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She sells office furniture, but mentorship is why this Philly executive advocates for hybrid work

But Cofco, a 75-year-old office furniture seller in Philly, brings in employees for just two days a week, to stay competitive.

Joan Waters owns and runs Cofco, a commercial office furniture dealer, in North Philadelphia.
Joan Waters owns and runs Cofco, a commercial office furniture dealer, in North Philadelphia.Read moreJose F. Moreno

Joan Waters owns and runs the Cofco furniture dealer out of two buildings in North Philadelphia, bringing in $65 million a year in revenue. It’s been tough times for the industry as firms canceled office projects because of the pandemic and used furniture flooded the market. Revenue in the U.S. office furniture manufacturing sector fell 25% in 2020, research firm IBISWorld says.

But Cofco is doing well. Besides corporate clients such as Burlington Stores and the law firm Morgan Lewis, Cofco’s Washington, D.C., branch sells furniture to the federal government. Cofco also sells to health-care facilities. This year, the firm supplied $10 million in furniture to Penn Medicine’s new Pavilion tower, which opened in October. Because of Cofco’s diversified customer base, the firm experienced no revenue decline in 2020 and will have a solid 2021, Waters said.

Firms larger than hers are debating how to work — fully in-office, hybrid, or remote — and how to reconfigure workspaces. Pennsylvania-based pharmacy chain Rite Aid has told 2,800 headquarters staffers to work from home for good. Lincoln Financial, based in Radnor, also has gone heavily remote.

Given the business she’s in, it may not be surprising that Waters advocates returning to the office. But she’s far from the only one who says there’s value in offices, especially for mentoring younger employees.

“Offices will play a vital role in the future of the hybrid but will need to be updated from past uniform, one-size-fits-all designs,” suggests the Harvard Business Review.

“I think there are negatives to working from home,” Jamie Dimon, the CEO of JPMorgan Chase, told a virtual conference in September. “We’ve seen productivity drop in certain jobs and alienation go up in certain things.”

Waters, 60, recently sold Cofco’s biggest building in a gentrifying area on North American Street for $8.7 million, an offer she says she couldn’t turn down. Cofco opened in 1946 as Commercial Office Furniture Co. in Philadelphia and its business is stable. But because of city taxes and other cost issues, there is a 50% chance that the company will relocate outside Philadelphia to compete with suburban dealers.

“It’s heartbreaking,” Waters, a member of the executive committee at the Chamber of Commerce for Greater Philadelphia, said of the potential move out of the city.

Here is a conversation with Waters about offices and her business. It has been condensed for an easier read:

Why do you believe there is a future for the office?

People still believe in culture. There’s value in culture. There’s value in camaraderie. There’s value in having people together. You know, if you look at the studies, they say that one of the things we’ve missed is that human contact that we’ve lost over the last two years.

How are companies, or you, looking at the office?

The office should exist to create collaboration and teamwork and culture and mentorship. So it’s not going to be a cube farm. Then you need some areas where work is done. You have some areas you can go off and put your great ideas that occurred during those brainstorming sessions on paper or think about them.

You say that offices are very important for young employees. Why?

Young employees need mentorship. They need sponsorship. When they’re not around leaders, it’s very hard for them to embody or watch and understand how managers and leaders actually do their job. To watch a leader on a Zoom call is very different than to watch them interact with a variety of people inside the office. Mentorship — helping the younger generations grow and become good leaders — is a really important part of what any business should be doing today, small, medium, or large. Some large companies have formal mentorship programs. Most companies don’t. At most companies, that’s happening in the office.

What are you hearing from your customers about hybrid or full-time office?

In the end, every successful company is going to have a hybrid situation, and largely because there is a war on talent. You want to be competitive. You want to create an environment where you’re able to attract the brightest and the best.

What have you told your employees about being in the office?

We’ve said to our colleagues they need to be in the office two days a week. One of those days, everyone has to be in the office. Here in Philly, it’s Wednesday. In D.C., it’s Tuesday. Again, to have everyone together on one day. It reminds us who our teammates are.

There are big issues around supply-chain delays. Has Cofco experienced any delays?

Yes. In our business, a normal delivery of a large project could take 12 weeks. Right now it’s taking 20 [weeks] by the time we order the product to get it in, get it installed, and finish the project.

And why is that?

Foam, for instance. Last year during the horrible storms in Texas, all the petroleum went offline and that started the foam crisis, the foam shortage. Foam couldn’t go into the cushions for chairs. So you have a desk but you can’t give them the chair.

We work primarily with a company called Allsteel. They’re out of Muscatine, Iowa. Great partner. They make most of their products in the U.S. in Muscatine. But they import some parts [like pneumatic lifts that make the chair go up and down]. Those overseas parts are sitting on boats for 50, 60, 70 days. Then when they get off the boat, they have to get through customs. Then they have to get onto a truck. Well, there’s a huge trucking issue right now.

Are delays improving or worsening?

They are easing. September was the worst. We now understand what we’re dealing with. The manufacturers can give us clear and realistic expectations.

Have you seen inflation?

Absolutely. We have had price increases, tariffs, and fuel surcharges from a variety of manufacturers. In some cases, we’ve seen prices go up 20% in the last six months.