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From Home Furnishing Business

Take 5: A Conversation with Bob Sherman

In October 2013, Bob Sherman stunned the mattress industry when he resigned as CEO of Serta, the nation’s largest-selling mattress brand.

It was a brand that had become No. 1 during his 25-year watch, aided by effective marketing programs like the Counting Sheep and a revolutionary product line called iComfort that would rack up $1 billion in retail sales faster than any brand in the industry’s history.

But Sherman, who spent more than four decades in the mattress industry, soon realized he wasn’t ready to ride off into the sunset. So he and his wife, Barbara Bradford, a former Serta executive who has been in the mattress business more than four decades herself, began looking for ways to get back in the industry.

And in January of this year, the 65-year-old Sherman again stunned the industry by announcing he had formed a company called Visionary Sleep Products that had acquired a pair of Restonic licensees that operated factories in Buffalo, N.Y., Fayetteville, N.C., and New Albany, Ind. The deal included the licensees’ stock in Restonic, giving the new company majority ownership of the Restonic brand.

Sherman recently spoke with Larry Thomas, senior business editor of Home Furnishings Business, about what it’s like to be back in the mattress business and what he hopes to accomplish with his new venture.

Home Furnishings Business: Why did you decide to come out of retirement and return to the mattress industry?

Bob Sherman: We’re a 24/7 mattress couple. We would go out to dinner at night and talk about how the day went, and we really missed those conversations. We missed the people that worked for us for 25 years and helped us build the company. We missed the retailers, the excitement of the business, the analysis of the business, the weighing of the competition and looking for opportunities.

A couple of our former management people left their jobs, and we had conversations with them, and they really wanted to get back into the business. So we decided to set the criteria: We were going to be happy working in that environment. We decided that we wanted control over whatever we were going to do. We didn’t want to be owned by a private equity group. We did not want to take on substantial debt. And we wanted to have fun!

For over a year, we looked at numerous opportunities, made an offer on a couple, but they just didn’t work out. And all of a sudden, this one came into play, and we really thought the situation was perfect for what we wanted to achieve. And so far, it has been a blast. I’ve really enjoyed being back. My wife is enjoying it. Our management team, which is younger than I am, has bundles of energy, and they’re really putting in an ‘A’ effort.

How can you not have fun when you have a 50-foot banner (announcing his return to the industry) at the Las Vegas Market? (laughs) I mean, that’s really what we’re about…being creative…making a statement…getting people to think and talk about you. We know how to do that, and it’s fun.

HFB: It sounds like those guiding principles are similar to the ones you had at Serta.  

Sherman: Most definitely. The company we have today is not a heck of a lot smaller than what we started out with. Our first (Serta) license was $4 million in sales. And Serta back then was only about $200 million (in annual sales). Obviously, the industry was smaller, and the competition was smaller, but we’re really putting in a lot of the same principles that we utilized there.

HFB: What are some of the more significant changes that have occurred in the industry since you left?

Sherman: The biggest change I’ve seen is the consolidation at retail. Mattress Firm, over the last 3 ½ years, has purchased a lot of their competitors. Most markets had two or three sleep shops competing against one another. Today, a lot of them only have one. That has really opened up a phenomenal opportunity for the large local retailer or the regional retailer to step up his bedding advertising, to go after that business, to get into the sleep shop business if he desires. Bedding was growing in importance when I left, but the departments today are so much larger. Some of these large furniture retailers are carrying 60, 80, or 100 sets of bedding on the floor. They’re not afraid to have 5,000 to 10,000 square feet in their store dedicated to it. That is really a change from where it was a few years ago.

I’ve also seen consolidation of (furniture) retailers. The big chains are continuing to grow. The mom and pops are disappearing. In almost every market I look at, the retail furniture environment is so different from what it has been. There seems to be one dominant retailer that is growth oriented. 

Obviously, the bed-in-a-box has also been a big change. A few years ago, it was a few retailers doing a lot of business online. But I think a lot of that has been replaced by the bed-in-a-box. (The success of online companies such as Casper) just reinforced that people do not enjoy the bedding shopping experience. Some of the stores are starting to understand that they must make this a more enjoyable process.  And I’m not sure all the retailers know how to deal with the bed-in-a-box. I don’t think they know how to deal with social media and the digital advertising that needs to be done today. I think most retailers are floundering in that regard.

