The Future of Furniture

In the midst of major transformation, Danna Szwed is modernizing the HR department at Ashley Furniture Industries and promoting the culture that’s made it the world’s top furniture manufacturer

Danna Szwed, Ashley Furniture Industries

Danna Szwed does not manage the operations at Ashley Furniture Industries’ manufacturing and distribution center in Arcadia, Wisconsin, but she’s still a regular on the plant floor. The executive vice president and CHRO likes to admire the production process of the largest furniture manufacturer in the world, which sells nearly thirty million pieces each year and has more than seven thousand different product stock keeping units (SKU). Szwed joined Ashley Furniture in June 2016 after twenty years in the financial services industry. She says it’s exciting to now be associated with a company that produces tangible goods.

“There is something fantastic about walking out on the manufacturing floor,” Szwed says. “All the raw materials are on one side, and as I walk down the assembly line I can watch the furniture from start to finish as it is being made and assembled.”

Szwed’s journey to Ashley Furniture started with an unexpected call from a recruiter. At the time, she was a managing director for Citi, a global banking institution. Szwed, her husband, and their two children were living in Singapore with long-term plans to stay in Southeast Asia.

“I wasn’t looking for a new position,” she recalls. “I was happy with my job, and the company was very good to me. My family and I had been in Singapore for nearly a decade, and we were enjoying life there. We had every intention of staying abroad until the kids graduated from high school.”

Despite her contentment, Szwed says she was drawn to the prospect of being the head of human resources for a privately held, multinational enterprise based in the United States. Having started her HR career at General Motors in the 1990s, she also enjoyed the idea of returning to her roots in manufacturing. So, she talked to various executives at Ashley Furniture via Skype over the course of a few weeks and flew twenty hours from Singapore to Wisconsin for a full day and a half of interviews.

Her time at the Ashley Furniture headquarters solidified her interest in the company. Szwed was impressed by the organization’s history, legacy, and strong culture. She also relished the opportunity to further advance the HR function during a period of significant transformation. Ashley Furniture’s extensive philanthropic efforts—in areas such as education, medical research, the arts, and children’s charities—appealed to Szwed as well.

“When I left my on-site interviews, I knew that I was potentially going to be part of something really special that was once in a lifetime,” Szwed says. “For me to move my family halfway around the world, it had to be a pretty amazing opportunity—and indeed, it has been.”

During her first one hundred days on the job, Szwed immersed herself in the HR division’s people, processes, and technology. Through conversations with employees, managers, and business leaders, she discovered that there was an opportunity to modernize the HR function. So, Szwed and her team developed a three-year road map to guide the department through 2019. In 2017, they focused on organizational design, which included making sure that the HR function had the appropriate structure with the right people in the right roles. They also made changes to their strategies for recruitment, talent management, and succession planning. Szwed says they will continue to dig into these opportunities throughout 2018 while also aligning their approach to goal setting and performance management.

“The level of change we are undertaking is significant. It will take several years to build mature programs,” Szwed explains. “We have so much opportunity in HR, and our strength is that we have an incredibly dedicated group of smart HR professionals who are highly motivated to transform the function.”

Szwed views her role as enabling Ashley’s roughly 26,000 employees to realize their full potential in a quantifiable way that aligns to and drives business outcomes. She is also responsible for preserving, growing, and cultivating the company’s culture of positive employee experience and engagement. To facilitate that objective, Szwed and her team introduced Ashley’s first employee survey in January 2017. It’s a critical tool to determine employee engagement levels. Now, Ashley Furniture executives are using the survey results to have a more meaningful discussion about the employee experience and how it impacts business results. It has also provided a baseline for creating action plans with clear deliverables and deadlines.

“The survey has a tremendous impact because we’ll use it as the measure by which we all hold ourselves accountable for creating a positive employee experience that encompasses the physical workspace, technology, and culture,” Szwed says.

To create a positive employee experience, Ashley Furniture offers employees a competitive benefits package and perks that lend a personal touch, such as giving everyone a turkey for Thanksgiving and a small tree on Arbor Day. The company also hosts an annual picnic for employees and their families. President and CEO Todd Wanek stays connected to his corporate, supply chain, and retail employees through frequent communication, annual employee meetings, and site visits.

“We do a nice job of connecting senior leadership with employees and bringing work, family, and community together,” Szwed says. “Even though we are almost 30,000 people big, it still has the favorable attributes of a small company. As an HR person, it is exciting to be able to think about how to take a strong culture from good to great.”

Szwed and other company leaders also encourage employees to be curious, challenge the status quo, and think about new and different ways to operate in their own wheelhouse and beyond.

“Not every idea has to be big and bold,” she says. “If every person in this organization could find a way to save just one dollar a day, then that would translate to about $9.5 million a year. If everyone has that continuous improvement mind-set and everyone is playing their part, even if it is small, then it can have a major impact at the aggregate level.”

This agile, forward-thinking approach is essential as Ashley Furniture continues to expand and face the digital disruption that is altering the world of commerce. Szwed says the corporation is investing millions of dollars in new technology and IT talent in an effort to remain competitive.

“We have to evolve our leadership style and employee experience to become a customer-first, technology-driven company that just happens to manufacture and distribute furniture,” Szwed explains. “The task of putting forward an HR agenda in this rapidly changing environment can be overwhelming at times, but it is also thrilling. We know there is so much opportunity, and we have barely scratched the surface.”

Culture of Togetherness

Ashley Furniture Industries is the largest manufacturer of furniture in the world with major manufacturing facilities in the US and abroad. Ashley Furniture Industries supplies furniture to more than six thousand retail partners in 123 countries. Yet the company still maintains a strong culture of togetherness.

Danna Szwed takes pride in the fact that the company offers a personal touch to all of its employees. Whether it’s a turkey on Thanksgiving or an annual picnic, the atmosphere is always focused on bringing work, family, and community together.

Photo: Alex B. Knox