Jeffrey Meltzer is founder and president of Applied Ergonomics, a Chicago-based leader in ergonomic office solutions, specializing in design and consultative services. With more than 30 years in the ergonomic furniture industry, Meltzer has redefined traditional contract furniture dealerships and created a full-service concept in Applied Ergonomics, the only U.S.-based contract furniture dealership that also provides ergonomic product specialization (ErgoVAR) and consultancy.
Tell me about your early career.
I entered the world of ergonomic furniture 30 years ago. After graduating from Michigan with an undergraduate major in Business Administration, I had a few different careers as I looked to find the right fit. I spent 5 years as a market maker on the CBOE. I worked for my family in our large retail business, which has since gone out of business, and also did residential rehabbing and commercial contracting. At that point in my life, I was looking to shift my focus into something that combined all of these skills but also dealt with wellness and made a difference in people’s lives, and it just so happened that one of my brother’s best friends was a doctor who was funding a startup called Back Care Incorporated. I started working with them doing ergonomic furniture design and sales, something that was fairly unheard of 30 years ago. We were selling ergonomic furniture, primarily chairs and computer accessories, and my work there allowed me the experience of getting versed in ergonomic furniture, while also utilizing my business background.
How did the concept for Applied Ergonomics come about?
As Back Care Incorporated started to fail from management errors, I decided to go into business for myself. That decision also gave me an opportunity to expand into entire office design. My first project was a whopper – furnishing the corporate offices of Boston Chicken, aka Boston Market, which was moving from Naperville, Illinois to a new campus in Golden, Colorado. They were a very dynamic organization, moving people and furniture at a very high rate each year. They wanted a product with revolutionary capabilities and I had their solution. This project, and a few others in our early years, catapulted Applied Ergonomics into the limelight as a top-tier furniture dealer. We’ve continued to embrace revolutionary practices and product lines to maintain our spot atop of that list.
How was the first year in business?
Winning that first project with Boston Chicken was a huge boost for us. At the time, I was still operating the business out of my house. The corporate relocation took over three years and included designing office space and workstations for more than 1,100 employees. From there, we went on to win a major succession of large corporate projects and just kept moving the company forward. We experienced some major growth in that first year and continue to do so.
What was your marketing strategy?
We’ve always had two sides to our business, the ergonomic consultancy and the contract furniture dealership. We partnered with the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago, a division of Northwestern Memorial, and other occupational therapists to serve their patients. These referrals often lead to working with the organization on all of their furniture needs, whether ergonomic in nature or not. We were also early adopters of online search engine optimization and pay-per-click advertising.
How fast did the company grow during the first few years?
From nothing to what we’ve become; it all happened right away. All while I was working out of my basement with only one employee. Not long after, we added our second employee.
What is special about your business and industry?
I love that our business has an impact on our clients in so many ways. With ergonomic interventions, I can literally take someone out of pain. I have even kept people out of invasive surgery. That’s a very immediate and direct impact that we have on improving people’s lives. But, in our primary business of designing and furnishing spaces, we make a significant impact as well. We help organizations define and enhance their corporate culture, lifting attitudes both within and outside the organization. We improve productivity, collaboration and space utilization. And, we do it while helping to improve the environment with sustainable and recycled content, using vendors that employ green manufacturing practices. Of course, we use ergonomic principles and products to improve everyone’s health and well being whenever possible.
How do you define success?
I define success in a couple of ways, both interim and long term. Ultimately, I define financial success as building a company that is saleable, that can survive without me. I haven’t achieved that yet but we’re well on the way to doing so. Interimly, I define success as supporting my family and taking care of my employees generously. I also define success from our clients’ perspective. We are in a business that is fraught with opportunities to make mistakes that impact our clients; the fact that we have so many long-term customers who entrust us with their businesses is a testament to our success.
What is the key to success?
What’s been the key for us so far really comes down to the care that we put into each project. Each client is entrusting us with not only a large sum of money but also the ability of their organization to function, and function well. If a client is moving and we don’t perform, it’s not pretty. There are no second chances to get it right. So we treat each customer with the care and concern that we would for our best friends. We go through every detail multiple times, and when mistakes do happen, we get them corrected quickly.
What is the greatest lesson you’ve ever learned?
You only have one name, and we live in a very small community, so be the best version of yourself.
What are some quotes that you live by?
I live by the quote “live and let live” every day. No one has the right to impose their morality on others and most who try to are hypocritical.
What are some of your favorite books?
I read a combination of business, personal growth books and novels. I’m especially fond of Daniel Silva’s fictional character, Gabriel Allon, an Israeli assassin/spy who was recruited to avenge the Munich Olympics massacre. He goes on to work on many complex assignments that are well-researched and written and are very quick reads.
Tell me about one of the toughest days you’ve had as an entrepreneur.
When I first went into business, I aligned my company with a revolutionary young manufacturer, Teknion, and grew to be doing 25 percent of their Midwest volume while still operating out of my home office. I soon moved into a new office and filled it with Teknion furniture as display, at which time they decided to change their distribution model exclusive to only larger firms and cut us as a dealer. My entire customer base was filled with furniture that I could no longer sell. I lost almost all of my business overnight. That was the greatest challenge I’ve ever faced.
When faced with adversity, what pushes you to keep moving forward?
Rolling over and quitting has never been an option. I started Applied Ergonomics the year my wife gave birth to our first daughter. Failure was never in my mind.
What advice would you give to young entrepreneurs?
I love the business that I’m in but I would advise a young entrepreneur to invest in a business that has two specific features, which of course, mine does not. First, while we have many repeat customers, they don’t need us with any frequency. Start a business that has longevity working with the same people, where new sales mean that you are adding accounts that will maintain a consistent revenue stream; so sales wins are accretive rather than transactional. Second, try to find a business that is somewhat insulated from recessions. No business is entirely, but ours is the first to get cut and among the last to get re-budgeted.
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This interview was conducted for research purposes by author Jason Navallo for his upcoming book, Underdog.
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