the years — that we’ve worked with a lot of great people, and it’s nice to see them getting better and us also getting better with them.
Lew, do you have anything to add to that?
Lew Epstein: Yes. When you take an applications approach to solving your customers’ needs, then you’re looking at the whole work setting. At times you can’t solve for the whole work setting with your existing portfolio. So, it’s a matter of filling in the gaps: ‘I need a partner who could provide me with’ — fill in the blank. It could be lighting or rugs, it could be a certain caliber of execution, it could be a capability with some unique materials.
So, if you think of a company like Sagegreenlife, that’s definitely outside our realm. If you think of Carl Hansen & Son, that’s a company with this rich Danish history, but the common theme is beautiful, modern craft. And so it’s, ‘What is their special medium or their capability that complements ours?’
John: And we don’t just sell their goods and send them a check. That’s not how we approach the people we want to work with. We’re looking for people that have good things, that have good thinking, and that are interested in trying to change the ways people are working — or the adjacent spaces that we see people trying to work in — in a way that they think is relevant, and it’s aligned with how we think it’s relevant.
It’s those things together that let us bring something new to the table. And together, we’re better.
Lew: Right. So if you set aside the products or the capabilities, the relationship is essential. One of the things I think we can be so proud of is the friendships we’ve established with the companies that we’ve been working with, really, for 35 years — even before the formation of Coalesse. When you get to know your partners on that level, it’s a different kind of relationship.
Could you say a little more about what’s special about the relationship between Coalesse and its partners?
John: It’s the mutual respect that the two parties have for each other. Our relationships are very respectful of each other and it’s that approach, or way that we operate with each other, that also keeps them open to us and wanting to stick around. And they have other opportunities — there are other companies that are courting them. But I think it’s the respect and the relationship that we have with each other that keeps them with us.
Lew: Easily. Two things to build on what John pointed out: First, that respect can only come with companies that don’t try to dominate the relationship. It would be easy for us to dominate because of our scale in relationship to some of our partners. That’s not an option that’s on the table, ever, because that wouldn’t be a good partnering behavior.
Another part is trust — getting close enough to a partner that you feel comfortable sharing part of your roadmap, and they do so with you as well. That’s trying to build a common view of where we might go together. You only get there with trust.
It’s equity, it’s balance, it’s fairness, it’s trust, it’s enjoying the partner in a genuine way.
What’s one thing you’ve learned from partnering?
John: I guess what I would say I’ve learned is that it’s a lot of work, and it takes nurturing, and it takes empathy, and it takes time.
Lew: Yes, it takes commitment. You can’t be a fair-weather friend.
John: You can go in thinking, ‘Oh, it’s going to be easy, we’re just going to add some new products.’ But it’s not so easy. It’s worth it — but don’t go into it lightly.
In future posts, we’ll continue our recap of this conversation by highlighting the partner selection process and what’s next for Coalesse partnerships.
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