Beyond the Vinyl Frontier

by Tom Gresham

Jim Baker of Business Interiors takes clear direction from the legacy of his grandfather

Jim Baker, the dealer- principal of Business Interiors, a subsidiary of the Brattleboro company Baker's Inc., stands in a sea of plastic-covered chairs in the company's warehouse in Williston.

After Jim Baker graduated from Middlebury College in the early 1980s, he started working at Baker Inc., his family's business in Brattleboro. He was installed at a small desk in the office of his grandfather, James Baker, so he could learn the business from the man who had originated it.

His grandfather founded the company in 1925 when he opened a one-room news shop and office-supply store in downtown Brattleboro. Over the years, he expanded the reach of his operation, splitting off separate subsidiary businesses under the Baker Inc. umbrella.

After a few years under the tutelage of his grandfather, Baker earned his master of business administration at the Northwestern University Kellogg School of Business considered one of the country's finest graduate business programs. Although he believes the formal education he received was quite beneficial, he says the pragmatic lessons he dutifully acquired at the elbow of his grandfather remain more valuable. Those years, he says, represent his true business education.

"I learned a lot from him; I learned this business directly from the founder; in some ways, I learned the business from the ground up."

Baker says his grandfather taught him more than just business skills. "I got my core values from him much more so than I did from business school," he says. "My time with him in that office really helped define who I am."

The young Baker took a particular interest in Baker's Office Interiors, a contract furniture business in which he saw endless possibilities.

Today, as dealer-principal, he runs that company now called Business Interiors which helps businesses and other workplaces outfit their offices to create productive and efficient work environments. According to Baker, Business Interiors takes clear direction from the legacy of his grandfather.

"The business has grown and become a lot more complex," he says, "but his values and beliefs still permeate everything we do."

Business Interiors has sales offices, showrooms and distribution facilities in Brattleboro and Williston, and satellite offices in Rutland and in Sunapee, N.H. The company's approximately 35 employees work with clients throughout Vermont, New Hampshire and northwestern Massachusetts.

Today's company is the product of the acquisition in 1996 of McAuliffe Business Interiors, one of its competitors. Nine years later, several McAuliffe employees who were there at the time of the merger remain with the business.

Gordon Edmunds, a sales representative and one of those holdovers, says the high retention of McAuliffe workers is at least partly a testament to Baker's leadership.

He credits Baker with helping maintain stability through the merger and beyond, while ensuring that McAuliffe employees felt valued from the onset. Baker oversees a rewarding work climate, according to Edmunds.

"He has a strong focus on creating a team environment," Edmunds says. "He's receptive to a democratic group as opposed to something more autocratic. He solicits input on what our needs are. It's very open. People feel comfortable."

Baker is careful to downplay his role in any of Business Interiors' accomplishments over the years.

"I've just been fortunate to work with good people," he says.

Baker divides his time between the Brattleboro and Williston offices, where most of Business Interiors' workers are based. He says the decision to open the Williston office and make it the headquarters for the company was based on Williston's proximity to the Chittenden County client and worker pool.

While he knew the decision was best for the business and his employees, Baker confesses it was not easier for him. He typically spends at least one night a week away from home, where he lives with his two sons, Ian, 12, and Morgan, 11, and Stephanie Peduzzi, his partner of six years.

"We had created a model where I needed to be mobile anyway," Baker says. "That's what our business is about. It's not really relevant where I hang my hat. Our clients are in a lot of different places. Consequently, so am I."

Brattleboro still holds a host of Baker family members. His father, Stephen, has been involved in the family business since the 1950s and continues to check in at the Brattleboro offices of Baker Inc. when he's not traveling.

"He certainly keeps an eye on me," Baker says with a grin.

His grandfather passed away in 1990. It was telling, Baker says, that he checked into work on the day he died.

Business Interiors' basic mission is to help clients create a work environment that "supports, energizes and inspires," says Baker. He describes space as an important business strategy that produces wide-ranging benefits. On the flip side, he adds, poorly designed space can produce negative consequences.

