With their manufacturing facility based in Cape Town and their sales teams based both in Cape Town and Johannesburg, C.O Designs has been one of the leading manufacturers in the South African office furniture landscape since 1994. The company’s ability to adapt and innovate in response to changing corporate office needs is why they have continued to be relevant for almost 30 years.

But like any other business, it’s not always smooth sailing. Leah Arnoldi explains how the company deals with challenges and why they chose to operate from Cape Town, highlighting the importance of having an organisation like the Department of Trade, Industry and Competition, and the City of Cape Town backing local businesses.

1. Tell us a bit more about your business and what it offers?

C.O Designs are specialists in the supply of office furniture solutions throughout Southern Africa. We collaborate with corporate facility managers, designers and select dealers consistently offering creative and cost-effective solutions.

We have recently launched our sister business, Home Office Designs, which intends to take years of experience in enabling optimal productivity in the corporate working environment and making it accessible in your home, through offering a range of products that respond naturally to the integration of working and living.

2. What important role does your company play in Cape Town, and abroad?

Cape Town has many extremely talented designers who are creating forward-thinking workspaces for their clients. C.O Designs works closely with these designers alongside our own in-house design team in bringing office furniture, acoustics solutions, and multi-functional workspaces to life. We stay on top of international trends and standards ensuring that we keep stretching ourselves to perform as well as, if not better, than our international contemporaries. We have the ability to customise our products specifically to the South African market and deliver a product proudly designed and manufactured in Cape Town.

3. When considering Cape Town, what factors made you choose to start here? Why Cape Town and what prompted the decision?

Twenty-six years ago, there was a large base of top-quality craftsmen as part of the cultural makeup of the city. In addition, Cape Town offered a wonderful lifestyle. The combination of these two factors made it the ideal place to start a business. It is also a port city, which provides an opportunity for.

4. What do you enjoy most about operating your business in Cape Town? What are the benefits of running a business/investing in Cape Town?

Cape Town has a  city council and provincial government that is supportive of local business. Our local DTIC department is capable and helpful. These support structures have jointly sponsored  (South African Furniture Initiative) as a national representative body for furniture, which was founded and originated in Cape Town.

5. Highlights/success stories you can share since starting your business in Cape Town?

We have managed to secure and service a long-standing blue-chip customer base, nationally, from Cape Town. Logistically, Cape Town has offered the right infrastructure and reach to service this customer base. Our real achievement is how we have managed to successfully change and adapt our products and services to evolve with our customers – in terms of furniture styles, workplace philosophy and trends. The greater awareness of ergonomics and distraction-free working has inspired the design of innovative products such as our QuickPod and Chatterbox Privacy Pods. These products were a response to collaborative and de-centralised working. They have allowed for long-term cost savings and environmentally sensitive office workspaces that are acoustically engineered and can be transported and reused.

6. What challenges, if any, have you experienced in setting up your business?

Our business is probably not unique in the challenges that most start-ups face. Cash flow is always challenging when needing to fund product development ahead of the sales cycle and putting the right people in the right roles is tricky. Putting together the best workflow and optimal size of our manufacturing operation is also something that we constantly work on, redefine and adjust as we go along.

Our industry is capital intensive, as we rely on expensive imported machines. South Africa has the burden of relatively high interest rates and declining exchange rates that make these expenses high in relation to overseas competitors. Unfortunately, craftsmen have not been regenerated into the current age, and this need has been replaced by a demand for smart technology-focused manufacturing skills. To overcome and address these challenges we have implemented in-house training and mentoring. Our very low staff turnover rate shows that our investment put into our staff pays off. For example, our CNC (computer numeric controlled) operator started off as a watchman at the front gate, today he is our best machine operator and is now learning CNC programming. One of our administrative store controllers started as a cleaner who then moved to quality control and is now a union representative. Our senior production planner started on the factory floor as a non-qualified cabinet maker.

7. What challenges have you experienced during the Covid-19 pandemic and in what ways are you planning to help alleviate those challenges?

Our greatest challenge as a result of Covid-19 has been the corporate market stalling their refresh and expansion plans, as teams were sent to work from home rather than from the office. The pandemic forced us to re-evaluate everything we do and build up a new base, discarding any old habits, company cultures and legacies that were no longer serving us. We used the quiet time to work on our Home Office Designs product line and to restructure our traditional business in a way that is more agile and able to respond better to this new office environment.

8. How has your business plan changed in response to Covid-19? 

We understand, now more than ever, how important it is to stay in close contact with the facilities teams of our customers and to respond to their in-house requirements by creating safe workspaces for their staff. We know that we cannot simply supply the same products as we did in pre-pandemic days. The corporate workspace has changed for good, and we need to ensure that we play our part in creating safe and flexible workspaces.

We have been tinkering with the idea of a home office range for some time now, but Covid-19 certainly brought that forward as a priority, and we have invested in new designs and skills to best bring this range to market as an e-commerce business. This is quite a departure from our traditional B2B business plan.

Our business plan is to be focused on specialty niches and doing things exceptionally well. This is to create a differentiating advantage. While keeping our broad service offering available to clients, we have achieved this through strategic alliances with carefully selected suppliers and competitors, who share common interests, whilst competing.

9. What health and safety protocols has your business put in place for customers and staff?

We have taken the health and safety protocols as per the government guidelines very seriously. We are fully aware of how quickly one Covid-19 positive team member can bring our whole operation to a standstill. In addition to the standard protocols, including amongst others, checks and registers, regular sanitising, etc., we have also limited the number of visitors to our building wherever practical and have moved office-based staff around to create safe, socially distanced workspaces.

10. What have you got planned for the future of your business? 

We believe that we have an amazing team in place that will ensure that our business remains relevant in the corporate office space, and that our Home Office Designs products really offer something unique in enabling the best work-from-home experience. These two very different product lines, coming from the same well-honed design and manufacturing expertise, are where we will be focusing our efforts. We are innovating our products to be internationally competitive, to not just service the local market but expand into a global scale with our niche products.

We will soon be launching a new product called EasyActiv. We have spent substantial time developing this product to ensure that it addresses ergonomic requirements of a broad range of work styles. What is exciting about the EasyActiv is that it is an affordable product that can be used for both remote and office work. It is a multi-functional product that encourages movement, prevents fatigue, and provides comfort whilst working from wherever you are. The EasyActiv will be available online through the Home Office Designs website.

Even with their commendable success over many years, C.O Designs has opted to remain in the Mother City and use it as their main branch from which to operate their business. This is testament that there is great opportunity for businesses to grow and expand in Cape Town, whether operating from here or not. So, if you’re looking to set up shop, this is the city to do it in.

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