Lead from Your Seat

Steven Bradford steps beyond the compliance function and diversifies his skill set to make sure office furniture manufacturer HNI stays nimble to keep up with significant growth.

Steven Bradford’s work has taken him from New Jersey to the Netherlands, representing a host of industries from paint to perfume. When a colleague promoted the open general counsel position at HNI Corporation, the only caveat for Bradford was the location: the tiny town of Muscatine, Iowa. But he gave it a shot and was instantly charged by the collegial atmosphere, bright executive team, and challenging work. Now, he’s sharing some insight into his legal work for HNI.

Let’s start with a little context: HNI is the number two furniture manufacturer in North America. What’s your competition?

There are three large players in the world of office furniture: Herman Miller, Steelcase, and HNI, and we’re all close in terms of size. HNI is perhaps least well known to the man on the street because the other two companies go to market under the brand of their company name, whereas we are a house of brands. Our brands have a global presence with the largest and deepest breadth of office furniture solutions and greater ability to tailor and serve customers’ needs. Our major competitors are well-run companies and competition is tough, but we believe HNI is uniquely suited to provide exactly what the user needs where and when they need it.

What unique challenges do you face given the nature of your business?

Since office furniture is an infrequent purchase for most companies, it might be one of the first things cut when economic times are tough. HNI has a long history of lean manufacturing. During the recent recession, all of our departments, including legal, embraced the ethic of efficiency we apply in our manufacturing.

How are you applying this principle to your department?

I had to find ways to cut costs while still accomplishing our objectives, whether they be in court or in the office. We identified and eliminated low value-added activities and waste. We implemented processes of standard work for regular activities, such as routine contract review, and provided tools for client self-help. We found we were spending more money to defend some cases than they were worth, so now our focus is on early case resolution through negotiated mitigation rather than litigation. We’ve also changed the way we handle intellectual property work by bringing an attorney in-house to cut our external spending by more than half.

“Meeting customers helps me better assist our international business managers grow their businesses and deal with the challenges of international operations.”

You often attend trade shows such as NeoCon in Chicago. How do these shows benefit you in your legal role?

The better I know and understand our business, the better I can serve the business as general counsel. Going to trade shows allows me to connect not just with the senior leadership, but to meet with field sales, government sales, marketing, product development, and other teams and with our dealers and customers. Learning first-hand about how our new products are received by the market helps inform future strategy discussions. For example, we often have international customers visit us at NeoCon. Meeting these customers helps me better assist our international business managers grow their businesses and deal with the challenges of international operations.

I imagine these challenges are extensive and change with each new location. HNI is working to expand in both India and China. How difficult is it for you and the company to establish a legal presence in a new country or region?

India and China are two markets we’re expanding into because we see enormous future opportunity as these economies develop. We approach challenges with a process we call “People, Structure, Process.” We think leadership is the key, so we start by hiring people with the same values and business acumen that we look for in our US employees. We want them to be locals, not imported Americans. Once we have leadership in place, we focus on the operational structure of the business, and finally, we establish processes to incorporate repeatable standard work. I focus on building the HNI culture of transparent compliance with the local leadership teams. We talk about our corporate values and how they apply locally. We provide training, which can be used at all levels of the organization, and we work on cascading that information and training in a clear and consistent way at all levels.

International expansion doesn’t happen in a day; it necessitates a strategic outlook from the entire management team. Such a mind-set is one that is quickly becoming required for any general counsel who wants to be effective in their industry. How are you influencing strategy at HNI?

We have a small executive team, and I’m involved in most of the strategic discussions about the business, not always in a legal capacity, but often as a sounding board for ideas. These might include new business opportunities, product developments, dealing with changes in the market, and competitive responses. I had an interesting experience a few years ago when I served for a number of months as HNI’s interim CIO. As I learned more about our IT systems, it became clear that significant changes were required to support our growing business and the complexity created by changing market demands. Embarking on a significant systems change is an expensive and risky undertaking. A prior company I worked for undertook a similar project, which went horribly wrong, and production stopped for months. I was asked to investigate what failed and what lessons could be learned.

And that helped inform your decisions at HNI?

Yes. My prior experience with other companies and my experience working with our IT group helped me understand and contribute to the challenging upgrade of our infrastructure systems. I’m impressed with the thoughtful and careful way HNI’s management, under the involved leadership of our CEO, managed this important project. It bodes very well for the success of the project and is an example of how strategy is developed and implemented.