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Florence Knoll, the architect and furniture designer who drove the early success of her husband’s eponymous design firm, used to tell staff that “good design is good business”. And it’s a motto that Andrew Cogan, Knoll’s current CEO, has embraced.

The firm’s New York offices are in its showroom: a calm, austere space where furniture is displayed as if it were sculpture. Cogan runs the operation from an open-plan workspace in the centre of the executive area, filled with art books, Flat Bar Brno and bentwood chairs and a Harry Bertoia gong, a gift from his board in recognition of a decade at the helm.

Wearing a blue shirt, orange silk tie and blue trainers on the afternoon Monocle meets him, Cogan explains: “It’s not just about cold, clinical design. It’s not just about culture. It’s not just about commerce. It’s about all those things, about bringing everyone who works here together.”

To strike a balance between creativity and business, Cogan says Knoll is structured to reward employees who have an entrepreneurial spirit. Five years before the company went public in 2004, every associate was given stock and each has been paid a bonus for the past 10 years. Considering Cogan took control shortly before the dotcom crash in 2001 – and weathered the global financial crisis – he’s proud of those policies.

“We’ve invested in more new products in the past two years than we have at any other time. By reacting quickly and being a little leaner than our competition we scaled the business faster and protected our profitability,” says Cogan. It was protection of profits that forced Cogan to reduce Knoll’s global workforce by around a fifth in 2009, down to 3,200. That, he says, is the hardest part of his job. “We have to protect our ability to invest,” he explains. “No one is going to write us a cheque. We’re the only source of our own success – our own ideas.”

Cogan does not directly oversee the designers – he works closely with Knoll’s design director, Benjamin Pardo, and Charles Lieb, who is charged with the company’s product development – but he understands that not all projects will succeed. “There are tough decisions when you’ve understood a need in the market and the designers come up with something way off the mark.”

He recalls stopping a project after two years of work with New York-based Antenna Design when it became clear that the office furniture they were developing too closely resembled products Knoll already offered. “It’s a tough decision to say, ‘We’re not going to go forward with that’,” he says. “We were honest with them. We chilled out for three months, went back at it, rethought what was good and what wasn’t and finally came out with a product that won the innovation award at [industry expo] NeoCon.”

The firm was founded in 1938 in New York by German émigré Hans Knoll and began to expand after the manufacturer married Florence Knoll (née Schust), a graduate of Michigan’s Cranbrook Academy of Art who had studied with Mies Van der Rohe at the Armour Institute in Chicago. During America’s postwar office-space boom, Knoll flourished, both creatively and financially.

Accentuating the company’s history is important to Cogan. He conducts large annual staff meetings at institutions that are related to the Knolls; the previous two took place at Cranbrook and the Noguchi Museum in Queens. He also gives art books to his team – last year it was On Becoming an Artist: Isamu Noguchi and His Contemporaries 1922-1960 – to emphasise creative thinking. “I’ve always loved working with creative people,” he says.

Knoll has been part of Cogan’s life since he was a teen. His father, Marshall, owned the firm during the 1980s and he joined in 1989 after co-founding a venture with the artist and clothing designer Stephen Sprouse. (Art and culture are in his blood, he says – his family owned Art + Auction magazine, and he bought his first piece of furniture at 15.)

“What I learned was to have a few great mentors, and those were [former CEOs] John Lynch, Burt Staniar and my father,” Cogan says. “Tagging along with them and listening was the best business education that I could have possibly had.”

Those lessons come into play at the monthly meetings Cogan holds for his top 35 managers at Knoll’s Pennsylvania manufacturing headquarters. Even in the era of Skype and video chats, the CEO is a fan of reviewing business face-to-face. “There’s nothing like physically getting together and all sitting around. You have to stand up and talk about your business.”

Protecting brand identity means ­encouraging experimentation and investing in his team. “The proof that you have better designs is that you can make more money selling those designs. Someone will pay more for them and see something unique in them.”

The rules

  1. What time do you like to be at your desk?
    I’m rarely here behind my desk at a certain hour. I’m usually somewhere else, travelling. It’s a very old idea, keeping track of what time you come in. It’s assumed in our company that everyone is always available. Obviously we respect people’s weekends — we’re not that maniacal.

  2. Where’s the best place to prepare for leadership—an MBA school or on the job?
    I’m a little biased because I never got an MBA. I learnt business at the dining table. I grew up with my father and heard the issues and the challenges. Getting out there is the best way to do it.

  3. Describe your management style.
    I’m demanding but fair. If people work hard and sincerely, we’re tolerant of failure. But when we don’t see that, we’re less so.

  4. Are tough decisions best taken by one person?
    At the end of the day whoever’s running the company has to be responsible for the results of the business.

  5. Do you want to be liked or respected?
    Everyone wants to be liked, but it’s more important to be respected. The most important thing is that people develop confidence in your leadership by looking at your performance over time and the consistency of what you do.

  6. What does your support team look like?
    There’s a half-dozen of us who have been working together to drive Knoll forward. It’s a group that has enough confidence in each other’s abilities in their respective areas to let everyone say their piece.

  7. What technology do you carry on a trip?
    BlackBerry and iPad.

  8. Do you read management books?
    I’m almost allergic to management books. Right now I’m reading Jay-Z’s Decoded. I think it’s much more interesting thinking about how artists develop and grow than thinking about the philosophy of running a business.

  9. Run in the morning? Wine with lunch? Socialise with your team after work?
    I try and play tennis in the morning. We don’t drink at lunch here. In Europe, when visiting colleagues, we'll have wine at lunch. And there’s a lot of socialising that goes on during the course of the day – which is how we get our work done.

  10. What would your key management advice be?
    Don’t do something you don’t like. If you’re not passionate about what you’re doing, you shouldn’t do it.

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