Stan SchrotenboerPosted April 28, 2014
Interview with Stan Schrotenboer,
General Foreman, Herman Miller Co.
Date of Interview: August 31, 1977
Charles Eames Oral History Project
Interview with Stan Schrotenboer,
General Foreman, Herman Miller Co.
Date of Interview: August 31, 1977;
Interviewer: Virginia Stitch
Co-Interviewer: Beryl Manne
Editor: Rita Malenczyk
Begin Tape 1, Side 1
Stith: We have been trying to get this discussion about Charles Eames underway, and it’s very difficult to do. We were asking at the very outset what Charles Eames means to you here at Herman Miller.
Schrotenboer: I asked a few people on the floor about who they thought Charles Eames was and what he meant to them. One person said to me that Charles Eames meant a job and security. He said that Charles Eames’s designs are designs that last – they aren’t something that are designed for one period and after five years are not a good design anymore. They seem to last forever. Another person also said that Charles Eames meant security and a job. [These people] have been working on Charles Eames’s products all the time they have been here at Herman Miller and they’re continuing to do that, which is a total of fifty years. Charles means, to us, that we can have a say in his designs. He designs the chairs and asks the opinions of the people who are going to work on the chairs and those of us in management.
(Break in tape)
Stith: May I interrupt you for just a minute? Would you go back over the story about how you came to have such tremendous input into that one chair – you had a number, or name, for it?
Schrotenboer Yes, it was an EC 176 loose-cushion chair. Charles designed it and we started having some real problems getting it into production – we had to do some reworking on the design before we could put it out before the public, and we felt (and Charles felt) that we just couldn’t make a good quality chair. So a group of people – upholsterers, model people, management people, purchasing people – took a look at the chair and started working on it, changing designs, doing the things that they thought would make a good Eames design – a good quality chair, something that would last. This went on for maybe six months before we came up with the final design.
I think that we in the manufacturing area feel we have good communications with Charles and that we are a part of his designs. He doesn’t just bring something to Herman Miller, he brings it to us as a total family. To us, Charles means quality – not just quality in a place of leather, but quality in a chair. Charles talks to us about the feel of a product: there has to be warmth to a choir, not just when you look at it but when you sit in it. You have to feel that you belong in it and that the chair fits you. To the employees here, Charles Eames may be one of the two or three people who have put Herman Miller where it is today.
Stith: In the interviews we did with the De Prees, they said that Charles does not come to the factory too often, but that when he does come he gets back into the factory; and occasionally he has found things not right and has not hesitated to speak up. Has that ever happened to you?
Schrotenboer: Yes, Charles used to come about twice a year through the areas where we manufacturing not only his designs but other designs. We have run into occasions when Charles has said that [something] did not have the class, or the feel, of his design and of Herman Miller. He said once that a screw in a chair may sound like a little thing, but the screw has to be the right design and the right color – maybe it isn’t visible, but it’s part of the product, and it still shows that what you put in a chair speaks of Charles Eames and Herman Miller.
Stith: He is very soft-spoken, or has been when I have encountered him. Is he still soft-spoken when he comes and finds something that he feels is really wrong?
Schrotenboer: Yes. I don’t think Charles has to raise his voice to make a point. When Charles speaks, we recognize that he’s speaking because he sees a problem, not just because he wants to say something. People have respect for Charles and the way he puts questions to them and asks them about things, so there’s no need for him to raise his voice, pound the table or anything like that.
Stith: In our earlier discussions with the De Prees, we got an insight into the change of Herman Miller from doing traditional furniture to some of the Gilbert Rohde thinking. You came just when Rohde had gone and just before Charles Eames actually became part of the design team?
Schrotenboer: Yes, I think Charles arrived in ’46 or ‘47* and I came in ’48. At that time we were making two of Charles’s products, the plywood chair, and the plastic chair.
Stith: It has been said that there has never been a written contract between Charles Eames and Herman Miller – that there is, instead, a sort of covenant, that the covenant has been honoured by both sides, and that this has been a very rewarding relationship not only in terms of profit. Do you think the people working in the plant sense that? Are they aware of that special relationship?
