Midwest is Home to Exceptional Workplace

Landscape Forms president Bill Main (left) shares his enthusiasm for a new bench with employee Brian Johnson.

Unless you live in Kalamazoo, or are a landscape architect in Dallas or New York City or Dubai, you may not have heard of Landscape Forms. Corp! set out to discover more about this relatively small (250 employees) company that was recently honored as one of the Top Small Workplaces for 2008 by the Wall Street Journal and Winning Workplaces. “If we hadn’t started in Michigan, we probably wouldn’t be having this conversation,” says Landscape Forms President Bill Main. “We were founded as a sort of typical local landscape company 40 years ago. You may have noticed that once the ground freezes in Michigan there’s very little you can do to landscape it. So we’d have to lay off the workforce and start all over again when the ground thawed. That’s actually not a very good business model. So our founder started building furniture inside when it was cold outside. The furniture though, was what is now called ‘site furniture’ -“ park benches, trash receptacles, picnic tables -“ the kind of thing that was usually built as an afterthought using leftover materials by an onsite contractor rather than in a factory.”

A bench outside the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan.

The idea caught on, and as demand grew for Landscape Forms’ site furniture there was less and less need to support the basic landscaping business “and it went away a long time ago,” laughs Main. Several “green” additions to the factory later, Landscape Forms builds a host of innovative, energy-conserving and people-friendly products that can be found in parks, plazas, universities and transit stops from Portland to New York City, Dubai to Dallas — all primarily from its plant in Kalamazoo.

“Sustainability is a big issue with them,” says Connecticut industrial designer John Rizzi. “When I first got a chance to work with them to design a new bench that would serve as New York City’s ‘basic bench’ I initially looked at recycled aluminum. It turns out that it takes a lot of energy to process and doesn’t give you the strength and durability you need in an urban setting. I ended up choosing steel. The bench itself is sliced out of a sheet of steel and part of the sustainable design challenge is to use as much of the steel sheet as possible. Together with the head of manufacturing we were able to make some slight modifications to the design and use 90 percent of the sheet instead of my original 70 percent. The finished bench is then powder-coated to withstand the wear and tear expected in the city. It’s not at all what some environmentalists might think, but it is the most environmentally friendly bench out there. And, they could have done it all in China, but opted to do it in Michigan and still meet the price-point demanded by New York.”

A bench in the heart of New York’s business district.

Texas landscape architect Bryce Bartlett says that sustainability is a big issue with his clients as well and that his use of Landscape Forms products helps when it comes to winning a job.

“They use only wood from sustainable forests, their catalogs are printed on recycled paper and their price lists are only online so there’s no paper involved at all. The products themselves are designed to be recycled when the time comes. I also like the fact that I can use the products for situations other than those for which they were originally designed. In one industrial courtyard, for instance, I’ve used a bus shelter as a shade-provider for informal gatherings -“ and it looks awesome.”

Perhaps one reason behind the Wall Street Journal award is the ‘do it in Michigan’ logic of Landscape Forms.

“We are strong proponents of the Frost-Scanlon principles,” says Main. “There are only four of them, and they’re pretty sequential -“ particularly the first two -“ but they are what we live by.”

He explains, “They’re Identity, Participation, Equity and Competence. Identity is when the people within the organization really understand the business. How are we doing financially, who are our customers, how are we doing better than our competitors -“ what do we need to do to keep being better than our competitors. What we’re going to be doing in the future, that kind of thing.”

Bar-height tables and chairs designed to look like judges’ chairs at the tennis stadium named after American star Arthur Ashe in Jamaica, NY.

“Participation,” Main continues, “is how you get people listened to within the organization. It’s not a free-for-all kind of thing, but happens within their particular area of expertise. But first they have to have the basic understanding of the business in order to participate effectively They have an interest in how to improve things -“ if they feel that identity, and that gets to the third thing: Equity. Employees, customers, investors, all have their levels of expectations. Customers are paying for a product that meets their expectations and they’re going to love for a very long time. Investors are contributing money, of course, while employees are contributing their careers. Yet they all want security and to share in the benefits if the business does well. Public companies, on the other hand,” Main explains, “have shareholders and they’re very different from this, very different. I think if you look at the other 14 winners of the Journal workplace award you’ll find almost all are private companies, and essentially think the way we do. You either -“ it’s a leap of faith -“ believe you can make the pie bigger for everybody or you don’t. It’s either a short-term deal for shareholders or long-term for investors. We have owners, not shareholders. It’s a different mindset. Max De Pree (long-time CEO of Steelcase and son of its founder) said of shareholders, ‘they’re vendors of cash.’ There’s big difference between that and ownership.”

The final principle is Competence. “You need to be competent at the job you’re doing -“ but be able to change as that job and its demands change. My job as president,” he continued, “is different than what it was five years ago and probably from what it will be five years from now. Technology changes, products change, processes change and you have to be competent to be able to adapt.”

Adaptation to the needs of the marketplace is another way that Landscape Forms meets -“ or leads -“ the needs of its customers. Diane Collier, head of the Landscape Forms’ Dallas office explains. “We have more than 400 parks in the city and it used to be that at 6 p.m. they were locked up to keep out ‘undesirable elements.’ Now, that’s changing, partly to the work Landscape Forms is doing with lighting. Lighting can make an incredible difference in the way people feel about their safety in parks. But, it’s not just any lighting. We have low-voltage bollards that define spaces and serve as way-finding tools and they use long-lasting LEDs. We have solar-powered lights that are totally off the grid. Nobody else is doing these things. But, it’s making a real change in park usage. We’re also installing site furniture such as tables and chairs that aren’t permanently anchored in the ground. People feel so much better about their surroundings when they can pull up an extra chair or push a couple of tables together for a family picnic.”

A transit stop in mid-town Dallas.

Michigan landscape architect Paul Andriese of Grissim Metz Andriese Associates concurs about adaptability. “The entire product line shows a great deal of thinking about how to fit a bench, for instance, into a variety of situations. It involves scale and materials in addition to the looks of the piece. Whether I’m working on a library, such as the new one in Bloomfield Township (Mich.), or a university or healthcare setting the products are innovative and the quality and service are exceptional.”

Bill Main says that there is a global change in how site furniture is being used. “We have about 50 representatives in Tokyo, Dubai, London and Mexico among other places. They report that there is a new openness in parks and other locations. There is growing interest in removing greenhouse gasses by encouraging use of public transit. We have developed a public transit shelter that, like those lights in Dallas, uses solar power and LED lights. Not only is it totally off the grid, but it can provide a huge safety benefit in case of a power failure. We have them installed in Los Angeles and there is worldwide interest.”

‘There is worldwide interest’ in a product from Michigan that doesn’t have four wheels, is totally environmentally friendly, and is designed and manufactured by employees who are engaged in their company’s success because they share in that success. They share, too, the company’s financial information, knowledge of the competitive landscape and an understanding that they are encouraged to make the company a better place. Is Landscape Forms the model of the New Midwest?