It’s going to be ‘a game of titans,’ Wanek tells Innovation Event attendees

LAS VEGAS — Ashley Furniture CEO Todd Wanek and his son, Cameron Wanek, senior vice president of supply chain planning and information technology, took the stage with Furniture Today Editor in Chief Bill McLoughlin at the 2023 Innovation Event at Las Vegas Market on Friday, sharing insights on technology, innovation and what might lie ahead for one of the world’s largest furniture companies.

“It’s not about simply buying the latest technology,” Cameron Wanek told the audience. “It’s about how you use it, training your people and creating a business process around it.”

Noting that Ashley has been exploring and implementing various artificial intelligence tools to increase efficiencies, improve operations and increase productivity for some time, Todd Wanek said that the goal of implementation is to empower Ashley retailers to navigate the challenges of an industry in transition.

“It’s going to be a game of titans,” he replied when asked about the investment required for technology tools that will empower manufacturers and retailers to grow their businesses. “The top retailers who are aggressive will remain leaders.

“A.I. is an awesome autonomy tool, and we’re making massive investments in A.I. and putting together a team,” Wanek continued. “But the single thread in all of this is human beings. … Humans determine how to adopt the technology within the organization.”

Next-step tech

Although technology chatter has been primarily centered around artificial intelligence in recent months, Ashley was also an early adopter of bringing robotic technology into factory operations. Wanek said the company’s goal is to continue to increase the number of robots working in factories by 150 robots a year, explaining that the combined robot-human teams have allowed Ashley to increase production dramatically.

“Robots augment human beings, and the combination of humans and robots is amazing,” Wanek said.  “We think the future will be fully autonomous, whether driverless vehicles or robots unloading containers, but now we look at technology and say that there has to be a system in place as well.”

Determining what kind of technology to implement and where to implement it is at the core of future business growth, according to Cameron Wanek.

“We use value-stream mapping to determine where waste is and to assess the marketplace, and we’ve been working with consultants,” he said. “Lately, we’ve been building a lot of our own new technology because you can build what you need and tailor it to your business. It is a custom-tailored solution.”

Leading through the next technology revolution

While onstage at the Innovation Event, the Wanek father-son team outlined a future strategy for Ashley built around equal parts leadership, investment and innovation. Both stressed the importance of building a team capable of maximizing the opportunities that come with advances in technology.

“The first thing is the leader needs to believe,” Todd Wanek said. “Then, you have to evaluate the staff and find people who are not married to the past. After that, you have to teach, and this is significant. If you have a wasteful system or process and add in something like A.I., then you create more chaos. It’s not about technology; it’s about the mindset of the leaders. You can spend a lot of money on these investments, so you have to be strategic on what you can achieve.”

“Humans are unpredictable, so we will never get a 100% forecast,” Cameron Wanek said, referencing the predictive capabilities of A.I. “There has to be a clear focus on what you want to achieve, and we spend a lot of time clarifying our objectives. You always have to look for the shiny new objects, but this is where knowledge and experience come in — the macro level view of shiny objects.”

The senior Wanek concurred, adding his recommendation for an important first step for companies to take.

“This is where the human element comes in; every company should have a chief A.I. officer,” he said. “We have to grasp new technology, get behind it, and it will come down to how we get human beings to adapt to the tools.”

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