Things are not quite as clear as Brian Walker would like them to be.
The chief executive officer of office furniture maker Herman Miller Inc. said the company is seeing the downturn in the overall business climate in North America and knows that spending generally is down at most companies.
But at the same time, the Zeeland, Mich.-based company saw its orders go up in its second financial quarter - which ended Dec. 1 - by nearly 20 percent, compared with the usual fall order boost of 7-8 percent.
``The sales force still sees reasonable activity that is happening out there, but overall, we're a little cautious about what we see going forward because of the macroeconomic issues,'' Walker said during a Dec. 20 telephone conference call with investors and the news media.
Overall, the office furniture industry expects to see its U.S. production nearly even, with the Grand Rapids, Mich.-based Business and Institutional Furniture Manufacturer's Association forecasting production valued at $11.3 billion for 2008, down slightly from the 2007 level of $11.4 billion.
That should mean that the industry will continue to hold onto gains it has posted since 2003, when furniture makers, designers and their suppliers turned out $8.5 billion worth of goods.
``Our outlook has not changed,'' Walker said. ``We remain conservative in our assessment of the U.S. market's near-term growth potential.''
Competitor Knoll Inc. of East Greenville, Pa., noted that its backlog of orders is running near the same level as a year ago - with $169.8 million during the third quarter of 2007, compared with $170 million in 2006 - which also indicates that production should remain on track, despite slowdowns in other industries.
Walker noted Herman Miller's growth is coming from across its customer base, with no one group leading sales. He expected more solid forecasts may not turn up until early in 2008, once the companies that buy office furniture determine their own outlooks for the year and set their capital expenses plans.
For now, the company will continue to watch carefully how its North American customers react to changes in the economy.
``We're very bullish on the long-term prospects for Herman Miller and the business office furniture industry,'' he said.
``We are simply concerned by the headwinds that may result in slower growth.''