Startup seatmaker Unum is working with three new partners as it aims towards the release of its first business class seat: dress cover specialists Sabeti Wain, seatbelt house Schroth, and actuator systems supplier Bühler Motor.
The announcement, coming prior to the seat’s release later this UK spring, is notable in that this kind of supplier is rarely celebrated in a press release.
“Unum launched in January 2022 to solve airlines’ longstanding dissatisfaction with business class seating supply and delayed delivery,” the company says in its release, noting that “to support this, Unum has carefully considered its supply chain strategy, building partnerships to cement its position as the credible and reliable alternative in airline seating.”
Runway Girl Network took the opportunity to sit down with CEO Chris Brady at his home office near London for a wide-ranging discussion about Unum, the plans for the company — and indeed the plans for how it’s making its seat, technical details about which were discussed in confidence prior to the seat’s release.
More than Unum’s novel secret sauce engineering, which he demonstrated to RGN, Brady explains, he wants to build a company that will be “considered and people-centred”.
Indeed, during our discussion it was clear from his easy reference to colleagues throughout the organisation that the company culture is one focussed on its people, and through them its products.
As a new outfit coming onto the scene during the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s clear that this is a digital-native, remote-first business, one that is making the most of online tools that have either been newly created or substantially updated for the remote working era.
“Part of having a focus on business systems that work for our staff is a user centred approach to business systems, because I want a user-centred culture to our products, because we’re all about passengers,” Brady emphasises.
The key to Unum’s strategy, he says, is “a real focus on what the passenger outcome is — not what the airline wants: it includes what the airline wants, but it goes beyond what the airline wants to what the passenger wants.”
RGN’s discussion with Brady touched on the idea of a kind of Maslow’s airline seating hierarchy of needs: satisfying the airline procurement department to win the product is at the base of the pyramid required in order to eventually end up satisfying the passenger.
A key challenge is how airlines explain their needs in the seat selection process. “Airlines often manifest their wants as ‘light and cheap’,” Brady says, “and the procurement department dominates the narrative in the early stage of engagement, and that’s how they articulate their wants there.”
The problems that this throws up is a common refrain RGN has heard from airline seating specialists: a seating project that had the potential to be incredible turned into something forgettable or even actively unpleasant by too strong a focus away from the end product’s performance.
It’s not a comfortable role as a customer either, even when spending a fair amount of airline money, Brady says. “We’ve spoken about the inflexibility of the OEMs, because they’re just behemoths. None of the people at Airbus or Boeing are inflexible, they’re just in this huge context, but nevertheless, the outcome is inflexible — and you understand why! You would be as inflexible as they are, if you were in their shoes. But nonetheless, it’s an uncomfortable experience for the for the airline.”
“My mantra and philosophies become: comfort, robust, maintained, lightweight, right price — in that order, and it has to have all of those five things,” Brady explains. “But if you just get to the bottom two, it’s a zero sum game. You’re making equipment, not furniture.”
It’s a fascinating problem to have. But after selling his previous seatmaker Acro to Chinese conglomerate Zhejiang Science and Technology Investment Company in 2017, Brady jokes, “I got back into aircraft seating because I like the challenge of working on problems.”
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Featured image credited to Unum