Florida Business Interiors employees might sell everything from chairs to desks to cabinets, but their real mission is to deliver clients a lifestyle.
“Stuff is just stuff,” says Florida Business Interiors founder and President Kevin Baker. “Once our clients buy from us, it's the experience that separates us.”
The company has certainly done a lot of separating the past few years. After a slight dip two years ago, revenues grew 113.4% in 2011, from $8.2 million in 2010 to $17.5 million. Moreover, sales are up 775% since 2007, when Baker founded the firm and it had $2 million in sales.
It's counterintuitive growth, too, considering the pounding the Gulf Coast office furniture industry took in the recession. “We all got hit,” says Allan Shaivitz with Gulf Coast Contract Furnishings, which does work in Sarasota and Manatee counties.
For example, sales at Fort Myers-based Office Furniture & Design Concepts, one of the industry leaders in the Fort Myers-Naples area, flattened out the past three years. Revenues at the firm were up 2% in 2011, from $10 million in 2010 to $10.20 million. The firm had $10 million in sales in 2008 and 2009.
Nonetheless, Office Furniture & Design Concepts President Joe Gammons says the firm is growing again. He projects at least 20% growth in sales this year. A big reason, past the early stages of an economic recovery, is Gammons recently launched two new business units, one for commercial flooring and another for facilities management. The firm also has a new e-commerce division.
“The recession,” says Gammons, “has taught us that we can't only rely on furniture sales.”
Florida Business Interiors, meanwhile, now with 12 employees, has been able to withstand the recession with a more atypical approach. Says Baker: “We've grown very quickly by doing things differently.”
One notable difference between Florida Business Interiors and its competitors is location. Most office furniture operations in the Tampa area, especially the bigger ones with a national or regional presence, are run out of warehouses or facilities in industrial parks. The focus for those businesses is volume.
But Florida Business Interiors is in a 5,800-square-foot second floor office in Tampa's Ybor City. The office is in the Centro Ybor area, in space Baker leases that costs at least 50% more than what he would have paid for a traditional location.
Plus, the company spent at least $150,000 in 2010 to transform the space, a former restaurant, into a glistening office and showroom. Built in a contemporary style with balconies ideal for parade and people watching, the new office has brick walls, 15-foot high ceilings and raised floors. Most clients and guests end up chatting about the space with the high hip factor, says Baker, before they get into furniture orders.
Baker admits the move to Ybor was a bold decision. “We took a 100-year-old building and turned it into a story,” says Baker. “I believe there is already a return on it. Being the new guy in town, it shows people we are legitimate. People could see we are not a fly-by-night.”
The space is also something of an office furniture showroom laboratory, where Baker says clients can see how they want their office to look. The build-out included modular walls and energy-efficient lighting, and company officials say it's the only office furniture dealership facility in the state to earn LEED green building certification.
The second difference at Florida Business Interiors, according to Baker, is the company strives to avoid its 15,000-square-foot warehouse, which is in another location from its Ybor City office. The idea, says Baker, is to only have orders that go straight from the manufacturer to the client, with no storage time in between. Although it doesn't happen all the time, no warehouse means less handling of the products, less time for deliveries and lower costs. “We are all about anything that can cut waste,” says Baker.
Florida Business Interiors specializes in Haworth products, and it also has a catalog of more than 250 styles of office furniture, in a range of prices. The firm will do everything from sell chairs for waiting rooms to art for walls. Clients include St. Petersburg College, State College of Florida in Bradenton and MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa. The MacDill contract, for furniture in the recent renovation of U.S. Central Command, was an especially lucrative project.
'Took a shot'
A Brandon native, office furniture is Baker's first and only career. He worked in a showroom one summer when he was 19, and he was hooked.
Baker worked in sales for several local firms, moving up to manager at some places. In 2006 the owners of Florida Business Interiors in Orlando approached Baker about launching an office furniture operation in Tampa. “I was in my late 40s,” says Baker, “and I took a shot.”
Investors with the Orlando Florida Business Interiors loaned Baker startup capital and provided a name and advice. Baker declines to say how much capital he received in the beginning, only that he paid it back by 2010 because of the firm's rapid growth.
The strategy in the early going, says Baker, was to target industries he and his investors thought were somewhat recession-proof, or at least recession-resistant. Two big targets: community colleges, which usually see enrollment spikes in a recession, and the federal government. For the latter, MacDill Air Force Base was a key prospect.
Baker quickly realized, however, that knowing the target and getting in front of the target were vastly different tasks. So Baker says he and the sales team literally knocked on doors, cold-calling places like State College of Florida and Hillsborough Community College in Tampa, until they found the decision makers.
That diligence paid off in 2011, when the company received a constant stream of orders. So many orders, actually, that one of Baker's big regrets in the growth surge was he was slow to add employees to handle the extra work. Says Baker: “We had people who were working 80 to 90 hours a week.”
He has since added a few employees — though he doesn't project 2012 will be another year where the firm more than doubles revenues.
“We won't be as good this year, but it will be pretty good,” Baker says. “I don't have to be No. 1. The third largest is fine with me.”