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Okamura enters US market

Thursday 15 May 2008

Japanese office furniture giant Okamura, which for more than 50 years has built furniture at home, is entering the North American market for the first time.
The company will have a showroom at the Merchandise Mart in Chicago for NeoCon for the first time and plans to use the event to woo dealers to its line of high end office furniture.

The Japanese furniture maker could become a strong competitor to companies like Herman Miller, Steelcase and Haworth who serve the upper crust of the industry\'s Fortune 500 companies.

The company has had an office in Chicago for about seven years, working mostly as an OEM for other office furniture makers.

But this move is different. Okamura will be competing head to head with the industry\'s top companies.

The company has not outlined its exact plans for rolling out the brand, but it will follow the standard manufacturer-dealer model prevalent in the U.S. with its own \"spin,\" said Takeshi Miyata, vice president of sales and marketing in Okamura\'s Chicago office.

\"At this point, our main focus is NeoCon and opening our own showroom,\" he said. \"NeoCon will give us a good idea where our product fits in the industry. We don\'t have a concrete model in place. We want to see how the industry reacts.\"

The company\'s strength is in the seating market. It has marketed its Contessa chair through a relationship with Teknion in North America. Okamura also makes the Baron and Feego chairs. The company\'s Profice Deux and Unitbase workstations are benching-type products that are gaining favor in the industry. It also makes the Prostack line of training room furniture.

Unlike small upstarts in the industry, Okamura packs a formidable corporate punch with about $2 billion in sales company-wide. Okamura also builds stadium and airport seating, store displays, industrial machinery and material handling systems.

Office furniture accounts for about 61 percent of its total net sales, according to the company\'s 2007 annual report. Office furniture sales were up by more than 7 percent in 2007.

The annual report provides a glimpse at Okamura\'s global aspirations. \"Continuing our meticulous endeavors in manufacturing, cost reductions and quality improvements, Okamura will make deeper inroads in the global market,\" said President Kazuyoshi Hisamatsu.

Still, any entrant in the competitive office furniture market faces hurdles. Although strengthening slightly, the weak U.S. dollar could make Japanese-made furniture seem expensive to North American customers. And the largest furniture makers could make it difficult on dealers who try to form alliances with Okamura.

Still, making contacts in the dealer and architecture and design communities is one of the company\'s main goals at NeoCon and beyond. Okamura plans to methodically build its dealer network, not necessarily ramp up quickly.

\"Okamura has a good reputation for our chairs at past (shows in Europe),\" Miyata said. In the North American market, this will be our first time to participate at NeoCon. We trust our products will have a good reputation in North America as well.\"

The company has no plans for moving any furniture production from Japan to North America. But it might add other showrooms across the U.S. if demand dictates.

The company\'s Merchandise Mart showroom will occupy 3,500 square feet of space on the 11th floor.

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