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How Flexibility Led to Over 50 Years of Success
Educational Environments By Frank Cooney Company

How an Agile Approach to Furniture Led to Huge Pandemic Growth

Educational Environments by Frank Cooney Company (EE by FCC) is a family company. They’ve been around for over 50 years, making furniture in the educational space. At first blush, it seems like a utilitarian pursuit. Schools need desks and chairs. But Gregory Cooney, part-owner, and CMO would argue that it’s more than that.

“The fact is, today it’s an integral part of what's happening in education. The entire pedagogy of education has completely changed in the last 10 years from the industrial model of children sitting in rows and learning to work in factories, to teaching children how to function in the 21st century,” Gregory says.

That’s why the past 10 years have been the most exciting for him in the business. But to get here, it took a little forward-thinking. “We’re actually very design-focused,” Gregory explains. “We adopted this expansive view of how design could impact education pretty early, which has helped us become the market leader we are today, here in the Midwest.”

Building New Foundations in Elk Grove Village

Cooney leads the company with his sister Peggy Grunewald, who is also part-owner and CFO, and their brother Kevin Cooney, who is part owner and COO. They’ve been part of the business for more than 30 years now, although Elk Grove Village is pretty new to them. They moved at the end of 2019, and have one additional location in North Carolina.

“We have 10 sales reps out of our Elk Grove office,” Gregory says. “They cover Illinois and have relationships with individual schools. They also work very heavily with the architecture and design community.”

The Cooneys considered a few areas before deciding to move to Elk Grove Village.

“Elk Grove was great to work with and very encouraging. The building that we bought is maybe a little bit beyond what our perceived needs were. But we've seen a lot of growth, especially in the last two to three years. And we expect to see a lot more in the coming years, so the facility that we have here is really making that possible.”

Flexible from Day One

“It's been an unusual year because of the COVID-19 situation,” Gregory admits. But unusual doesn’t mean bad. In fact, their business has done well during the pandemic. That may have something to do with the fact that their father, Frank Cooney, has had a flexible approach to doing business from day one.

“He actually came out of the church goods business,” Gregory explains. “That's where he spent most of his life.” But as politics shifted in the 1960s and business declined, Frank Cooney started connecting with the private schools that he knew through churches instead.

That sort of adaptability has served Executive Education by Frank Cooney Company (EE by FCC) well and it was a useful skill to have already built up when the pandemic hit.

“We were early adopters to the idea of an agile classroom,” Gregory says. “We don't actually manufacture, we're a dealer and distributor. So we partner with manufacturers to develop designs that adapt to the learner—to meet the learner where they're comfortable learning.”

When the pandemic hit, the need for agile classrooms grew even larger.

“Agility allows you to adapt to classrooms in many different configurations and setups,” Gregory explains. “So if you did a good job designing your classroom before, you were well prepared for the pandemic. You could practice social distancing and accommodate the needs of what was going on with the pre-existing hybrid models that were available.”

Of course, not everyone was putting that kind of focus on design and learning environments, so demand has increased for EE by FCC since the pandemic struck. And they’ve been ready for it.

“There has been a lot of demand, especially very recently, to make classrooms that separate the students,” Gregory says. “We didn't have as high of a demand for individual student desks before that. We currently have a warehouse full of them, and we've sold thousands and thousands”

The Bigger Family

As the Cooney’s move their business into the future, they have a strong foundation to reflect on. And they’ve learned a lot, like how adaptability is important. And that you have to learn from both the good and bad.

“Businesses are cyclical,” says Gregory. “There's always ups and downs. But the most important thing is learning from the downs to help you grow.”

And one thing is for sure. Having the right people on your side can be critical to that growth. “It’s important to focus on establishing relationships,” Peggy says. “Yes. Relationships are key,” Greggory agrees.

“From an HR side, I think we must be doing something right because we have so many long-term employees. People who have been with us for more than 25 years,” Peggy adds.

While they’ve also added a lot of fresh faces to the team, and continue to push forward on being innovative and design-forward, their advice on building relationships has stood the test of time, according to Gregory.

“Be good. Be honest. And provide good customer service.”