Manfred Bene was born in 1941 in Waidhofen/Ybbs in Lower Austria. After being trained in woodworking and production in Hallstatt and Mödling, he began working in his parents company in 1961. His first position was that of an operator. In 1970, he took over the management of Bene AG, and he became Chairman of the Board in 2004. Since 2006, Manfred Bene has been the Chairman of the Board of Supervisors of Bene AG. During his era, he made the company an international success and established its name in both architecture and design: In cooperation with leading architects and designers around the world, Bene develops new office and workplace environments and thereby introduces a new level of quality into office space as a living environment.
Mr. Bene, let's imagine that you want to set up an office in your company. What would it look like? Would it be the same as your present office, that is, an individual room, or would it be an open space?
Well, I like every type of office arrangement. In the present case, however, there are only a few options since the office building is like a ship, and I am ensconced in the Captain's quarters. My office only has one solid wall; the other 80% consists of windows. Interior design is rather difficult in such a case.
Do you have a favourite piece of furniture in your office?
That would be the conference table. When I first moved into this particular office 23 years ago, I had a nice, large desk and a side table next to it like every other manager. On the other side of the room was a conference table.
However, since I spend about two-thirds of my life talking with people, I found the arrangement very impractical. I would always have to stand up, grab everything I needed, go to the table and sit down. I then invented a rectangular table that can simultaneously function as a conference table and desk. At the time, there were no tables with that particular format. That was in 1988.
I threw out everything that was in the room and replaced it with my rectangular desk. I sit on one side which is my workplace, and six chairs are arranged around the remaining perimeter where people can sit and talk. The advantage of the size is that six people can comfortably sit around the desk, but it is not as large as the enormous conference tables that we are all familiar with. You can reach across the table, you can show each other pictures and chat and communicate in the normal way. That was actually the most important innovation of the personal office, and today I believe that the majority of our management tables that we sell are 1.6 x 1.6 m instead the standard 2.5 x 1 m format.
Do you have the feeling that your office says something about you? Do you even want your office to say something about you?
Well, my office is rather chaotic...
I get letters, memos, brochures or whatever, I look them over and set them down until I gradually become surrounded by stacks of paper.
My workplace is filled with stuff: Catalogues of competitors, or presents from our Japanese partners. Next to that is a side-table on which everything is piled, and behind the side-table are a few old briefcases, a rocking horse and similar paraphernalia. My office is not at all exemplary nor is it typical. Overall, it communicates that I have never really been that interested in administrative details.
So administrative drudge work is not your cup of tea. What is the thing that is associated with your work that you like to do most?
My favourite activity has always been creating a product or developing one with a designer and then selling it. Of course, I did nearly everything when I started out in the company: From controlling to accounting to preparatory work. My motto and Bene's motto is "imagination and passion." My passion has always been for developing, and for talking with the sales team, customers and architects.
What does your normal work day consist of?
Developing means more than designing; it involves creating products that are tailored to the market but offer a bit more than the current products that are being marketed. That little bit extra makes them iconic. That's why we started using our own sales team early on; after all, the customer will only understand when I can show him what I mean, that is the only way to properly communicate it. It also means that we all need to be genuine about what we are selling; we need to be honest representatives of what we are creating and offering to the customer.
For me, all of this is part of the development process. That is, when I am involved in developing, a number of scripts are running at the same time: Costs, materials, production, competitiveness and marketability. Is the design "far away", or is it just the next step in a developmental process? Is it forward-looking yet acceptable by the market? Will the customers understand it?
Bene's branding is consequently very important. The familiarity and strength of the brand give the sales team and customers confidence. Generally, customers are not professional interior designers. When making (purchasing) decisions, they are on unfamiliar territory. They frequently don't really know what they want. In sales, we help the customer visualise.
I have often wondered what goes through your mind when you're sitting in your office and constantly see containers roll by with the company's name on them which, of course is your name.
My perspective is somewhat different than you might think. On the one hand, I don't sit around looking out the windows. On the other hand, it's really a matter of chance that my name in the company's name are the same. I've never seen myself as an owner; I have always tried to act like a manager. Although I am aware that my decisions were always at the top of the ladder, I have never pushed it too far. I have always attempted to run and develop the company as a team. The fact that my name is the same as the company's is something that was cooked up by the marketing department.
Do you have a home office?
No. It is my great fortune that it takes me four minutes to get from my house to the office.
You still go to the office every day?
Frequently. I like going to the office. Even though I don't get involved in the nuts and bolts, I would never micromanage, I am viewed as something of a cultural landmark.
What I do have to offer is to sustain the company's focus on creativity, to maintain "imagination and passion." Most employees already have this mindset: We are something special so we need to make something that is better.
You have spent quite a bit of time in offices. Have you ever experienced a moment of sublime inspiration in regard to offices?
Well, one has positive and negative experiences. I was very impressed once in the 70s in Holland when I visited the of the administration building of the Centraal Beheer Insurance company in Appeldorn which was created by the architect Herman Hertzberger: This is an office building for 2,000 people that is segmented into clearly delineated areas, but is completely open. There are no doors or barriers in the entire building. At the time, this signaled an amazing degree of freedom of thought and freedom in how people relate with each other.
A key feature was that the management allowed employees to decorate their small area however they wanted. When you entered a department where women were working, the decorations were attractive, flamboyant, passionate, positive, even a small birdcage, often decorated with plants, etc. and in the departments where men worked, everything looked like it did on the day the doors opened.
The ability to design the environment was highly developed among women and arrested among men. I would call that something of an epiphany. This is why I always wanted to have a woman on the Board of Supervisors, but that was easier said than done.
What is an important tool for your work?
Because I'm not a naturally born administrator, I have to exercise great discipline in that area. The most important tool is my scheduling calendar which contains all of the lists of addresses. I write down what I need to accomplish on any particular day and cross it out once I do it. If I do not accomplish my task, I set a new deadline. This is a very simple procedure, but very important nonetheless because I would otherwise forget everything. It's not a tool per se. Let's call it an "expedient" - old-fashioned and analogue. The great advantage is that I open it up and can see at a glance whether I can fit something in or not. Everyone else has to click this or that and open a bunch of programs ...
Are there any rituals in your office work?
The only ritual is one which started 30 years ago, but I don't know why. Somebody assumed in the morning that I needed a cup of coffee. Since that point in time, someone appears within seven minutes after my arrival and brings me a double espresso and a glass of cold water. This is almost a ceremonial event. I get coffee delivered to my office.
And always a double?
Yes, always. A minor luxury. That's the only ritual I can think of.
Thank you for the interview.