With a pandemic underway in the spring of 2020, Russell Castro’s phone began to ring as office workers setting up shop at home searched for a comfortable chair.
They might not have missed their commute or all the background noise from co-workers. But they missed their chair that could swivel and roll and tilt and didn’t leave their back aching at the end of a long day.
“They started saying, ‘Hey, I want the chair I sat in at my office,’ and they’re like, ‘It’s $1,200,’ and they didn’t know that,” Castro said. “They couldn’t afford that. They got sticker shock. So that’s where we fit in really well.”
Castro and his wife, Andrea, started OFIS Furniture, taking high-end office furniture that has been liquidated from corporate offices — investment banks, law firms, consulting companies, publishers — and reselling it to the public at a deep discount.
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The business has attracted hundreds of people each Saturday to a nondescript warehouse on Route 1 in North Brunswick. It has capitalized on the pandemic’s economic upheaval. And it has shined a light on the price businesses have been willing to pay to maximize their employees’ productivity.
Consider the ubiquitous office chair.
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‘Makes the day easier’
Ana Catalfumo, of Manalapan was working in the technology staffing industry in March 2020 when she retreated from her company’s Parsippany office and began to work from home.
Catalfumo sat on a wooden kitchen chair with a flimsy seat cushion for eight to 10 hours a day in a set-up that was taking a toll on her body, at least until she found a lifeline: a Facebook post from OFIS Furniture for Herman Miller chairs that promised comfort.
She doesn’t remember how much she paid for it; she thinks it was about $200. But that amounted to an 80% discount from what the chairs would sell for new.
“You feel like you can get more accomplished,” said Catalfumo. “And it just makes the day easier to get through. Working from home is not always easy. You need to remain focused. And if you’re just shifting in your seat and uncomfortable and having body aches, it certainly doesn’t make for a pleasant day.”
OFIS is short for Office Furniture In Stock. The business shares space with its parent company, a liquidator called Furniture X-Change, in a 150,000-square-foot industrial warehouse here.
The retail business is open to the public on Saturdays from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., one Sunday a month, and by appointment.
And it is vying for a share of an industry that had reached $14.7 billion nationwide in 2019, the year before the pandemic hit, according to the Business and Institutional Furniture Manufacturers Association, a trade group based in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
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Field of furniture
The North Brunswick warehouse would be a good place for archaeologists to learn what American office life was like in more collaborative days.
They would find corporate America spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on office furniture, trying to tap into the productivity that lies just beneath the surface of the standard worker. Short of that, at least the furniture looked cool.
There are ergonomically correct chairs with breathable backs, standing desks, cubicles, sofas, work pods, vending machines and high-backed chairs that resemble a cocoon.
Much of the furniture comes from companies in Manhattan that are leaving their offices with no need to take the items with them. The furniture is transported to the warehouse, where 120 employees work to get it ready for reuse.
Russell Castro, 54, and Andrea Castro, 50, live in Marlboro with their three children, Andrew, 19; Amanda, 16; and Robert, 9, and they have spent a long career in the furniture liquidation business.
Russell graduated from the State University of New York in Buffalo with an economics degree and joined long-time friends who started a business in the late 1980s taking back phone systems and electronics from companies that either upgraded or went out of business.
On one job, Castro said, the client’s office manager asked them to take all of the furniture as well. Castro stood on the New York City sidewalk, handing out everything-must-go fliers to passersby, and he learned that the furniture sold better than the phone systems.
‘The calls were just flying in’
By the mid-1990s, Castro and his colleagues had a 600,000-square-foot warehouse in Elizabeth reselling furniture. But Castro said he thought the business was growing too fast, so he and Andrea left to start their own company that focused on servicing, refinishing and cleaning furniture.
When the pandemic began, Castro started fielding calls, not from facilities managers he knew, but from individual employees who weren’t allowed to take their chairs home with them. Some of them had stipends from their employers to help them buy replacements.
“The calls were just flying in,” Castro said. “And I didn’t have thousands of chairs. We were running out very quickly of our inventory.”
Castro reached out to his former partners who operated Furniture X-Change here, and he pitched the idea of reselling furniture not only to companies, but also to a new customer base: home-office workers.
OFIS Furniture opened in 2020. It was stocked with items like Herman Miller and Steelcase chairs. And annual revenue has grown to upwards of $1.5 million, Castro said, thanks to a giant shift in how people work.
A Gallup poll last October found two-thirds of white-collar workers said they worked from home at least part time, and 54% hoped to return to a hybrid arrangement, dividing their time between the home and the office.
Workers are sprucing up their home offices, from comfortable chairs and standing desks to backgrounds that convey a professional image when they are meeting on Zoom, said Heather McKeown, owner of Land and Sky Design in Red Bank.
“I think people are paying more attention to their home-offices,” McKeown said. “The key difference is that their Zoom backgrounds look nice.”
The transition leaves OFIS Furniture in an enviable spot. Since it only needs to transport office furniture from the region, it has managed to avoid supply-chain delays. It has plenty of inventory from companies that are scaling back.
And it has found a growing market from people working remotely, Castro said, most of whom are stunned to find out just how much their employers spent on office furniture.
“They always say, ‘I would have treated my furniture so much better if I knew,'” he said.
Michael L. Diamond is a business reporter who has been writing about the New Jersey economy and health care industry for more than 20 years. He can be reached at [email protected]