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Columbus CEO Q&A with Ira Sharfin


Continental Office's CEO, Ira Sharfin, recently sat down for an interview with Columbus CEO Magzine.

As CEO and co-owner of Continental Office since 2005, Ira Sharfin leads one of the top workspace solutions providers in Central Ohio. Continental Office was founded as an office supply company in 1939. Today, the company offers services ranging from branding to floors to walls. The company employs over 200 people, the majority of whom are based in the Columbus headquarters. The company also has office locations in Pittsburgh and Toledo.

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 also have a branding team that works on helping our clients physically brand their space and tell their story within the work environment. Additionally, we can help companies with managing assets—it could be storage or 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 teams.

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 walls, furniture, the two serviceswe’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 OhioHealth and Mount Carmel and the 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 acquisitionshow did you get into office environments?

A: I spent 16 years as a consulting partner with PricewaterhouseCoopers and IBM.

Because of my consulting background and because 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, when 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 of your notable clients?

A: We’ve had some great long-standing clients. Time Warner would be one, Huntington Bank, Limited Brands, Nationwide Insurance, certainly Ohio State and the OSU Medical Center, OhioHealth.

Q: What tips would you give to a firm wanting to refresh their office but they 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-somethings 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 those 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 different interactions are happening at work and how creating the right work environment can help people deliver the greatest possible performance.

It’s really not about furniture, chairs, or tablesit’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 DealerI think our furniture is outstandingbut it’s really about what you do with those assets and how you create that environment that not only helps attract people but helps retain people.

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