Originally published in Business Digest, September 1998

Office Bosses

by Craig C. Bailey

Mark Kelley & Ron Citorik Mark Kelley (left) explains that the office furniture business isn't as "recession-proof" as the equipment business: "If somebody's copier machine dies, they have to go buy another copy machine. If your desk breaks, and the economy's terrible, you get by." Ron Citorik co-founded Office Environments, a contract furniture company in Williston, before partnering with Kelley in 1987. (Photo: Jeff Clarke)

Ron Citorik's tenure delivering furniture for McAuliffe through high school and college resulted in an opportunity to sell for the company in the early '80s. "The only thing I knew was that the guys selling furniture drove nice cars and they seemed to have a lot of fun, so I said, 'Sure! Why not?' "

It was the beginning of a career that would lead Citorik to co-found Office Environments, the 13-year-old contract furniture business he owns with Mark Kelley. Recently the two had the foresight to diversify from the highly customized furniture that's the base of that Williston business by opening Vermont's first and only Office Furniture USA franchise store. It's a strategic complement to Office Environments that has solved their puzzle of how to offer affordable mid-market furnishings in the Green Mountains.

And while office furniture might not automatically conjure up images of racy automobiles, there might be some hidden connection: The Porsche parked in front of the company's Williston Road facility belongs to Kelley -- perhaps an indication that though the roads these men took to ownership were separate, they were also remarkably similar.

Walking the hallways of Office Environments is nearly a disappointment: Yes, the offices and conference rooms in the business's 12,000-square-foot facility hold immaculate examples of fine office furnishings. No surprise. But absent is any vast showroom displaying the company's line. "We have nothing available in front inventory," Kelley explains while standing in the business's next best thing to a showroom: a space crammed with a variety of chairs. "It's all custom ordered."

While the business carries products from more than 200 manufacturers, 60 to 70 percent of its business is with Haworth, one of the three largest manufacturers of contract furnishings along with Herman Miller and Steelcase. Much of Office Environments' business is focused on so-called systems furniture, what laypeople commonly refer to as cubicles. With thousands of product offerings, a parts list in the millions, and the ability to customize an office plan down to the most minute detail, the concept of a showroom isn't impractical. It's impossible.

Instead, the contract furniture sales process is an involved, personal one of reps developing close and long-term relationships with their clients. "It's not a slam, bam, thank you ma'am kind of thing," says Kelley.

"We train our salespeople to be good listeners," says Citorik. "I think that's the area that separates us from other people who do this kind of work. We don't walk around with a catalog saying, 'Well, pick out a chair and what do you want: blue or brown?' We try to really identify people's needs."

The planning process through CAD design, ordering and installation -- all handled by Office Environments -- can differ greatly depending on the type of job. When the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) in Montpelier redesigned its space a few years ago, the planning for the job took almost two months. Working with Don McKnight of McKnight Associates Architects, P.C., Office Environments used a modular Haworth systems-based product called Race to convert the processing area into a corral, allowing work to flow in one end of the space and out the other. Citorik says, "It was a unique application, because there were a lot of counter areas.

"They had a huge amount of cabling -- probably the largest amount of cabling I'd ever seen in one job. So we literally had to draw to scale the hole in the wall where the cables were going to come out and scale out each individual cable to make sure that it was going to fit through the furniture. It's a little more detail than we usually get into," he adds with a chuckle.

"My association with Office Environments has been a good one," says McKnight, an architect in Barre since 1966, who has teamed with the company on several substantial projects. "They've been very helpful and very concerned about our clients' needs, so I've enjoyed working with them.

"They'll go out of their way to meet the kinds of budgets that we're sometimes confronted with," he adds. "They're very creative in that way -- trying to find solutions for us."

While the bulk of the work on a project like the DMV job is planning and designing, Kelley's proud of the efficiency of the business's installation team. Considering that furniture installation is the final step in completing an office, Office Environments installers often find themselves playing the part of the shock absorber: When contractors fall behind, the installers are forced to make up for lost time to meet deadlines. Some installers have been with the company since its 1985 beginning.

Citorik and Kelley are native Vermonters who grew up and attended college in the Green Mountains and worked for an office products company before making the leap into ownership.

