From a military field to the corporate battlefield isn’t as much of a stretch as most people think, according to Lincoln Office owner Bill Pape. “I think military service is one of the best ways to prepare for a career in business. As a brand new 2nd Lieutenant at age 22, I had responsibility for 120 people and more than $100 million dollars in equipment. Not many people right out of college have that opportunity. I learned that in order to be an effective leader, you have to earn the respect and trust of the people you lead, and I also learned the importance of good planning and how to effectively implement a plan,” he said.
Prior to acquiring Lincoln Office in 2000, Pape was vice president of sales for Lincoln Office, vice president of sales for a Steelcase dealer in New York, and a salesperson in Dallas. He served five years as a Field Artillery officer after receiving an accounting degree from Siena College.
Pape is a board member of the Peoria Area Chamber of Commerce, serves as chairman of the Office Furniture Dealers Alliance Board, is a board of governors member for the Independent Office Product and Furniture Dealers Association, and is president of Rotary Club of Peoria-North Foundation.
Pape and his wife reside in Peoria and have three children.
Tell about your background, schools attended, family, etc.
I was born and raised in Albany, N.Y., and attended Siena College in Loudonville, N.Y., where I had an ROTC scholarship and earned a degree in accounting. The day after I graduated from college, I received a regular army commission as a Field Artillery officer and immediately left for Ft. Sill, Okla. After completing a six-month officer’s basic course, I served a three-year tour in Germany. When I returned from Germany, I went back to Ft. Sill as a gunnery instructor. While I was at Ft. Sill, a good friend of mine from college was living in Dallas, and the first time I went to visit him, I met my wife, Rebecca.
After serving four-and-a-half years in the Army, I began my career as a salesperson for an office furniture and supplies dealership in Dallas. I became sales manager, then operations manger, and eventually general manager and had the opportunity to learn all aspects of a dealership operation as my career progressed. When the oil industry significantly declined in the mid-1980s, Rebecca and I moved to Albany, and I became vice president of sales for a Steelcase dealer.
After nine years in Albany, we moved to Peoria, and I became vice president of sales for Lincoln Office. In 2000, I acquired Lincoln Office. Rebecca and I have three children: Patrick, Garrett, and Taylor.
You had a military career for five years. What made you choose that direction?
By my sophomore year in college, I realized I didn’t want to pursue a career in accounting, but I knew an accounting degree would be beneficial in a business career. Siena College had a strong ROTC program, and I was persuaded to apply for a scholarship and to consider a career in the Army. Once I received the scholarship, I was committed to serve at least four years, so there was no turning back.
How did you move into furniture sales?
When I decided to get out of the army in 1982, Rebecca and I had gotten engaged, so I moved to Dallas and began to look for a job in the business world. I responded to an ad for a sales position in the Dallas paper and started selling office supplies and furniture. The dealership I worked for was small and didn’t have any training program. They just handed me some catalogs and told me to hit the streets and sell. Even though I didn’t have any training or experience in sales, I realized I liked the challenge of being in sales, and I liked the office products business. I did well in sales and was given the opportunity to become sales manager so I could recruit and train more salespeople to help grow the business.
What about the industry has enticed you to stay for more than 20 years?
The office furniture industry is challenging and rewarding, and it provides the opportunity to work with a wide variety of customers. Every day brings new and interesting challenges and opportunities, so I never get bored. Engaging customers to understand their needs and working with them to develop solutions to meet their needs is very rewarding. Keeping up with all the details that have to be dealt with in every order—whether it’s a single transaction or large project—also adds to the challenge and keeps you on your toes.
How has the industry changed over the last two decades? In the last few years?
Changes in the way people work and the way businesses view their facilities drive innovation and change in the office furniture industry. During the 1970s and 1980s, the desire to reduce office space and increase flexibility led to the development and widespread use of panel system workstations. Changes in technology—especially the wide spread use of personal computers—made it necessary to continuously enhance systems furniture to better support technology. As computers changed the way people work during the 1990s, the need for furniture that better supported them led to the development of ergonomic seating and computer support tools. Lincoln Office has always focused on providing products and services to enhance the workspace so people can work more effectively and businesses can achieve improved results.