Schrotenboer: Yes – maybe they don’t know that there is no contract, but I think it’s a philosophy of the Herman Miller corporation. I think the climate here is a climate of trust, and I guess you really don’t have to have a contract. It’s like, at home, you trust your kids and they trust you – you don’t write a contract and say, for the next ten years I am going to contract you out to give me so much every day. Herman Miller is a unique company; maybe it’s the people who work here who are unique. But there is no greater asset in the world than the people who work for you and work with you. Everybody is equal – everybody has a job to do and tries to do it: designer, architect, worker on the floor, president. If everybody works together, you’re successful.
Stith: Do you have an idea why this has worked for Herman Miller and why it perhaps hasn’t worked for some other large corporations that have dealt in complicated contracts? I haven’t even heard about a disgruntled designer [here] at this point. What is it? Is it Zeeland? Is it the Dutch ancestry? Is there something you could contribute that would make it possible for this to work for other corporations?
Schrotenboer: I feel that in order for corporations to be successful at the thing we’re talking about, the top management has to set the climate. This is very important, and I think that D. J. De Pree, Charles Eames, and one other gentleman, Jack Frost, really have a feeling for the individual and the company. And the company is basically three groups of people: the customer, the company and then the people. I think it basically comes down to trust and agreement.
(Begin Tape 1, Side 2)
Stith: We did spend a very long time with Mr. D. J. De Pree, and it was an experience. I had the feeling that he had, made a policy of getting out there in the plant and being with you no matter what the pressures of that job. He somehow managed to do that, is that correct?
Schrotenboer: Yes, D. J. used to be in the factory every day. I think he made it a point to do that before he retired as chairman of the board. When we were smaller and when he was more involved in the company, he knew everybody by his first name, and it wasn’t “Mr. De Pree” because he felt he would be set aside if he were called “Mr.” His office door was always open, and Herman Miller still has that policy today – if you want to see the president, his door is open. If you want to see anybody, all you have to do is request to see them. But D. J., yes – he used to come to the factory. He would ask you what was going on; he would say, “Can we help you do your job?” And I think they gave us a different way of life. It’s a better way of life. Eames and D. J. De Pree have affected everybody who has worked at Herman Miller – in some way they have rubbed off on [the workers’] lives, not only at work but also in their personal lives. They’re two great people.
Stith: You have had other great designers – I think Rohde is certainly one. But I sense that when you talk about Charles Eames, there is something else in there that sets him aside from your other great designers and talented people – you immediately put him with D. J. De Pree. Can you identify that feeling at all?
Schrotenboer: Well, when Charles came in with a design or an idea, it was completely thought out, and he was concerned about what the product was going to be used for. I don’t think Charles Eames ever made anything just because he wanted to make something; I think it had to be useful and it had to have a [beneficial] effect on you in your job or in your home. I think that when he designed a chair, that chair had to be able to help you do your job better than you could do it before: it [had to be] easier to sit in so that you were more relaxed in your work, you weren’t as tired. I think he had a great feel for people, and I relate that to D. J. De Pree, who also has a great feel for people – one in the work environment, the other more in the family, personal, spiritual life.
Stith: Charles Eames had done a great deal in addition to furniture design. He has done many other exhibits, he has done films, he has done a great deal of … Have you been exposed to any of that at all?
Schrotenboer: We have been exposed to Charles’s films, and Herman Miller publicizes most of the things that [Charles] does. When they did the Moscow Fair, there was a brochure showing the work of Charles Eames that was handed to all the people in the company. The company itself helps us, as employees, to know what’s going on with Charles in the world and what he is really doing. It’s quite a close relationship. Charles talks to the people here on the floor when he comes here – he’ll go right to the workers on the floor and ask them about making the products he designs. The company keeps pretty close track of him.
Stith: As I’ve worked on this project I have come into contact with the IBM exhibits, and I found a thing called the calendar drum. Are you familiar with that?