Citorik had worked for McAuliffe performing deliveries and warehouse duties while growing up in Burlington and attending the University of Vermont. When he graduated with a business degree specializing in marketing and sales in 1981, the offer to sell for the company brought him onto the full-time roster. Eventually he teamed up with three other business people who saw a need for a service- and project-oriented office furnishing company focused on space planning. Office Environments opened in 1985 in Blair Park, Williston. Kelley was recruited to manage it two years later.

At the time, he was working for Applied Graphics in Shelburne. Kelley joined the 3M business product center as a salesperson in 1975 fresh out of Castleton State College with a business degree. After only three years with the company he was promoted to vice president and general manager.

A Rutland native, Kelley says business had interested him "forever," and that his aspirations to purchase Applied Graphics from owner Bill Stephens began early in his career. "But when I finally approached him to buy it he wasn't ready to sell it. So I moved on."

When he joined Office Environments, he says, "financially it was probably not in the best shape. There were a lot of owners, but not any managers." By putting "some basic management practices" in place, Kelley helped turn the business around and joined Citorik in buying out the other three partners to form a 50/50 partnership.

"One of the things we learned with four partners is that there are too many people and conflicting duties," says Citorik. So by trial and error he and Kelley determined Kelley would focus on operations and finance, while Citorik would handle sales.

Kelley's second venture began in 1988. "After we kind of got Office Environments headed down what looked like a pretty good path, I decided to get into the office equipment business," he says.

But for his part, Citorik opted not to get involved, leaving Kelley the sole proprietor. "I really felt more comfortable staying involved with the office furniture end rather than spreading myself into the equipment business, which I didn't really know much about," Citorik offers.

So Kelley Office Systems Inc., an equipment dealership selling Ricoh copiers, fax machines and electronic imaging systems, was born, occupying space at Office Environments. Kelley says the autonomy of the two businesses has worked to their advantage. "You rarely find anybody who's very upset with their desk," he explains, drawing a contrast to the equipment business, where the nature of the product is more finicky. "Even though a lot of customers know I'm involved in both businesses, they really treat them as separate entities."

Kelley says the interest level in electronic imaging systems for electronic filing that the company carries is tremendous. "Electronic imaging in a nutshell is the ability to take hard copy originals or electronic data and scan it or somehow convert it to optical storage for archival purposes," he explains. By cutting down on storage space for paper files and offering full-text search capabilities, he believes this technology will eventually be the way every business files records.

While his interest in the technology he sees as someday changing every office is obvious, Kelley says his interests outside his office have shifted over the years from sailboat racing to his four children, two boys and two girls, aged nine through 17. (Perhaps nowadays the Porsche fills Kelley's need for speed.) "I spend a lot of time with my kids," he says. "They're not young for very long." Like Citorik, the father of two girls, Kelley lives close to his business: Kelley in South Burlington and Citorik in Burlington.

While Office Environments, which moved from Blair Park to Williston Road a few years ago, is squarely focused on contract furniture, clients occasionally require pieces from the lower priced mid-market arena, the type of sale Kelley and Citorik have always had a tough time making work -- until last November's opening of Office Furniture USA of Vermont on Marshall Avenue, Williston.

"Office Furniture USA has filled out a good niche for us," says Citorik. "One of the things about being a small dealer in Vermont was that when you got into more mid-market furniture the only way you could really do it competitively was to buy trailer loads of it and promote the heck out of it. We didn't want to be a distribution company. That's not what our business was about."

Furthermore, taking delivery of small quantities of mid-market pieces in Vermont was difficult. "By the time it got here, it was smashed to hell," laments Kelley.

The franchise solves the problems of quantity pricing and convenient delivery by combining the buying power of 133 dealers nationwide with its privately owned trucking company, which delivers to Office Furniture USA's door in Williston twice a week.

The pair's Williston franchise is the first Office Furniture USA store in the state, and came with exclusive rights for Kelley and Citorik to open more franchise stores anywhere in Vermont. "It's given us the ability to get into the mid-market business, which is the bulk of the overall sales in Vermont," according to Kelley. "It gives us the ability to cover more of the niche for our existing customers as well as build a new customer base."

Customer bases for office furniture businesses like Office Environments are growing thanks to the booming economy. Growing business means growing employment, and that means growing offices. It's all cause and effect to explain why Kelley has just two words to describe the state of his and Citorik's businesses: "Extremely good."