The biggest impact on the office furniture industry since 2000 was the negative affect the dot-com bust and 9/11 had on the economy. Businesses began to downsize, and the office furniture market declined 40 percent because capital wasn’t being spent on furniture. Manufacturers had significant excess capacity and had to reduce their workforces and the amount of manufacturing space they had. Office furniture dealers had to focus more on providing services to help customers as they reduced the size of their workforces and consolidated facilities.
Discuss your acquisition of Lincoln Office. What circumstances led to it? Why were you interested in Lincoln Office?
Soon after I moved back to New York and went to work for a Steelcase dealer, I realized I wanted to own a dealership. I discussed the possibility of acquiring the Steelcase dealer I was working for in New York with the owner, but he wasn’t ready to sell at that time. In 1994, I decided to look for other Steelcase dealers where I might get an opportunity for ownership, and an executive recruiter put me in touch with Tom Spurgeon. Lincoln Office is well known and well respected throughout the Steelcase dealer network, and they were in need of a sales manager with new business development experience. So, in 1995, I joined Lincoln Office with the hope of eventually having an ownership opportunity. And in October 2000, I acquired Lincoln Office.
How many offices does Lincoln Office staff? What region does Lincoln Office cover?
Lincoln Office started in 1935 as an office supply store in Lincoln, Ill., and is celebrating its 70th year in business. Today, Lincoln Office is one of the largest full-service office furniture distributors in the Midwest, serving central Illinois, eastern Iowa, and northwest Indiana. We have an operations center in Morton, and we cover the greater Peoria area from our sales office in Peoria. We cover Bloomington, Springfield, Champaign, and LaSalle/Peru from our sales office in Bloomington; we cover the Quad Cities from our sales office in Moline; and we cover Gary, Merriville, Michigan City, and Chicago Heights from our office in Crown Point, Ind.
Tell about the products and services offered by Lincoln Office.
Lincoln Office offers a wide range of furniture, architectural products, and related services to provide large and small businesses with workspaces that maximize business results. We have a wide selection of panel systems, desks, seating, filing, floor-covering, raised flooring, lighting, modular casework, and demountable walls manufactured by industry leaders such as Steelcase, Hon, La-Z-boy, and Milliken that can accommodate any style, function, or budget.
We have a professional staff of workplace consultants that meets with customers to understand their needs, then creates effective workspaces to improve productivity and workflow. Our design, space planning, project management, and installation services ensure the right product is selected, accurately ordered, and delivered on time. And service such as carpet maintenance and panel refurbishing are available to extend product life and reduce cost of ownership.
What are the more unique aspects of the company’s offerings?
Lincoln Office offers several non-furniture products, as well as value-added services that many furniture dealers don’t provide. Our modular architectural products such as raised flooring and demountable walls are alternatives to standard construction that integrate with modular furniture to make work space changes easier and less costly. Our panel refurbishing services allow our customers to improve the look of their offices for a fraction of the cost of buying new workstations. We can repair or restore worn or outdated panels, reduce the height and width of existing panels, or replace them with remanufactured equipment. Lincoln Office is a MilliCare‰ Dry Carpet Cleaning System franchisee. Our carpet maintenance program starts soon after carpet is installed—before it even gets dirty. We establish a cleaning schedule for high- and low-traffic areas and monitor the schedule to keep carpet looking good and to extend its useful life. Since we use a dry cleaning system, there’s no downtime due to wet carpet, and there’s no soap residue left, so the possibility of dirt and dust mite attraction is significantly reduced, which promotes a healthier work environment.
We also provide relocation and move management services to help our customers relocate their business or consolidate locations. We develop a move schedule and timeline to insure each step of a move is implemented in the proper sequence. We inventory existing furniture and equipment to be moved and reused, prepare specifications to solicit bids from moving companies, and develop coded installation plans for placement of existing and new furniture and equipment. Then we coordinate with all contractors, including general contractors, telephone, computer, data line, movers, and furniture and equipment providers.
What does Lincoln Office’s Facility Management Services consist of? Do clients take advantage of this service often?
