FURNITURE MAKERS PUT FOCUS OVERSEAS

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Memo to office furniture suppliers: Don't expect the building boom of the mid-1980s to be making a comeback anytime soon.

Yet, the fact that the office furniture market is forecast to be flatter than a credenza for the 11th straight year has not slowed the momentum of leading North American furniture makers. Instead, companies such as Steelcase Inc. and Haworth Inc. are expanding beyond home shores by starting up plants, dealerships and products in Europe, the Far East and other distant locales.

And they expect materials and systems suppliers to follow suit.

``Ideally, we want to work with suppliers who understand the value of being a global company,'' said purchasing manager John Fortunato of Haworth, based in Holland, Mich. ``Whether they're big or small, any supplier we work with must help us be competitive in foreign markets by offering the quality, service and price necessary to do business in those regions.''

Haworth and other furniture makers have whittled down the number of suppliers they work with in recent years to control costs and improve efficiency. At the same time, they are demanding innovative products and materials, such as custom occasional tables for lobbies, for a market becoming increasingly segmented.

``The era of furnishing entire high-rise office complexes is over,'' said Russell Coyner, executive director of the Business and Institutional Furniture Manufacturers Association. ``Instead, many companies are now looking toward filling out their offices with more specialized products.''

BIFMA, based in Grand Rapids,

Mich., expects U.S. office furniture shipments to grow by only 5 percent in 1996, down from the 6.6 percent growth that was recorded the year before.

The industry hit its peak in 1984 when shipments increased by 23.4 percent from the previous year.

Coyner attributed the continued slowdown to the aftereffects of corporate downsizing and the trend toward home offices and telecommuting. Some remaining customers also are extremely cost-conscious, preferring refurbished and remanufactured furniture and pieces that are ready to assemble.

BIFMA estimates that the volume of refurbished furniture can be as high as 10 percent of new furniture volume.

In the United States, office furniture shipments totaled about $9.9 billion in 1996, compared to $9.4 billion in 1995, according to BIFMA.

While many companies are setting up shop overseas, furniture exports comprise a small portion of total furniture shipments. In 1995, $299 million in office furniture was exported.

Plastics suppliers typically manufacture such office products as office systems components, table edge banding, seat shells and chair bases. The amount of nonwood products shipped remained relatively constant at 75 percent of the total product mix, BIFMA reported.