10 Questions with Bill Black


Most everyone in business here in Atlantic Canada either knows, or has at least heard of, Bill Black. His time at the helm of Maritime Life brought considerable expansion and record profits to the business as it doubled in size to employ over 1,100 people. That’s a lot of office space.

I caught up with Bill recently and he graciously agreed to do a brief interview for the blog. He brings a pragmatic, service-focused approach to the business of furnishing and equiping office space that I hope you find helpful. Enjoy.

1. In your experience, what is the biggest mistake that companies make when furnishing their office space?

Probably the biggest mistake companies make is not starting with a clear idea of what their employees’ jobs demand.

2. How important should price be in selecting office furniture?

Even before considering price, I think the first thing to do is to get a clear idea of what is needed. Only then is it appropriate to get tenders for suppliers. And you shouldn’t sacrifice needs for price. You shouldn’t be too flexible on the needs side when it comes to getting the best price you can from the supplier.

3. In many workplaces, office furniture and office size is used to reinforce corporate hierarchy. Does this make any sense?

No, office furniture and size needs to be driven mostly by what the job requires. It depends on their role, not necessarily their position in the company. The best example I can give is the receptionist, someone who is out at the front of the office. This is a person who should obviously have the nicest furniture in the place.

4. Where is your favorite place to work?

I always worked best at the office. There are tons of support systems, such as people who can help me get things done, make my computer work when I can’t, and so on.

5. Do you have one piece of office furniture or equipment that you just cannot imagine living without?

Filing cabinets and filing spaces in a desk. That may sound strange but it’s true.

6. As a CEO, what advice would you give to Facilities Managers who are making decisions about the workplace everyday?

I would say they should understand – and hopefully the CEO would understand this, as well – that their role is to provide a service, not to be a control.

7. Do you remember the nicest office you’ve ever been in?

I’ve been in some pretty nice offices but I’d have to say the John Hancock executive offices in Boston were the nicest.

8. Did it tell you anything about the organization?

It told me that they were spending too much money on their offices!

9. A few years back, you presented a lecture entitled “What does workplace quality have to do with satisfying customers?” So, what does workplace quality have to do with satisfying customers?

I’ve always been of the theory that, if you are in a service business and want to have satisfied customers, you need to start by having satisfied employees. Give them the right training, technology and tools to do their job well. Satisfied employees can focus on looking outward at their customers’ satisfaction, rather than inward on their own level of satisfaction. If you give them inferior equipment, they’re going to be annoyed – and they’ll be annoyed every minute of the day.

10. In a connected world where knowledge workers can do their job from most anywhere, are offices going to become a thing of the past?

No, we’ll always have offices. There’s a thing that’s very important to work, even in very routine jobs. It’s got to do with the social capital developed between employees of an organization. I don’t think online connectedness allows for the same level of social capital as face-to-face conversations. People connect very frequently on the web, through email, conference calls and so on. Connecting through technology has its uses but it’s not the same thing as being able to go and sit in someone’s office, have a coffee with them or just see each other in person. It’s very interesting that, after years of no office building in places like Toronto, all of a sudden offices are being built again. It’s just an indication that people are starting to understand the value of social capital in organizations.