Our facility management services consist of design, reconfiguration, and inventory management services to link a facilities plan with a customer’s business plan. Our designers coordinate the physical aspects of the workplace with the people and the processes of our customers and recommend space reconfigurations as necessary. We use a bar code tracking system to record customer inventory, and we provide a secure, safe, and clean storage environment for our customer’s excess inventory. We evaluate the condition of inventory, recommend which furniture is suitable for re-use, and facilitate disposal of unusable inventory. Larger customers with ongoing needs to reconfigure their workspace and manage large furniture and equipment inventories are the primary users of our facilities management services.
Does uncomfortable or non-ergonomic office furniture really affect workers and their productivity? What kinds of feedback have you gotten from customers?
Ergonomics has been described as the science of adapting products and processes to human characteristics and capabilities to improve the wellbeing of workers and optimize their productivity. Although the human body can be incredibly flexible and adaptable, if people don’t have furniture that properly supports them as they work, they’re much more susceptible to discomfort and injuries that can have a negative impact on productivity. The key to creating a productive work environment is to understand how people interact with their work tools. An ergonomic work environment must have furniture and lighting that provide proper support and user adjustability and must have workstations set up to facilitate ease of motion as people use different work tools.
Ergonomic work environments can reduce absenteeism, health care costs, and worker’s compensation claims caused by back, neck, and eyestrain or repetitive stress injuries. Insurance companies have documented the return on investment from providing an ergonomically sound work environment, and we’ve received feedback from customers who’ve seen worker morale improve and absenteeism decline after installing new, ergonomic furniture.
What are some of the misperceptions people may have about Lincoln Office?
People often think of Lincoln Office as having only high priced products and being mainly focused on large accounts. We actually have a broad product offering that fits a wide range of budgets, and the majority of our customers are small to medium-size businesses. People also may think Lincoln Office only sells office furniture. While it’s true that most of our sales revenue is from furniture, we also have significant sales of carpet and architectural products, and we really differentiate ourselves from the competition with our extensive service offering, particularly our carpet maintenance and refurbishing services.
What’s your vision for the company in the next 10 years?
Over the next 10 years, our focus will be on growth. I hope to significantly grow our architectural products sales, as well as our carpet maintenance and refurbishing services. We’ll also continue to evaluate new product and service offerings, and we’re conducting customer focus groups to learn what product and service needs they have that aren’t currently being met. One product we’ll introduce is Steelcase’s new modular lab furniture that will work well for a variety of research labs like those at hospitals, colleges, and universities. We’ll also look for strategic partnering and acquisition opportunities to grow our business.
Also, within the next few years, we’ll consolidate our operations center currently in Morton and our sales office in Peoria into one new facility to help improve operational effectiveness and responsiveness to our customers.
You previously served on the board of directors of the Peoria Area Chamber of Commerce. How important is it for businesses to be actively involved in the local chamber?
I think it’s very important for businesses to support the chamber of commerce in the communities where they do business. Local chambers act as the voice of business and advocate on behalf of all businesses to improve the business environment. Chambers provide valuable information about legislative issues that could negatively impact businesses and enable them to have more influence with lawmakers by speaking with a unified voice. Chambers also provide their members with networking opportunities and programs and services that can enhance their business results.
What other volunteer boards or organizations are you involved with?
From a furniture industry standpoint, I’m currently serving as chairman of the board of governors for OFDA, which is the national trade association of office furniture dealers, and I’m also on the board of directors for Workplace Furnishings, a national buying and marketing cooperative. Locally, I serve as president of the Foundation for the Rotary Club of Peoria-North, and I just joined the board of directors for Crittenden House.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?
I was given two pieces of advice when I was a new 2nd Lieutenant. First, a senior NCO told me that if I wanted to be an effective officer, I needed to “look, listen, and learn from the sergeants in my unit” who are the equivalent of middle managers in business. Most officers fresh out of school thought they knew everything and learned the hard way that without the support of their NCOs, they would fail. My first battalion commander gave me another piece of valuable advice. He told me not to expect other people to solve my problems. He made it clear that you’d better not come to him with a problem unless you had a least one viable recommendation to solve it. Both pieces of advice also apply to the business world and have served me well throughout my business career.IBI