HFB: What opportunities do you see for your company and the Restonic brand as it goes up against several much larger competitors?

Sherman: Today, you go onto a floor and all the mattresses are gray, black, and white. It’s very male oriented. They look like sweat pants (laughs). The women who design our products view this as a tremendous opportunity for us going forward.

The industry has gone to inward thinking, where a supplier will look at a floor and say, ‘how can I make more money on this floor.’ We look at it and say, ‘how can we help them get more business and make more money.’ It seems like all the analysis today is about how to improve profit. It’s not really thinking about how to help the dealer grow his business. We’ll make money if the dealer grows his business.

Today, there are a lot of people selling similar products. The major lines today put out a lineup, and you pretty much have to pick from this lineup. We do it a little differently. If you’re best-selling bed is $799, we want to figure out how to make you a $999 product that’s different so you can step up and sell better bedding. If you’re key price point is $999, we want to work on $1,299, and so on. We feel we have the flexibility of working with retailers to customize product to fill whatever the dealer’s needs are.

The national promotions that are being run by the majors force dealers sometimes to take reductions in costs that aren’t completely supported by the manufacturer. Retailers believe they have to match those prices in order to be competitive. That’s quite beneficial to the manufacturer, but less beneficial to the retailer. This provides us an opportunity for merchandising and marketing what the retailer wants to sell, instead of what the manufacturer wants to sell.

HFB: Serta became the largest brand in the industry while you were CEO. Do you have a similar long-term vision for Restonic?

Sherman: No, not really. When we started Serta, it was not our goal to be number one. Our goal here is pretty simple. We want to have an increase every year that is larger than the industry. So if the industry is up 5%, we want to be up more than 5%. That means we’re capturing market share and somebody is losing market share.

At our monthly meetings, we remind ourselves that we’re here to have fun. We’re not here to take on a lot of debt. We want to enjoy that we’re doing.

As we go forward, it’s not our plan to go out and just keep buying (more factories) and growing. We want to do it strategically. We want to make sure we can handle it. We want to make sure that it fits with what we’re doing, and how we’re doing business. 

HFB: How have the other Restonic licensees reacted to your new company?

Sherman: Their support has been really exciting and encouraging. I met with them a couple of months ago -- every owner showed up -- and we had a discussion about what the vision could be and what we could do together and what it would take in terms of cooperation. Restonic has been extremely strong in regional pockets, but hasn’t really had the ability to do anything outside of where the factory is located.

The thing you have to remember is that each of these licensees … are all successful in their own markets. So to make investments, whether its people, equipment or facilities, sometimes is very difficult. So for the licensees to step forward and say, ‘let’s do this,’ was very encouraging.

For example, we have rented a new space at the Vegas market, and will move there in January 2018. It’s twice the amount of space we currently have. We want to make a stronger statement. This requires an investment in the build-out and rent, and things of that nature, and the other licensees were unanimous in their support to do this. They have been extremely cooperative.

HFB: Will your company be taking the lead in product introductions, or do the licensees do that in their own markets?

Sherman: We laid it out for the licensees that there had to be consistency of product from one facility to another. There had to be consistency of specs. We are instituting national specs and putting together product lines that really tie everybody together. They are embracing that concept.

However, our number one goal is to help the retailer grow his business, and sometimes retailers need special products or special tweaks. So the local plants have the flexibility to design products to fill the need for major retailers in their markets. We’re really doing the best of both worlds. We’re providing a national umbrella and national specifications, and that’s going to be the majority of our sales, but we don’t want to take away that ability (to be flexible) because then we’re just like the other major companies. We want the local plant to fulfill the dealer’s needs so he can do more business.

For 80 years, Restonic has been building outstanding beds. One of the big surprises that we came across is that they really overbuilt beds. They just didn’t spend millions on marketing. If anyone took the time and actually compare (Restonic with competing products) spec to spec, they really had an outstanding value. We just want to add consistency to it.

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