Front and center: constant innovation, customer needs
As executives at Starsprings expand the company’s reach in Europe and South America, they remain committed to providing innovative products to the industries they serve. Guided by market research, this Swedish manufacturer of spring units continues to challenge itself to bring high-quality, state-of-the-art products that address real needs to market.
Headquartered in Herrljunga, Sweden, Starsprings evolved from E. Stjerna, founded in 1918 by Eric Stjerna to produce upholstered furniture and carpeting. In 1937, the company began producing its own springs. The venture proved to be so successful that, in 1945, the spring component of the business was spun off into a separate company, Starsprings. The new company took its name from the family’s name: Stjerna in English means star.
Both companies remain family-owned and operated. Elizabeth Axelstjerna is the managing director of E. Stjerna and NilsEric Stjerna is chief executive officer of Starsprings.
Although the siblings, who are the founder’s grandchildren, honor the company’s history, they have their eyes firmly set on the future. “The history of our company is in innovation and so is our future,” NilsEric Stjerna says. “Many of our customers are high-end producers who want state-of-the-art products, and that’s where we shine through and set ourselves apart.”
The bulk of Starprings’ products are sold to the home furnishings and automotive industries. Bedding manufacturers account for the majority of the company’s home furnishings industry sales and are central to its plans for growth.
“Our vision is to become the technical and market leader for sleep comfort,” Stjerna says. “We may never become the biggest company, but we want to produce the best products.”
|Specialty||Manufacturer of spring units for the automotive and furniture industries, including bedding.|
|Founded||Starsprings evolved from E. Stjerna, founded in 1918 by Eric Stjerna to produce upholstered furniture and carpeting. In 1937, the company began producing its own springs and, in 1945, that business was spun off into a separate company, Starsprings.|
Innovating and collaborating
At Starsprings, producing the best means offering high-quality products that meet real needs. Identifying those needs always begins with market research.
“A lot of product development starts with someone who thinks he has a good idea. Sometimes it is and sometimes it isn’t,” Stjerna says. “When we start a new product, we put a lot of effort into market research to tell us where the holes in the market are. It’s not about what we want to produce, but what the customer wants to have.”
After areas for new or improved products are identified, Starsprings moves into a Lean Product Development phase. Developed by Toyota as a precursor to Lean Manufacturing, LPD is a process by which a team of people from different parts the company begin to address the viability of a potential product through brainstorming.
Product development is overseen by Bengt Hager, chief technology officer. “There are a lot of ideas floating around, and the group evaluates them on a specific scale. It’s a very visual process that uses sticky notes on a board rather than computers,” he says.
LPD eschews computers in favor of this decidedly low-tech approach to facilitate teamwork and to avoid the loss of ideas that could be applied to other projects. It’s a challenging process, but one that works well for Starsprings, Hager says.
“Our company is run by a balance scorecard, which includes the goal that we should have a couple of new patents every year,” he says. “Everything in my world is about innovation, and the development time can be very long. The challenge is to keep people, who also have other work to do, motivated and focused on the innovation.”
The company’s culture helps innovation teams meet that challenge, says Johan Dahlin, Starsprings’ sales manager. “We sell solutions, and we are really allowed to be creative and flexible. We are technology-driven and rewarded when we come up with new ideas and innovations.”
Starsprings extends this collaborative approach to its customers. “Our sales are totally driven by a combination of innovation and our consultative approach,” Dahlin says. “We produce a product that our customers really need.”
The numbers bear him out. In 2013, Starsprings posted annual sales of almost 500 million Swedish Krona, or about $68 million in U.S. dollars. Its Herrljunga facility generated 300 million SEK in sales that year, while its Brazilian and Polish facilities added another 100 million SEK each to the total.
Fifty-seven percent of Starprings’ total annual sales in 2013 came from purchases made by bedding manufacturers, Stjerna says. Overall, sales that year grew 11%. He projects that in 2014, the company’s growth should be even more robust, with global annual sales up by as much as 16%.
A contract to produce mattresses for Volvo trucks spurred Sweden-based sales, Stjerna says. “Although our biggest growth came from the heavy trucking industry, we are aiming to have a third of our business come from automotive and two-thirds from the bedding industry,” he adds.
The synergy between the products Starsprings produces for trucks and those it produces for mattress manufacturers is very strong, company executives believe. “We’ve learned a lot about technology and quality in the automotive industry that we can bring to the bedding industry,” Dahlin says. “From the bedding industry, we’ve learned a lot about comfort and its components that we can then carry to the automotive industry.”
Starsprings develops all of its products with one goal in mind: adding value to the products its customers produce. “We don’t have a commodity orientation and look for breakthrough ideas that will take the bed to the next level,” Dahlin says. “We want to change the market.”
Dahlin uses pocket springs as an example where he believes his company’s focus on continuous improvement has resulted in a superior product. “Pocketed springs have been on the market for a long time, and when they were released they had a big advantage because they were more flexible than open springs,” he says. “Because we focus on better sleep, we try to create really flexible springs that reduce pressure points.”
In addition to open-coil springs, Starsprings produces a range of pocketed springs that includes standard springs, multi-layered spring units, and stretch-pocketed springs. Its newest product, S-matic, offers consumers the ability to adjust the firmness of their beds.
S-matic, introduced in 2014, is available in three models. The Manual model allows consumers to hand adjust the spring units through five hip- and shoulder-oriented zones. The Electro model uses a remote control to adjust firmness through 20 comfort levels across five zones. The Auto model uses Android-based software to automatically maintain consumer-determined firmness across five zones during sleep. An upgraded version of Auto will be introduced at Interzum Cologne in May 2015.
“Interest in adjustable firmness is growing every year,” Dahlin says. “We believe that there is nothing more important in the market right.”
Starsprings also develops and produces adjustable beds on a contract basis for some customers. Pressure-mapping equipment and nonwoven fabric for spring casings are offered as well.
Looking to the future
Starsprings manufactures its products in four facilities in Europe and South America. At its 230,000-square-foot Swedish headquarters, the company primarily makes products for high-end mattresses. The company established a 65,000-square-foot facility in Pozman, Poland, in 2008 “to open up the production of high-volume, high-quality standard products,” Dahlin says.
Starsprings entered the South American market in 2001 by setting up manufacturing operations in Brazil. It now has two Brazilian facilities, a 90,000-square-foot plant in Curitiba and a 45,000-square-foot facility in Goiania. Both serve only the Brazilian market. Starsprings plans, Dahlin says, “to expand into the rest of South America after we saturate Brazil.”
The company is considering additional production facilities in Russia, Asia and the United States. The challenge to opening additional markets lies, company executives say, in effectively communicating the difference between their products and those available from other manufacturers.
“There has not been quick technological development in the bedding industry,” Dahlin says. “We need to be very consultative. It’s important to be able to explain how customers can use our products for better sleep.”
Stjerna sees great promise in the U.S. market. “In some respects, the U.S. market is more ready for new product than other places,” he says. “We’ve had a lot of interest and there are not that many players that we have to reach.”
He also believes that his company’s strengths will help Starsprings attract new customers, while maintaining the loyalty of current ones. “We have a high innovation capacity and are quick to develop new products to help our customers succeed. We do things that our competitors don’t because of their size or courage,” Stjerna says.
Dahlin points to an award Starsprings recently received, for the second time, from Volvo that recognizes the “quality and delivery precision” of its products. Dahlin believes such recognition resonates with potential customers.
“Customer satisfaction and answer times are areas that we prioritize highly,” he says. “We live in a time when we can not afford to be careless with deliveries of any kind. Our customers can trust us to be consistently reliable.”