Executive Q&A: Ira Sharfin
As president, CEO and co-owner of Continental Office Environments since 2005, Ira Sharfin leads one of the top office furnishing and service providers in Central Ohio. COE was founded as an office-supply company in 1939; today, the company offers services ranging from branding and consulting to flooring and walls. The company employs 238 people, the majority of whom are based in Continental’s Columbus HQ. The company also has offices in Toledo and Pittsburgh.
Q: Tell us a bit about the company:
A: Our company is approaching its 75th anniversary in 2014, so we’ve been around for a while. The company’s roots were really in office supplies and furniture. For the last 10 years we’ve really grown…our furniture business, expanded geographically and gone into other businesses as well.
We’ve got a very large flooring business….We’ve got two other businesses. One is called 3D Branding, which is a division within Continental Office Environments that works on helping our clients physically brand their space and tell their story within the work environment.
The other one is more behind the scenes, but it’s called Workplace Consulting Service. We help companies with managing assets—it could be storage, it could be reconfiguring work environments. We’ve got some technology tools …we’ve created so they can track projects. We really augment their on-site facilities team(s).
That’s kind of how we’ve grown over the years. We’ve got about 230 people across our various locations now.
Q: What was your 2012 revenue?
A: We’re north of $100 million. We don’t’ give that breakdown, but we’re (over) $100 million.
Q: Where’s your greatest growth opportunity?
A: Our greatest growth opportunity varies by market. But from a furniture standpoint, we’re about 70% furniture and related services. We’re probably 20% flooring and modular walls, and then 10% would be our services business.
Q: Where are your greatest Columbus growth markets in 2014?
A: I just had an executive retreat with my team and we’re looking to grow across all those areas. In terms of those four capabilities--floors and wall, furniture, the two services--we’re looking to grow those out. We’re going to put a strong emphasis on (the) education and healthcare (industries) because those tend to be strong sectors in Central Ohio. Not that we don’t focus on corporate and government, but if you think about Ohio Health and Mount Carmel and OSU Wexner Medical Center, there’s just so much going on.
Q: Do you work with those organizations?
In some form or fashion we’ve worked with all of them. That’s probably what I’m most proud of beyond our team, is that we’ve got such an awesome, cool list of clients. Not just because we’ve been around for so long and not because of me, but it’s more the people that we’ve hired and the relationships that we’ve built. We just want to do more in those sectors.
Q: You have a background in consulting, in mergers and acquisitions--how did you get into office environments?
A: My entire career, I spent 16 years as a consulting partner with…PricewaterhouseCoopers and IBM.
Because of my consulting background and I was doing strategy and M&A, I got to see a lot of different industries. I was always fascinated with sales and marketing and related customer services. Having an industrial engineering degree, I was always liked warehouse logistics operations. I had known Frank Kass, who is one of my business partners along with Jack Lucks, who is my other partner. Frank and I started talking after I moved back to Columbus where I grew up. I moved back in 2004, I was still consulting with IBM.
One thing led to another and I decided to join and become a partner with those two. It was one of those (things) where the timing was perfect. I was looking to shift and change my career and really own something I could help build and take to the next level. Everything lined up. Both of them are great mentors and partners. We’ve been able to bring in new talent and new people to help me lead the company to the next level.
Q: Who are some are you notable clients?
A: We’ve had some great longstanding clients. Time Warner would be one, Huntington Bank, Limited Brands, Nationwide Insurance, certainly Ohio State and OSU Medical Center, Ohio Health.
Q: What tips would you give to a firm wanting to refresh the office but don’t know where to start?
A: Think about what’s important to your company? What are your values, what are your behaviors, what do you want your space to say? Talk to your employees, not just your managers and executives. Talk to your employees and find out how they’re currently working and how they think they could be more effective, productive, collaborate better, better serve clients. Oftentimes those are the best ideas.
What we’re finding is with multiple generations in the workplace, a lot of the 20-year-olds coming in… want to work differently. The whole world of the workforce is changing. Their expectations are different than they were 10, 15, 20 years ago. A lot of the young workers, and even people who have been in the workforce for a while, they don’t want to just show up and sit in a cubicle. They want different zones where they can be creative and collaborate. That’s what we’re really helping companies do in terms of how are the different interactions happening at work and how can you create the right work environment to help people deliver the greatest possible performance.
It’s really not about furniture, chairs or tables--it’s really about the experience that you can create for your employees. I think it’s evident when you walk into an Apple store or a Starbucks, you can kind of feel it. I tell people every day, it’s really not about the furniture. We’re a very large Herman Miller Dealer--I think our furniture is outstanding--but it’s really about what you do with those assets and how do you create that environment that not only helps attract people but helps retain people.