Looking to woo executives into a luxury vehicle? Johnson Controls Inc. can team with office furniture maker Steelcase Inc. to offer its top-branded executive chairs in an automotive version.
Seeking consumer name-brand recognition for a minivan? What about a JCI version of a Black & Decker Corp. flashlight packed neatly into overhead storage?
How about a good way to carry bicycles? JCI can team with Thule Sweden AB for an interior version of its roof racks.
Through a series of development deals, the automotive supplier is seeking a way to connect its products with the brand names consumers appreciate - while potentially boosting sales for itself and its partners.
``We're taking more of a consumer focus on the options that we can offer,'' said Jeff Steiner, vice president of sales for JCI's automotive unit in Plymouth, Mich.
JCI debuted its concept Leap automotive seating Jan. 5 at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit, using technology from Grand Rapids, Mich.-based Steelcase.
The teaming makes sense, said Frank Merlotti, president of Steelcase North America. His firm is the world's largest supplier of office furniture, while JCI is the global leader in auto interiors.
``Our two companies have a great opportunity to impact and enhance seating,'' he said.
The automotive seating zeroes in on two patented parts of the Leap executive chairs - the Live Back system, which changes shape to match the shape of the spine in each position, and the Natural Glide, which provides a natural motion. The concept seats, housed in a Jaguar sports car for now, provide a subtle shifting in lumbar and lower back support at the touch of a button.
The two businesses came together when both were participating in ergonomics studies at Michigan State University, and a researcher there suggested they collaborate.
At this point, the car Leap seats are just a concept. Even if they do sell, Steelcase will retain its focus and license the technology and name to Johnson Controls.
``Steelcase is not going into the auto industry,'' Merlotti said. ``JCI is in the auto industry, but there is great potential here.''
The opportunity to find new markets is important, though, since the office furniture business saw sales drop an estimated 20 percent in 2002, with only moderate growth anticipated for 2003, according to the Business and Institutional Furniture Manufacturers Association. Steelcase itself reported an 11.6 percent drop in sales for its third quarter and a loss of $31 million.
In a competitive auto industry, meanwhile, JCI can team with recognizable brand names. Offer consumers an optional flashlight storage system, and they may yawn. Mention that it would feature Black & Decker's SnakeLight, and they may pay attention. The auto supplier has entered a development contract with Black & Decker Corp. of Towson, Md.
JCI also is looking at ways to link a Thule recreation-equipment container system - now used with roof racks - into minivans and sports utility vehicles by matching it with JCI's new two-rail overhead storage system.