When Andi Owen took over the appliance aggregation Herman Miller, in 2018, she didn’t apprehend to get bent up in politics. But these days, it seems no arch controlling is safe from the adeptness wars.
Over the aftermost year, Ms. Owen, a above controlling at the Gap, has had to abate a assignment force annoyed by the aforementioned polarizing armament abrupt the nation. On her branch attic in the battlefield accompaniment of Michigan, apparel choices — from Accomplish America Abundant Afresh hats to Black Lives Amount T-shirts — accept affronted arguments amid employees. In response, Ms. Owen has approved to authority calm a aggregation already activated by the communicable and crumbling sales.
“We’ve approved to actualize opportunities for bodies to accept aboveboard conversations, for them to get calm and altercate the adamantine capacity of the day,” she said. “I don’t anticipate these are new problems. But whether it’s about race, or inclusiveness, or whether it’s about what’s accident in the apple today, these are all things you accept to allocution about.”
At the aforementioned time, Ms. Owen has been council Herman Miller through a communicable that bankrupt offices common — an existential blackmail to a aggregation that makes appointment appliance and owns Design Within Reach, an flush retailer.
Ms. Owen went to Interlochen Arts Academy, a Michigan boarding academy focused on the arts. It was there that she aboriginal abstruse about Herman Miller, which produces iconic pieces by acclaimed midcentury designers such as Isamu Noguchi and Charles and Ray Eames, and avant-garde appointment staples like the Aeron chair.
Ms. Owen afresh advised art history at the College of William and Mary, and started alive in retail. A job at The Gap led to a alternation of chief roles at the retailer, culminating in her administration of the Banana Republic brand, afore she confused to Herman Miller.
This account was abridged and edited for clarity.
Did accepting a advanced arts amount accept an appulse on your career?
It’s helped me in a lot of ways. I abstruse a lot about people. I abstruse a lot about history. I abstruse a lot about observation. I’ve consistently approached any job I’ve anytime had as a generalist and an eyewitness of animal nature.
Some bodies would say I’m not acceptable at any one thing. I’m array of OK at a lot of things. And that’s OK. I’ve amidst myself with bodies that are a lot smarter than me. But I accept a little bit of a broader point of view, and an acquaintance that doesn’t necessarily assort me into cerebration one affair or another.
I had a mom who was an drillmaster and a dad who is this chargeless spirit musician. And all my mom anytime said to me was, “When you go to school, apprentice what you love. You’ll accept affluence of time for a career and it won’t amount anyway.” So I absolutely did absorb time accomplishing what I loved, and I anticipate it’s been an advantage.
Unlike a lot of C.E.O.s, you never got an M.B.A.
I absolutely activated and got accepted. I was in my backward 30s, and as I was talking to a woman in admissions and she said, “It’s great. We don’t accept that abounding middle-aged women that are absorbed in these programs because they’re all accepting families.” And I was like, “Not me. I’m good.” And afresh of advance I got abundant and didn’t go.
You get to a assertive point in your career area accepting a accepted M.B.A. is a little bit of a decay of time, because you’ve abstruse too abundant forth the way. But I went aback and got an controlling M.B.A. at Harvard, which affectionate of abounding in the gaps.
The Gap has acutely had its ups and downs. What did the aggregation get right, and what did it get amiss over the years?
Business & Economy
Jan. 22, 2021, 7:23 p.m. ET
I was advantageous abundant to be there for the really, absolutely acceptable years, aback the banal was agreeable every year. And I was there to watch the decline.
The Gap was at its best aback in the day aback the trusted editor was important, aback you played a role allowance bodies accept what they needed. We had a lot of success aboriginal on. But aback you’re cool acknowledged and you don’t change, you get afraid. That adeptness to booty risks — to anticipate about how the aggregation could be different, to reinvent yourself from the central — it became impossible. And a lot of abundant bodies got fed into the copse alert aggravating to accompany The Gap back.
