This post continues our conversation with Coalesse Director of Global Design John Hamilton and General Manager Lew Epstein about collaborations between Coalesse and our partner companies. To read about what these partnerships bring to the table, see the first part of our conversation recap.
Coalesse has a history of collaborating with partner companies that provide complementary products and capabilities. How do you select your partners — what does the vetting process look like?
Lew Epstein: It’s rigorous because we don’t limit ourselves to companies that are in close proximity to us. Some businesses base partnership decisions on driving distance or country of origin, such as, ‘We’re an American company, so we will only partner with American companies.’ We have zero limitations. As a result, we have partners from all over the world. That increases the number of choices we have — and then to vet those choices is a rigorous process.
John Hamilton: It’s almost like dating. You might see somebody and think, ‘Oh, that person looks interesting,’ and you might walk over to say hello and if things go well you have a nice conversation. Then you might say, ‘Hey, maybe we could go out for dinner sometime?’ and you slowly build that relationship and mutual interest in each other.
That’s how these things work for us as well. We might see a beautiful chair or a nice table and think, ‘Wow, that would look fantastic in our portfolio.’ But how our conversations develop with that company truly define how we think about a future partnering relationship with them.
Lew: It takes that process and it takes that time. It’s not just, ‘Hey, that’s really nice; let’s sell some of those.’ It’s so much more. Partners need to add value to what we do and to our story.
How and why have you chosen the partners that you have? Carl Hansen & Son, Viccarbe Imports, EMU and the others — what makes them different from other potential partners?
John: I think it’s an affinity. They have a way of looking at the problems they’re thinking about that aligns with our way of thinking. They’re thinking about work and the types of workplaces with a similar sensibility. They have a visual language and taste that’s aligned with ours.
Coalesse, especially its visual style and language, has a California, mid-century modern, contemporary look and feel, and there are many European companies that have that as well. So as you start asking, ‘Why that company?’ The answer is usually that they have a certain look and feel that aligns with us, they’re going after different problems but doing things in similar ways, and the questions they are chasing are intriguing to us as well.’
Lew: A couple of examples to build on what John said: If you take Viccarbe as an example, they have a certain like-mindedness. Even though they’re based in Spain, they’re working with designers from around the world — so they have a global view, as does Coalesse.
With EMU, we wanted to cross the line from the indoors to the outdoors. To do so, we needed to find the right partner. And within EMU’s portfolio was a collection that was created by some of the same designers that we were using and that Viccarbe was using. And so, again, there’s this like-mindedness in the caliber of design and execution. So those became additions to the portfolio.
And over the course of time, we’ve developed a close relationship with the company owners, enjoying them as people and getting a sense of how we can grow the business together even more.
John: If you go back to why we’re called Coalesse, there was a funny time 11 years ago when we noticed this blurring of the lines between life and work. You were doing more things at work that were personal and more things in your home spaces that were work related. It sounds kind of corny because this is what we all do every day now, but then it was fresh and different. And at that moment we were creating this new company that was thinking about work in a way that was very timely and very different.
At this same time, we were taking three companies that Steelcase had acquired long ago and melding them together to create one company with a focus on life and work, the coalescing of these two and this blurring of the lines that used to exist between them.
One of the original Coalesse companies was Metro. Metro was a 100-plus-year-old company with a rich family history. Now when we think about Carl Hansen & Son — it’s interesting how similar its history is to Metro’s. When you talk to their leader, Knud Erik Hansen, the grandson of the founder of the company, you learn about the questions around space that they have been working on and how similar their pursuits are to ours but being approached from a completely different point of view.
Lew: There are things that tell us, ‘Yeah, they’re interesting, they’re like us, they’re thinking about these ideas that are related to us, they’re bringing a different point of view. They’re global and they’ve got an international aesthetic.’
But then there are other important parts too, like they have a similar history and similar values. I think there’s something to that as well — there’s more to it than just, ‘Oh, they’re doing a nice thing.’
What have you learned from selecting partners?
John: There’s a common phrase people use when they’re trying to negotiate with someone: You’ve got to walk in the other person’s shoes. In partnering, this is what it’s all about.
In the final post of this series, we’ll look at John and Lew’s insights on what’s next for Coalesse partnerships.
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