How a furniture company knows that US banks are healthier now

Office makeover, anyone?
Office makeover, anyone?
Image: Steelcase
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No, don’t read those confusing earnings releases. In fact, don’t even listen to the results of those stress tests. There’s a better reason to believe banks and insurance companies are returning to health in the US: they’re buying more office furniture.

Steelcase, a company which makes office furniture, told investors that sales to insurance and financial-services companies grew strongly in the fourth quarter of last year, as well as to information-technology and manufacturing companies. CEO James Hackett said in a conference call that these sales give credence to the idea that banks in the US are back, and this success is built on strength in the US economy (transcript via Factset, our emphasis):

There’s a narrative out there that is talking about with the energy policy issues, allowing natural gas to change kind of our dependency, the manufacturing sector growing. Housing, it’s not nearly back where it is. But it’s improving the banking stability in terms of the tangible net worth of the banks [and] insurance companies – by the way a lot of these are our customers. I see a narrative that I’m going to continue with you which is, I said to you before, that the companies can’t escape the fact that their spaces are out of date and this happened over the last few years. Mobile computing and global kind of connectedness is just forcing this.

In other words, now that the crisis has ebbed, financial firms are catching up with how technology has changed the ways people work and use their office spaces. That’s part of why Steelcase’s revenue grew 5.2% more in Q4 2012 (pdf) than the same quarter in 2011.