Stith: Number one, it’s a subject I simply cannot fathom to start out with; number two, you put it on the drum and it’s all nice and tidy and I can see what he’s saying, but I come away and I cannot in the furthest realm of my imagination understand the thought process that went into that. When Charles attacks a problem of how to interpret a scientific principle to the you’s and me’s of the world, he comes out successful, and yet by background he is neither a mathematician nor a physicist. Do you have any clues to that aspect of his personality?
Schrotenboer: No, except I think we go back to the realistic thing of Charles Eames. Charles can sit in a chair, can look at a chair, and see if it’s going to be comfortable. Is it going to be useful? What’s it going to do for somebody? Charles Eames’s furniture does not have big, deep, coiled springs in it. Some of it doesn’t have any padding – it’s just plastic, just wood – but it’s contoured to fit the body. When Charles first started, we went from the conventional upholstery where you have six inches of seat springs and two or three inches of foam rubber, cotton, and hair, to plywood that was shaped to fit the body and didn’t have to have padding. It was a new concept for us. I think [Charles] can take parts and put them together to make something that’s going to fit each individual.
Stith: And, in a sense, that’s what he’s doing when he interprets a scientific principle. He takes it and then divides it into parts that will make sense.
Schrotenboer: That’s right.
Stith: It certainly is an unusual talent.
Schrotenboer: Right. Charles will make a product himself, right in his shop, so he sees what it is going to look like. He can try it right there, and with some modifications you almost have a product when Charles designs it. I think some of the other designers we have had were a little different: they would send us a picture and say “Go with it,” and it took a long time. But with Charles we got parts, something that was designed, something that was tried, something you could [work] with immediately.
Stith: In other words, your fundamental design-to-production time with Charles Eames is probably less than it is with other designers.
Schrotenboer: Yes. Charles has done his homework, and I think that’s why he’s successful and why we’ve been successful here at Herman Miller.
Stith: Charles is not a young man, and you seem to be bringing in younger designers, more designers, not depending as heavily on a small team of design people.
Stith: The De Press are not young men. You’re working on a thing called the Scanlon Plan. How do you see Herman Miller 25 years from now, when maybe you don’t have the De Prees and you don’t have Charles Eames? Is the tradition strong enough to carry on? Do you see any major changes?
Schrotenboer: There is a danger of losing what we once had, but I think it’s the responsibility of those of us who have been here throughout the complete change of Herman Miller – from the beginning of the ’40s until today – to train, to educate, to do whatever we have to do to keep this philosophy going. It does not have to change, but it is work. You have to believe that what has happened in the past 30 or 35 years has been good for all the people who have worked with Herman Miller, even good for customers. The Scanlon theory has an effect on people, on products, on everybody. We have a responsibility to the young people, the corporation, and to everybody who works at Herman Miller, to keep this Scanlon theory going. I am a strong believer in that.
Stith: Have you ever had to fire anybody?
Schrotenboer: You should really have to fire anybody. The decision of whether he wants to work at Herman Miller should be up to the individual. Now, we’ve got a little theory, which I call “discipline without punishment.” When somebody comes late to work or does not believe in how we operate, he is telling us he doesn’t want to work at Herman Miller.
Stith: How do you get him to tell you that, to face that himself?
Schrotenboer: There has to be communication face-to-face with the individual to make the decision of where he wants to go and what he wants to do. Today you just can’t tell somebody, “Do this, do that” – that individual has to make a decision of what he wants to do, and you have to help him make that decision. We have a lot of young people; some of them have never worked in a factory. We have to try to help them with the problems they have. Communications are very important. Each individual, as a manager, has to put the people ahead of himself; he has to be able to say, “Hey, I’ll do my job after work in order to be able to help these people with their problems and give them an opportunity to do the job.” And that’s basically what it is.
Stith: So, if you are one-to-one with someone who hasn’t really made the commitment to work in this situation, they usually realize that they are not willing to do it?
Schrotenboer: Yes. We do have a very low absentee rate of less than 2%. But, you see, if you ask somebody if they’ve got a problem… there may be a reason why somebody comes late to work, and if you ask him what the problem is, maybe you can help him. Maybe he doesn’t have a way of getting here; maybe you can get someone to pick him up. Or maybe he’s had somebody sick at home. Unless you know these reasons, you can’t help the individual.
