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At Heinz, it's hoped openness begets oneness at renovated Gimbels quarters

Sunday, February 09, 2003

By Joyce Gannon, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

For decades, an elevator in a dark shaft lifted shoppers to the Saks Fifth Avenue store that occupied the top floor of the old Gimbels at Sixth Avenue and Smithfield Street, Downtown.

The seven-story atrium of the H.J. Heinz Co.'s new North American headquarters is located in the old Gimbels building at Sixth and Smithfield. (Pam Panchak, Post-Gazette)

Now the roof that covered that shaft is one of several skylights that disperse natural light through the 14th-floor executive suite at H.J. Heinz Co.'s North American headquarters.

Like the seven-story glass atrium carved through the middle of the old store, the rooftop skylights are part of a deliberate scheme that transformed the 89-year-old retail landmark into a brightly lit corporate center where most Heinz employees work in open cubicles and hold informal meetings in company cafes where they can plug in their laptops and sip free coffee.

"It was a cold, dark shell when Heinz got hold of it," said David Ross of The Design Alliance, the architects who created the Heinz workspace.

Indeed, most of the store had sat vacant from 1986, when Gimbels pulled out of Pittsburgh, until 1999, when local investors McKnight Development Partners bought it and began renovations to fill the upper floors with office tenants.

After seeing the developers' plans for the atrium, Heinz decided to consolidate 800-plus employees on floors nine through 14 of the building, since renamed Heinz 57 Center. It also leased part of the sixth floor for a test kitchen and training center.

Heinz's architects seized on the atrium as the focal point for an open-space floor plan that's meant to ignite more dialogue and communication among colleagues and, ultimately, improve productivity and efficiency.

"Heinz liked the notion of being visually connected and eliminating hierarchy. The physical environment can affect behavior," said Ross, whose firm not coincidentally designed Alcoa's North Shore headquarters, which is held up as a benchmark for successful open-office environments.

At Heinz, for instance, the cafes and restrooms on every floor are located right off the elevators, Ross said, "because the elevators are a place everyone has to congregate ... regardless of your status in the organization."

The aim, Ross said, is for people who might strike up a casual conversation about the latest marketing campaign for EZ Squirt ketchup on the elevator ride up, to duck in for a cup of coffee and continue to chat once they reach their destination.

The architects also included a wall to display a variety of Heinz foods and condiments on every floor and positioned these walls "in your face when you get off the elevator to remind everyone, even if you're an accountant or an attorney, what the company does," said Ross. "Heinz is a food company so the food is up front."

The color scheme of walls and carpets is predominantly neutral beige with light, natural maple wood furniture because so many employees display product samples and advertisements around their workstations.

Most employees work in ergonomically correct cubicles that measure 8-by-8 or 8-by-10 feet. There are more private offices for general managers and executives than at Alcoa, Ross said, but even those spaces have glass walls and glass doors "to encourage the more open atmosphere."

Those who work in cubicles can seek more privacy in glass-walled conference rooms and in informal meeting areas with tables and chairs that are clustered around the light-filled atrium.

Each floor also features a "cutting room" -- a combination conference room/test kitchen where large or small groups can sample freshly prepared Heinz foods.

Heinz was heavily influenced by the concepts Design Alliance pioneered at Alcoa, Ross said, especially the "open workstations ... to minimize the hierarchy of the big, corner office."

The open design, he said, "enhances morale and helps better communicate to people what's going on with the business. The more people talk, the more they know what's going on."

Joyce Gannon can be reached at jgannon@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1580.

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