Newell Rubbermaid Inc. makes everything from plastic storage containers that go in kitchen cabinets to the Irwin hand and power tools used to build those cabinets.
Then there are Graco baby car seats, Calphalon cookware, Sharpie pens, Levolor blinds and Goody hairbrushes in a mix that might look to some like an untidy clutter of brands crammed into a company with not quite $6 billion in sales.
Earlier this month, the company announced it was buying stroller company Baby Jogger Holdings Inc., while it just completed its acquisition of Ignite Holdings Inc., the maker of high profile water bottle brand Contigo.
But Newell Chief Design Officer Chuck Jones believes it all those brands fits neatly into a box. That box would be the minimalist, modern design center he opened in May to bring roughly 120 designers from about 20 sites around the world to a technology and research park at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo, Mich.
The center is part of a plan to take Newell on a journey that Jones, who joined in late 2012, likens with a laugh to the distance separating Veg-O-Matic marketer Ronco and the lofty heights achieved by Apple Inc. Newell's benchmark is a four-step staircase the Design Management Institute uses to describe companies' design maturity. He rates Newell as a two — defined as where design management works on a project level — "nibbling on the edges of three," where design is a true company-wide function. Ultimately, he wants to get to four, where design infuses company culture to the point that "people stop talking about it," he said.
But that's "a 10-year journey," acknowledged the veteran of top design posts at companies including Herman Miller, Xerox and Whirlpool. He sees the design center as an early move in the right direction.
"Where a lot of corporations [go] wrong is that they'll make the investment in people, but they'll stop there and not think about what's the enabling culture," Jones said. The center is a key enabler, making once far-flung designers a cohesive unit.
For example, designers of pens have some of the same issues as designers of handgrips for tools, Jones said. Now, they can talk shop at the coffee machine. "These are conversations that historically never took place," he said.
It's all one part of Chairman and CEO Mike Polk's vision of moving Newell from a holding company to an operating company, where all the pieces work together.
The design center also has resources all the businesses can use, such as a usability engineer, human-factors engineer and cognitive engineers, as well as someone whose job is to facilitate brainstorms. While considering a mop design for Goody, for example, "we looked at calorie burn, heart rate, grip strength and musculoskeletal fatigue," Jones said.