Stith: You actually get that far into your relationship with you –
Schrotenboer: Oh, yes. We have a formal procedure: twice a year, each supervisor sits down with his people. [This goes] all the way from the officer of the company to the people working on the floor. They have one-to-one performance reviews where they actually talk about each individual’s performance and any problems that can come up. Also, there’s a one-on-one per day type of thing, so you handle these problems every day. When you start having grievances and unhappy people, it’s somebody hasn’t listened or somebody isn’t communicating. If a person has a problem, it may be a little one to you but it may be a big one to him. Maybe it’s just a workbench that is facing… go and move it over a foot, he’d be able to work better. Admit that, to him, it’s a problem.
Stith: How carefully do you screen people before you hire them?
Schrotenboer: We have a personnel man to whom the people turn in their applications. The supervisors and the managers hire their people. There has to be this kind of feeling between the supervisor and the individual: I hired that person, I’m responsible for that person succeeding. Otherwise, I was wrong. When you hire somebody you have one of two things. You have either taken from another job – then you have a responsibility to make him succeed because he has to have a paycheck to survive and he has a family. Really, when you hire an individual you hire a family. You can’t hire somebody and say, well, we’ll lay him off in six months. That’s not really honest. Then you get the young kid who has never been in a factory. You relate to him what it means to be working in a factory, make him become involved and let him help you run the company and run your department. He’s part of it. If you took a survey on the floor here or at any corporation, people would say the number one thing is that they want to belong to the organization they work for.
Stith: As I’ve watched people going through the office and walking through the plant, I don’t think I have ever been any place where they walked their shoulders as straight and their heads as high. Is that factor something I’m making up? Have you looked?
Schrotenboer: I had a gentleman say to me about six months ago, “You don’t have any fat people here – you must work ‘em hard.” I said, “No, they eat right.” I think one of the things is that they belong, they’re part of Herman Miller and they’re told this when they come in. I think they feel that Herman Miller is part of them. I think Herman Miller treats their people as they would want to be treated themselves; I think that shows that people are generally happy here. No, we’re not perfect – we do have some problems. I guess the biggest thing we have to work on is communication; communication is something you never really arrive at. If we would say we’re perfect, the Plan and everything we’ve worked on for the last 30 years would not last. It’s something you have to work on continually. You can’t say, “Well, today I’ve arrived.” There’s another day tomorrow.
Stith: We were with a young man yesterday – I assume he was a product of the sixties. I don’t know about Zeeland, but the sixties were very troublesome times for young people in school: they questioned a lot of values, and some of them are trying to re-adjust to the realities of functioning in the world. I said to the young man, “What is the ethnic? How do you feel about it?” And, to simplify it, he said, “I like working someplace where I can leave my car unlocked and know it’s going to be there when I get back.” That’s really very nice, and I guess that’s really true here at Herman Miller.
Schrotenboer: Well, I think we are fortunate, and we also have an area here with a tradition. Maybe that has also helped us to be a successful company. It has a Dutch background, and it’s a very religious area, and maybe that has helped us to be successful in our operations. But it’s also the people at the top of the corporation – D. J., Max, Hugh, Dick Rook, people like this – who keep the tradition going.
Manne: What are some of the tangible benefits – retirement schemes, vacation periods, that sort of thing? If you’d care to comment on the hourly rate – is it comparable to other large industrial concerns around here? What opportunity would there be in Zeeland for someone who is perhaps tired of working for Herman Miller and wants to try something new but doesn’t want to leave town? What other opportunities are there, here in Zeeland or within commuting distance of, say, 10 or 15 miles?
Schrotenboer: This little town has 34 industries and 4,500 people. There are many different kinds of industries; I think an opportunity exists for almost anything the individual is looking for. At Herman Miller, we promote education: we run classes for our people who did not graduate from high school. We are starting a course next month in psychology – how to handle people – which we will pay for, and Herman Miller will pay for part of your education if you want to go to school. There are other corporations in the area that do the same thing. We want to be as good in benefits and things like that as anybody in the area.