The company's mission is to help clients create a work environment that "supports, energizes and inspires." Art Bristol, left, is a project manager; Craig Bemis is director of operations; Deb Pierce is administrative services supervisor; and Shawna Lovelette is in operations.He's quick to point out that Business Interiors' work goes well beyond selling desks and swivel chairs.

"We're not just responding to businesses' questions with furniture. We're offering an integrated solution intended to drive results for our clients."

He cites two basic elements to consider when creating a work environment at a business or other entity. One relates to the overall mission and goals of the business. The other is composed of the users and their specific needs. Business Interiors can tailor a workplace to incorporate both elements or to focus on just one, he says.

For instance, the company worked with a Vermont mail-order firm on the design of its call center. The business was experiencing rapid growth and needed to situate a large number of people into a defined area. Also, the high hiring rate was bringing an influx of new, inexperienced employees with training needs.

Business Interiors collaborated with the client to develop a workplace that allowed for veterans and newcomers to work near each other, accelerating the transfer of knowledge and reducing training time.

Another example of the company's work is its participation in Green Mountain Power Corp.'s aggressive attempt to change its business culture in the last five years.

Green Mountain Power moved its headquarters in 1999 from a facility in Shelburne to a more modest structure in Colchester. Chris Dutton, CEO of the utility, says the move was designed to make the business leaner and more efficient.

Green Mountain Power enlisted Business Interiors to work with a group of its employees and architect John Anderson to develop a workplace environment at the new site to heighten productivity and transparency.

Some of the moves seem to be drastic departures from typical business practices. For example, even Dutton does not have a private office; he has a workspace on a floor with 75 other personal workspaces. Partitions are short, and privacy does not exist.

The changes were made over six years, and Dutton believes they have been essential to making Green Mountain Power a faster, more streamlined operation. Business Interiors played an important role, he says.

"They were marvelous. They were very helpful from the beginning. They worked very hard with John Anderson, with our contractor and with the people at Green Mountain Power in charge of the project. They were the people really responsible for executing the design that John Anderson put together."

Baker expresses a particular pride in the project and Business Interiors' hand in it.

"I think Green Mountain Power has really been a tremendous success story," Baker says, "and at least part of that is that Chris Dutton understands the significance of space as a strategic asset. The environment that has been created there is really a high-performance one."

Business Interiors' clients have run the gamut from small businesses of five to 10 employees to large corporations with up to 7,500 employees. Small businesses with limited space are often the ones that can most benefit from careful workplace designs, according to Baker. He says small operations are required to maximize the usefulness of every foot of space.

"They don't have the scale of operation to have space that's unproductive," Baker says.

Business Interiors has about 35 employees who work with clients throughout Vermont, New Hampshire and northwestern Massachusetts. Michelle LeBoeuf, left, is senior designer; Cris Rowley is director of design; and Spencer Palmer is the CAD programmer.

Edmunds has been working in the field of business furniture and workspace design since 1970. He says businesses have shown an increasing interest in recent years in the value of a thoughtful design of a work environment.

"Businesses have not always been aware of this," Edmunds says; but as the cost of doing business has gone up, people have become more and more aware of the need to increase production and efficiency."

Baker says he is pleased with the position of his business as it faces the future. He is also thankful that he has been able to operate a family business with so many ties to tradition, yet maintain the freedom to care for it in his own way.

His family, particularly his father, was very supportive when he decided to attend Northwestern, he says, although his grandfather had questions about how much college could teach him about business. Baker had always intended to return to Brattleboro, because he knew that, no matter how much guidance he received in the family business, some things would ultimately be left up to him.

"When I came in, no one ever said this is the business and this is what you're going to do," he says. "It wasn't said how I was going to add value to the business. I was taught a lot, but I was also allowed to create my own path."

Originally published in June 2005 Business People-Vermont