“We were pivoting before pivoting was a thing,” Frank Bucher, CEO of Formaspace, begins.
Bucher became CEO of the office and lab furniture manufacturing company in January 2023. He joined Formaspace in Austin, TX as the company’s Executive VP of Sales, then the Chief Operating Officer from 2020 to 2022.
“The company that I joined in 2017 is still the same company at its core,” Bucher continues. “We've just continued to evolve, pivot, and point the company in the direction where others are not, and that's been quite successful for us.”
When Bucher joined Formaspace, there were about 15 full-time and part-time employees. Now, the company employs 82 people. The company primarily makes lab furniture such as desks that scientists might use in a biology or chemistry lab. Hanging on the walls inside the front offices are pictures of the furniture being used in various spaces. One display shows a movie poster from The Amazing Spider-Man 2: Formaspace’s desks were in a lab set piece for the movie.
“We are a custom furniture manufacturer, that's what we do. We serve two particular markets; the office and the contract furniture office market, in a custom nature. The other market is the lab and industrial market, so we serve that market in a meaningful way. Roughly 80% of our sales are in that market,” Bucher adds.
Bucher notes the pandemic forced a shift at Formaspace as hybrid and remote work became more mainstream.
“The office market, and we sell fundamentally to office furniture dealers, and even if we're selling them lab furniture, or office furniture, that market is contracting, as you've seen,” Bucher says. “There's a lot of unknowns, right now, if people are going to return to the office or not.”
Bucher started leading Formaspace just a few months before the CDC ended the public health emergency due to COVID-19. Former CEO and current Chairman Jeff Turk steered Formaspace through the pandemic.
“We were fortunate to recognize it was coming to the United States early,” Turk recounts. “We sent our first company-wide email, I think, on January 28, 2020. Whereas the government didn't declare a disaster until the middle of March 2020. We were already getting prepared from a variety of perspectives.”
Turk, like Bucher, emphasized Formaspace’s ability to change direction and production quickly.
“We prepared with five different very basic business plans: One in which things went extraordinary because other competitors kind of moved out of the way one way or the other; and, a normal plan; and kind of steady as she goes plan; and a bad plan; and holy hell, the world is going to hell in a handbasket plan,” Turk remembers.
The planning paid off. As major manufacturers changed their business models to combat the pandemic, Formaspace was waiting in the wings to support large companies like General Motors and others making ventilators and other medical equipment.
While the pandemic exposed supply chain challenges across the manufacturing industry, Bucher notes other challenges his company faces, primarily sourcing materials and labor in central Texas while competing with companies like Samsung and Tesla.
“Luckily, 99% of what we use is sourced domestically,” Bucher says. “Now there's some suppliers, of course, that are coming from overseas or wherever else to make some of those components, but the good news is a lot of what we make is within driving distance from here.”
Bucher boasts of investment in his people to compete with major manufacturers in an increasingly tight labor market in central Texas.
“The key for us is culture. We had a Star Wars Day, May the Fourth be with you,” Bucher grins. “The guys don't work on Cinco De Mayo, so we got some tacos on Darth Vader day. That's an opportunity for me to talk to everyone, see everyone, show our gratitude and appreciation. We also compensate our people in a meaningful way, not just hourly; we also give them part of our profits. We share with the folks on the floor, so that's great for retention and retaining talent.”
Even with the challenges of competition for labor, materials, and the fallout from the pandemic, Bucher has seen plenty of opportunity since he joined Formaspace in 2017.
“I continue to see us growing, I continue to see us serving more and more markets in a more meaningful way, meaning maybe there's opportunities for us, in the west, maybe there's more opportunities for us in the east,” Bucher says. “Whether that's an acquisition of some sort down the road, I don't know, but I think we're approaching those types of dialogues.”