It was probably one of the more unusual presentations the prospective client had experienced. Chairs Limited president Joan Downing placed side by side on the boardroom table the parts of a chair the client was considering and the Canadian-made parts of a chair from her company.
“Ours showed quality, strength,” she recalls. She got the account.
Quality products and a dedication to customer service are indeed key strengths of the ISO-certified business based in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia. Chairs Limited manufactures office chairs and provides ergonomic office equipment and furnishings. In addition to its corporate accounts, Chairs Limited carries out custom work in collaboration with healthcare professionals such as occupational therapists and physiotherapists.
“The word ergonomics is overdone,” Downing says. “All it means is the interaction of the worker with their equipment and how you can make them more comfortable.”
When it comes to custom-made chairs, the process of making injured clients more comfortable – which can bring with it the economic benefit of a faster return of employees to the workplace – demands creativity and resourcefulness.
“Usually we try to get the person here. Sometimes, though, they’re not well enough or not mobile enough to come and so I’ll go to them,” Downing says. “Or sometimes I want to see their work space – see what’s existing and why it’s not working for them and what could possibly work for them.”
For instance, the company has made a chair with a wheelchair leg attached to it for a client who can’t bend one of her knees. Another example of innovation is the Millar Chair, named for the physiotherapist who designed the chair with Chairs Limited. Features of the chair, which can be found in hospitals and nursing homes, include adjustable tilting, a seat that can be removed for cleaning and a strong oak frame.
It was through the company’s work with healthcare professionals that Chairs Limited broadened its offerings to include ergonomic accessories and other office furnishings.
“They’d come to us and say, ‘We need a customized chair for this individual, but where can I get a keyboard tray or where can I get a headset or where can I get a monitor mount or where can I get different ergonomic solutions like that?’” says Chairs Limited vice-president and general manager Mark MacPhail. “So we’ve built the business around what our clients want.”
In addition to healthcare, Chairs Limited clients represent hospitality, government, corporate, education and travel sectors. Geographically, Atlantic Canada is the biggest customer base but the company has filled orders from British Columbia to Prince Edward Island. Chairs Limited has also served customers in Bermuda and Qatar.
Downing is proud of the chairs the company manufactures. “It’s a quality product,” she says. “It’s not just going to the landfill in a year. There are places where if your chair breaks they just give you a new one. They don’t even repair it. That’s not a really good attitude.”
Chairs Limited, which began in 1989, employs 14. It continues to grow in revenue and has also grown physically. In summer 2007, the company expanded from 6,000 to 10,000 square feet.
Downing has no desire for Chairs Limited to become a big box store. Far from it. She sees the company’s size as a strength when it comes to responding to the changing industry and client needs.
For example, she attends an annual office furniture show in Chicago, the largest ergonomic conference in North America in Las Vegas and a bi-annual parts show in Germany. “And because we’re smallish if I see something I like I can just turn around and order it and start using it, whereas if you’re a large company you have to study it to death.”
And then there’s the opportunity to meet a client’s emergency need if they require a chair to be manufactured very quickly. “In the big companies they can’t do that because they can’t shut their production down. Every time they hit that big red button it costs them a fortune.”
Alyson Roberts is co-owner of Portland Physiotherapy Health & Wellness Centre in Dartmouth. The centre specializes in occupational rehabilitation programs, physiotherapy, massage therapy and injury prevention services.
Roberts, an occupational therapist, has worked with Downing for more than five years. She describes the custom chairs and customer service provided by Chairs Limited as “exceptional.”
“They are the cream of the crop to work with and their customer service is second to none. They are willing to problem-solve, and they understand timeliness and the importance of keeping things on track,” she says. “I always feel that if I order something with them, they’re going to follow through to the very end.”
Roberts’ comments are echoed by Jamie Bolduc, general manager of Four Points by Sheraton Halifax. Chairs Limited outfitted all the guest rooms with desk chairs and provided office chairs for the hotel.
Bolduc speaks of the high-quality product and personalized service Chairs Limited offers. “Whenever we want to get in touch with them it’s no problem getting through to the right people, and their turnaround time is absolutely amazing,” he says.
And there is still time for some socializing. On the bulletin board at Chairs Limited is a picture of a team who entered the Medavie Blue Cross Canoe Challenge in support of the IWK Health Centre and Ronald McDonald House. On Fridays, Downing brings in something to eat for everybody. “The other day, our postman came in and said you guys have entirely too much fun.”
Downing speaks highly of the quality of life Nova Scotia affords. “I own a house – I don’t know if I would in Ontario or Calgary. I like it that when I’m downtown, because I know so many people, I can just wave to somebody. If you were somewhere else you’d have to make an appointment,” she says, laughing.
When asked about the future of Chairs Limited, Downing replies, “I just want us to keep growing and keep everybody happy.” It’s a fitting response for the head of a company which delivers quality products and excellent customer service.