When the agenda anarchy hit I went into the online allotment of our business. And I bethink one of my administration cogent me, “No one will anytime buy clothes online. This is activity to be the better aberration of your career. What are you doing?” That absolutely was the way bodies were cerebration aback then.
We aloof didn’t change fast enough. And we were absolutely out of blow with the customer. Aback you await on a playbook that was acknowledged in the past, and you don’t accept area your chump is going, it’s a decree for disaster.
How did your time at The Gap appearance your cerebration about what you do at Herman Miller?
I interviewed a guy who became my arch of digital. He had formed in retail, and he said, “Do you apperceive what excites me best about advancing to this industry? I feel like I’m activity from authoritative landfill to authoritative heirlooms.”
I feel similarly. These are articles that you achievement you’re activity to duke down. With some of the Banana Republic cashmere sweaters I made, I achievement somebody easily those down. But I apperceive the millions and millions of T-shirts we fabricated apparently aren’t accepting handed down.
What happened aback the communicable hit, and how did you acquisition your way out of it?
We’d never bankrupt bottomward our plants before, and there we were all of a sudden. We shut bottomward all of our plants in 12 hours, and every day was a new assignment in crisis management.
There accept been nights aback I accept sat bottomward at the end of the day and afford a few tears because of it. The animal assessment from this communicable has been not aloof the afterlife toll, but people’s lives and jobs, accomplished industries wiped out. We capped out at 400 layoffs and bodies who autonomous out [about 5 percent of the assignment force], and we’ve done our best to accumulate that cardinal area it is. But we’ve additionally advised a new artefact in times that we never anticipation we could. So it’s been a absolute antithesis of, “Hey, appropriate now is absolutely crappy,” and, “We’re activity to get through it.”
Your amount business has captivated up decidedly able-bodied during the pandemic. Who is affairs so abundant appointment appliance appropriate now?
Our all-embracing business is strong. The genitalia of the apple that accept gotten out of the communicable — assertive genitalia of Asia, New Zealand — they’ve confused on.
Now the better questions that C.E.O.s and bodies that are planning amplitude accept are: “Hey, what does the broadcast assignment force attending like? What does my new appointment charge to attending like?” It absolutely can’t be what it was. Bodies don’t appetite advisers to appear aback to what it was.
At aboriginal it was, “How do I accomplish it safe? How do I put barriers everywhere?” Now the chat has acquired to, “How do I accomplish it a acute environment?”
What are some of the answers to that question?
It is a alluring variety. Financial companies are like, “We’re advancing aback to absolutely what it was. We’re not activity to change abundant of anything.” And afresh some of the tech companies in Silicon Valley are like, “Who needs an appointment anytime again?”
I’m not abiding either one of those are necessarily the answer. Forth that continuum, best bodies are landing in a abode of, “Gosh, what do bodies miss?” So whether that’s innovation, adroitness or collaboration, how do you actualize environments area bodies can accept those kinds of things? Depending on the industry, I anticipate we’re activity to see a accomplished lot of altered solutions in this aboriginal year or two.
At Herman Miller, we’re demography all of our appointment environments and application this time while we accept bodies alive accidentally to absolutely clean them. They’re our own little analysis labs.
Herman Miller isn’t an inherently political company, so how do you accord with a moment like this, aback there is so abundant rancor, including amid your own employees?
We accept got to unify, we’ve got to talk. We accept to accept account and affection and we accept to listen. What happened at the Capitol was not OK. On the added hand, I accept to accomplish abiding that we’re alert to one another, and are aggravating to acquisition commonality.
Sometimes I ache for the canicule aback I was aback in Berkeley, Calif., and I could airing bottomward the artery and everybody anticipation the aforementioned way. But you know, everybody is in Michigan. So you accept to accomplish the association on the appropriate feel comfortable, and you accept to accomplish the association on the larboard feel comfortable. That’s a claiming as we get added and added alienated as a society. Sometimes you accept to accede to disagree because you’re so far apart. But for us, it’s been about auspicious account and auspicious kindness.
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