ZEELAND — Symbiote Inc., a designer and engineer of laboratory furniture for high-tech environments, has experienced a wave of changes since August 2019, and not entirely because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Zeeland-based furniture designer — which is in the process of building up an onsite manufacturing operation — has undergone significant leadership changes as longtime owner Travis Randolph passes the reins to his son, Barrett Randolph.
Barrett Randolph joined the company as president in August 2019 following a seven-year stint as an engineer and manager at Herman Miller Inc. It was a homecoming of sorts for Randolph, who had previously spent two years as a mechanical designer at Symbiote.
Since overseeing Symbiote’s day-to-day operations, Barrett has contended with the COVID-19 pandemic while also juggling changes among top the company’s leadership team. To that end, the company’s sales manager, controller and production manager each retired as Symbiote set out to launch a new manufacturing division.
“It wasn’t just a transition between me and my dad, it was really a whole company transition,” said Randolph, who oversees a staff of more than 40 people. “It was a pretty big shift in terms of the overall leadership of the company.”
Prior to his first stint at Symbiote, Randolph worked in aerospace for Lockheed Martin Corp. He and his wife, who was also originally from West Michigan, decided to move back to the area.
“When you grow up in West Michigan, you get spoiled,” Randolph said.
Finding a lack of aerospace opportunities in the region, he worked at Symbiote for a couple of years before the seven-plus-year run at Herman Miller.
From there, “everything kind of fell into place” to come back to Symbiote as his dad stepped away from the day-to-day operations.
However, Barrett Randolph, 39, is doing more than taking over the day-to-day from his dad, who just turned 79 and still comes into the office occasionally to work on his passion projects. The next-generation leader has overseen the firm’s recent expansion to add manufacturing processes and more broadly chart the company’s future.
“I have been exploring new kinds of work now, not so much in engineering, but around business development, leadership and figuring out where the company’s going to go in the future,” Randolph said.
In April, the company announced a nearly 5,000-square-foot addition to its existing facility as part of a $626,000 expansion.
Symbiote primarily sells steel furniture for laboratories, “but we had never really done fabrication of that product here ourselves,” Randolph said, noting the company relied on local fabricators for furniture components.
“During COVID when everything got shut down, it was pretty clear we were at the whims of our supply chain and if they had people able to work or wanted to work, it was really up to them if we got product,” he said. “It highlighted the fact that if we’re not making our own stuff, or at least some of it, we’re kind of acting as the middle man in our own business.”
The company then invested heavily into equipment, including a sheet laser and a CNC router.
“It’s been a learning experience, that’s for sure,” Randolph said of the expansion. “We had to really build it from the ground up and find the skills that we needed there. It has its bumps and hurdles along the way, but we’re taking it one step at a time.”
Meanwhile, the COVID-19 pandemic essentially accelerated the company’s succession planning, which had started prior to early 2020. For Travis Randolph, who founded Symbiote more than 30 years ago, keeping the business in the family was “pretty important,” Barrett Randolph said.
“When you create a business like he did, with a lot of vested interest, it’s a real personal item to you — you don’t want to get rid of it. At least that’s the way he feels,” Randolph said of his dad.
The experience also has underscored his own need for succession planning, which includes the “plans and desires” of members of his management team.
“I do have an item on my task list: Let’s create a succession plan document so we’re all on the same page,” Randolph said.