To the unsuspecting visitor, the unpretentious interior of Cabletron Systems bespeaks niggardliness at best, the verge of collapse at worst. As cofounders S. Robert Levine and Craig R. Benson see it, however, keeping the inside of the Rochester, N.H., headquarters sparse not only saves money but constitutes an effective sales strategy -- once it's justified to inevitably stunned first-time callers.

Salespeople explain that disdaining office niceties -- chief operating officer and treasurer Benson greets customers as he sits on a tattered chair behind a dented, fake-woodgrain-topped desk -- enables Cabletron to price its line of computer-networking products as much as 20% below the competition. Whoever doubts that so deep a disparity can be achieved in large part simply by skimping on decor doesn't appreciate Cabletron management's relentless application of the theory. In the company's new 126,000-square-foot quarters, Benson forged office space out of portable partitions that had been junked by a nearby concern, bridging gaps by taping strips of shipping cartons over them. "OK, so the cardboard doesn't match the walls," says Benson with a shrug. "The walls don't match the walls, either."

Still, Benson calculates that for every dollar Cabletron "spends" on its offices, a comparable company likely spends six, much of it on nonproductive indulgences such as marble floors. To what effect, however? "Some customers would prefer a lavish environment because it looks as though you're successful," Benson concedes. "But once they understand our philosophy, they like the simple setting a lot better."

On the other hand, doesn't a decidedly less lavish environment make even a $181-million company with a five-year growth rate of 1,780% look more as if it were sliding down the chute? No, answers Benson. Aside from its makeshift offices, he says, "visitors see signs of a prosperous, energetic company. Don't forget: they've just come in from a parking lot filled to overflowing." -- Robert A. Mamis

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Tips from a Tightwad

* Shop at sales of commercial leasers. Invariably, they retire desks, chairs, and the like before their useful lives have expired.

* Before a move to a new facility, get acquainted with neighboring businesses. One might be about to redecorate and need to get rid of still-usable furnishings. You might even get them delivered for free.

* Convince your staff that how offices look isn't what counts. "I've never seen an engineer or a salesperson become more productive in a more expensive office," Craig Benson insists.

* Occupy lower-priced real estate to start with. Square-footage in the sticks has less expected of its interior than space on Park Avenue.

* Fix up at least one area amid the squalor -- a conference room, say -- in fancy style to show you can do it.

* Don't take a lavish office for yourself.

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