HNI Corporation has built a furniture empire along the Mississippi River

The year was 1944, and C. Maxwell Stanley, Clement Hanson and H. Wood Miller had just started a company that made metal recipe boxes and steel kitchen cabinets. The idea for the company began out of the desire to provide good jobs for World War II veterans returning from overseas, and today it is the world’s second-largest office future manufacturer and the leading manufacturer and marketer of gas-and wood-burning fireplaces in the nation.

Over the years, HNI Corporation, headquartered in Muscatine, IA, part of the bi-state Quad Cities region, has been named among the Top 100 Most Trustworthy Companies by Forbes magazine and the Top 100 Companies for Leadership Development by Executive Magazine.  Among the accolades, HNI remains true to its core: the vision of a workplace where all employees are treated equally and respectfully as members of a productive industrial enterprise.

“From day one, it’s always been members, not employees,” Gary Carlson, vice president of community relations said. “Members have always been thought of as partners. We started paying profit sharing before we started paying dividends to stockholders; not much before, but it was before. Members are shareholders and receive stock in the company as part of their retirement. Members create value for the company, value for shareholders, and add value to customers. It’s a wonderful culture.”

HNI’s brands include The HON Company, Allsteel, Gunlocke, Paoli, Maxon, HBF, Artcobell, Heatilator, Heat & Glo, Harman, and Quadra-Fire. Globally, HNI employs 9,600 people, with 8,300 in the U.S. and 4,400 in Iowa. HNI reported $2.3 billion in annual revenue in 2015, and is publicly traded on the NYSE under the ticker “HNI.”

With a career that includes 32 years in the manufacturing industry – nine with HNI and 23 with Bandag before that, as well as serving as the CEO of the Greater Muscatine Chamber of Commerce and as an elected official after earning a seat in the Iowa House of Representatives District 91, Carlson has a unique perspective on the region’s economic engine.

“Serving in the legislature is a tremendous honor,” Carlson said. “One of the things I’ve learned is there have been a lot of people in the legislature before you and there will be a lot of people after you, so you just have to be prudent and make good decisions while you are there.”

Carlson said creating and maintaining a climate that is business friendly, tax neutral, and helps provide a good quality of life benefits everyone in Iowa, and adds there are many benefits to being headquartered in the Quad Cities region.

“Because of all the manufacturers who are already here, you have a very beneficial environment for all,” Carlson said.

He used the example of the Quad Cities Manufacturing Innovation Hub, a program of the Quad Cities Chamber that helps regional manufacturers by assessing opportunities, creating a plan for implementation and connecting them to key resources, like the 16 federally designated manufacturing innovation centers across the U.S. The Hub also connects regional businesses to the Illinois Manufacturing Excellence Center and Iowa State Center for Industrial Research and Service, and the Quad City Manufacturing Lab, for services and assistance. HNI has been involved with the Hub “since day one,” Carlson says.

The Quad Cities region has a diverse manufacturing base, and that also attracts other businesses to the region.

“The Quad Cities Chamber asked me to speak to a business considering moving to the area just recently,” he said. “The business wanted to know about the talent level, the work environment, and what suppliers are like. I can candidly tell them what the region has to offer and what it can provide. Hopefully, one day, the business will move to the Quad Cities and be another strength to the region.”

Carlson said HNI takes great pride in helping Muscatine when able, and as a result, has helped increase the quality of life in the area, which provides value for HNI’s members in the community.

A recent example is HNI spending $50 million on infrastructure improvements that will include a new manufacturing location and the construction of a glass skywalk above Second Street, the major gateway to downtown Muscatine. Inside the skywalk is a conveyor belt transporting office furniture product from the manufacturing plant to a distribution center.

The update will also allow HNI to move the corporate team into a renovated building in its main downtown operations campus, co-located with a new state-of-the-art product development, engineering and innovation center. HNI will donate its current corporate headquarters building to the city, which will use the space as the new home of Musser Public Library and the HNI Community Center.

“It makes me excited to see what will happen and the changes to the appearance of downtown—how it will open up the gateway to the city,” Mr. Carlson said. “But equally important, we’ve made an investment in production allowing us to better serve our customers by adding manufacturing capability and a better work environment for our members.”

The work environment and building a corporate culture that allows members to explore other avenues and disciplines has helped HNI attract and keep high quality members.

“We are not that far from our 75th anniversary as a company, and we’re only on our fourth CEO,” Carlson said. “He’s been with the company for more than 20 years. We have a healthy blend of people who are promoted from within, people who already understand and appreciate our culture, and people from the outside who bring a new way of looking at things through a different prism.”

HNI also built alliances with area community colleges, like Eastern Iowa Community College and Muscatine Community College, and universities to provide the skilled workers they need. They also import talent from colleges like Iowa State University, University of Iowa, St. Ambrose University and Augustana College.

“We have a very active university internship program; about 80 were here this summer,” Carlson said. “Most are juniors in college. For us, it’s like a three month interview—and for them as well. It’s important for us to see if they fit with the company, but it’s equally important for them to find out if the company fits with them. It has to be a two-way street.”

Abby Box, originally from Moline, IL, came to HNI through the internship program while she was attending St. Ambrose University. She graduated and started working as a business analyst at HNI in 2012.

“I really didn’t know about HNI until I was at a career fair and was talking with them,” she said. “I ended up being an intern here and that was it. I was so impressed with the place and the people, it was an easy decision.”

Abby’s husband also works for HNI in IT. One of the things that attracted her to HNI is the corporation’s willingness to allow its members to explore other disciplines and careers.

“That was a big plus for me,” she said. “Knowing that if I became ready for a job change, the company would support me in looking for a new avenue to pursue. There’s always people here to help you at whatever stage you are at, and there’s plenty of career opportunity here.”

During her internship, she was surprised to learn about everything Muscatine and the smaller communities around Muscatine have to offer. She also worked in Minnesota at HNI’s fireplace manufacturing plant for a while before returning to Muscatine.

“That’s one of the positives for me. You can have an entire career and never leave Muscatine if you want, or you can leave for New York or one of our locations and go overseas,” she said. “It was a surprise to find this culture here, in Muscatine. There’s just so much to offer. It’s no plan B, career-wise. This is exactly where I want to be.”

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