Steelcase The First 75 Years: A Clear-Sighted Beginning

On March 14, 192 at 8:00 p.m., Fred W,Tobey, vice president of Macey Furniture any in Grand Rapids, Michigan, welcomes twelve men into his home. They have gathered to conduct the first stockholders meeting of the Metal Office Furniture Company, predecessor of today's Steelcase Inc.

One of the original stockholders of the new company is Macey president A. W. Hompe. At this meeting, he is named president of Metal Office. Other officers elected this night include vice president and general mannger, Peter M. Wege and secretary-treasurer, Walter D. Idema. This chain of command remains in force for two years, until the relationship betweerl Metal Office and Macey is severed. When Hompe steps down, Wege becomes president and general manager, Tobey is vice president and Idema continues as secretary-treasurer.

These initial management shifts are short-lived. David D. Hunting joins Metal Office in 1914. When he becomes secretary in 1920, the Wege-Idema-Hunting management team is set for the next three decades.

On the national scene, 1912 is a time of tremendous industrial development; much of this growth is due to inventions such as commercial-quality electric lighting, the telephone and rubber vulcanizing. The world of science and technology grows apace. Medical researchers begin to study human dietary needs more carefully when they recognize that vitamins are essential to human health; scientists first speak of the "continental drift" theorizing that all land masses shift; and a new and very useful material called "cellophane" is introduced.

The nation's farmers are enjoying the benefits of mechanization with gas-powered tractors pulling a host of new agricultural machinery such as the reaper, thresher, and the mechanical harvester. As a result, farm acreage has more than doubled since the latter part of the 19th century, and farm production more than tripled.

These fast-paced developments create rich ground for the activities of aggressive entrepreneurs. Scottish-born Andrew Carnegie is instsrumental in consolidating the nation's steel industry, while John D. Rockefeller builds a personal fortune by concentrating on oil.

In politics, Americans are following the exploits of former President Theodore Roosevelt. Pronouncing himself "fit as a bull moose," he forms the Progressive Party, and makes a third run for the presidency.

By 1912, the United States is not only an economic giant, but a full-fledged international power: The population has exploded to 92 million and a flood of European immigrants contributes substantially to this increase - averaging about a million per year in the first part of the 20th century.

Back home in Michigan, sports fans are focusing on the uncanny, basestealing, talents of a Detroit Tiger named Ty Cobb - baseball's best player.

But the men meeting at Fred Tobey's house have metal furniture on their minds. Tobey and Hompe have already committed to purchase and market all of the products manufactured at this new Metal Office Furniture Company. Given the current climate of economic and industrial growth, they're confident that the market for metal furniture will grow.

Henry Idema, a prominent local banker, is interested in making wise local investments, and his son, Walter, is a recent college graduate who desires to become involved in a challenging business opportunity.

Most of the others present are successful Grand Rapids businessmen who've decided to becorne minority investors in the new venture. They are furniture makers, attorneys, a physician, a photographer, a seed company owner and a produce dealer who believe that the new company, which will make steel files, shelving and desks, is a good business opportunity with minimal risk:

The investors share the confidence of Wege, the new company's principal stockholder, who has years of experience fabricating metal products. Wege already holds several patents for his innovative metalworking ideas, and in recent years has been assistant general manager for General Fireproofing Company and an executive with Safe Cabinet Company of Marietta, Ohio. Now, he wants to make metal office furniture in his own factory.

Wege has found the backers he needs and Grand Rapids - "The Furniture City" - seems like an ideal setting. Ony New York and Chicago, with populations ten to twenty times larger than Grand Rapids' 120,000 residents, can claim to manufacture more furniture.

The furniture industry in Grand Rapids already has a 75-year history. It began in the 1830s with a few small cabine makers and then grew to dominate the city's economic life during the industrial and business revolution . . .

(This section of the article also contains a photograph of Teddy Roosevelt's "typical turn-of-the-century office.")