Manna: Is Herman Miller a leader in that particular area, or (inaudible) try to keep pace with that?
Schrotenboer: I think it works both ways. We have some very good corporations in the area with very good benefits. We also use input from the individuals in the company on what they would like as benefits. Maybe one year they would come out and say we would like another holiday but we would like it as a floating holiday, or we would like a holiday but we’d like the Thursday after Thanksgiving off. I think there has to be feedback between the employees and management about what the employees are looking for. But you also have to be fair: the 20-year-old individual is not looking for retirement benefits, but the 60-year-old is. So they try to look at everybody. We have a Christmas party and a picnic in the summer. These are things that are done in the area; I think we started these kinds of things and other industries have followed us, but it works both ways – we have used some of the other companies’ ideas, some other companies have used Herman Miller’s.
Manne: How about retirement benefits, then?
Schrotenboer: The retirement program at Herman Miller started maybe 18 years ago. They have improved it continually. The retirement program will be as good as anybody’s in the area, and as D. J. said when he started it, it’s not something you can do overnight. But the difference between Social Security and your retirement will be sufficient for you to be able to live a good life in retirement.
Manne: In your memory, was there ever a strike of workers?
Schrotenboer: No, there’s never been a strike. There have only been three layoffs, and the first time we had a layoff Hugh De Pree, as president of the corporation, went to every individual and personally apologized for having to lay them off, and said that he’d do everything in his power to get them back within a few months. Two months later, everyone was back at Herman Miller.
Manne: That was the longest time? Two months?
Schrotenboer: Yes, the two-month thing was the longest layoff we have had. We’ve been fortunate.
Manne: Did those people survive on unemployment benefits?
Schrotenboer: There were roughly 60 people involved in that, and I would say that we found jobs for 95% of them. We actually went out, called companies, and placed these people ourselves with other companies.
Manne: What sort of circumstances made it possible to recall perhaps all of these people? Half of them?
Schrotenboer: We did get all of them back within a six-month period, but the majority came back in two months. It was an upswing in business, and the economy of the country is basically what affected that.
Manne: When was this?
Schrotenboer: About 1968, I think.
Stith: It’s exciting to be here at Herman Miller. The graphic design is so elegant and so smooth, and at the same time your human relations are missing those slick words that have a lot of innuendo and not much substance. Where are the flaws in Herman Miller? I guess those are the things you are working on?
Schrotenboer: Those are the things we try to work on. In our bonus plan and our Scanlon Plan, we’ve been fortunate. We’ve had 50 months of continual bonus and averaged about 18 to 20 percent during those 51 months. We’ve had the plan since 1950, and our average has been 12% throughout the years – we’ve had ups and downs, but on an average that’s what it’s been. It’s total productivity through suggestions and new ideas, and that’s how we make our bonus.
Stith: Someday you could have somebody who thought your policies were all right, but what they really wanted was that figure. That all by itself would be enough to hold them and to keep them complying and participating in your program, wouldn’t it?
Schrotenboer: Well, money is a motivator and everybody needs it, but I think that if we didn’t have the philosophy of everybody being involved and running the company, we’d have unhappy people and money would not satisfy them. Money is a reward for the things that you do, and I guess that’s what the bonus plan is; we can have a better way of life through working together and also through money.
Manne: I have just one more question. I’ve noticed the heavy machinery around here. Could you comment on your safety record? Is that a problem around here at all, or does it not become a problem simply because you train your workers on this type of machinery beforehand? Can you comment on that?
Schrotenboer: This all seems to be kind of dangerous – when you talk about safety, you soon have accidents. But, no, our safety record has been very [good]. We have not had serious injuries. Each supervisor will have maybe two or three minor accidents each year – cuts, things like that. We’ve just been fortunate. I think some of it is due to concern for each other, but also to quality; when we speak of quality, we speak of quality of people, products, performance, housekeeping, everything we do, and I think that way we stay concerned.
Stith: I want to thank you for your time, and I am sure that years from now, this information is going to be very beneficial to hear and to work with. We do appreciate your courtesy.
* Eames was hired as a consulting designer to Herman Miller in 1946. – Ed.