“Dial 1-800-MATTRESS and leave off the last S for savings” has become an ad slogan that is familiar to virtually every New Yorker, especially those that had to make a hasty move.
64-year old Napoleon Barragan, the Ecuadorian-born former high school teacher behind the $100 million dollar mattress business, arrived in Queens from Bogota, Colombia with his wife Kay, in 1969. He spent the first few years in the United States working a variety of odd jobs, including one job as a door-to-door salesman of encyclopedias, where, he remembers, “I would pray that they wouldn’t open the door, and if they did, that they knew how to speak Spanish.” Six years after moving to the states, Barragan opened up a small furniture store on Jamaica Avenue in Queens. One day, when he was riding the subway in Manhattan, Barragan noticed an ad for a “Dial-A-Steak” restaurant, and a light went off in his head: if there are people around the city buying a T-bone on the phone, could the same can be done with mattresses?
Working out of the basement of his store with one or two employees and just two phone lines, Barragan turned his mattress-by-phone concept into what is now a multimillion-dollar organization and the nation’s leading bedding telemarketing company. With 325 employees and annual sales topping $100 million, 1-800-Mattress also has 47 showrooms around the country, and 250 distributors around the U.S. And let’s not forget mattress.com. Recently, Report Editor Robert Levin sat down with Napolean and his son Luis, the president and COO of the company, in his hectic office to talk about how rewarding and challenging the sleep business can really be.
GETTING THE NAME OUT
RL: So, how did it all start?
NB: I got my first retail job in a furniture store, where the owner wound up going bankrupt. Basically, the guy walked away from the business, and I negotiated with the creditors and the judge. The creditors wound up taking all the furniture, but I convinced them to leave the mattresses to me — I knew I could sell them.
RL: Was it difficult to get customers to the store?
NB: Well, I did some unusual things to become more visible — for example, I placed mattresses in front of other retailers on Jamaica Avenue to drive traffic to my store. And then, I took out my first “dial-a-mattress” ad, days after seeing the Dial-A-Steak ad. This was, I believe, 1975, when we didn’t yet have an 800 number we were using the 212 area codes [At the time all five boroughs used the 212 area code. —Ed.]. It was an $18 ad in The New York Post and I wound up selling three mattresses! Customers would misspell the word mattress they were dialing “m-a-t-r-e-s-s” so instead of calling us, they were dialing the Regency Hotel on 64th Street, around the corner from where we have a store now. So I offered to pay the front desk clerk at the Regency a small amount of money every month to be nice to my customers and redirect them to the right phone number.
At the time it was just myself and two employees working the phones, we did everything. And all our competition was saying, “Who’s going to buy your mattresses by phone?” And the truth was, for a couple of years we grew the business at a pretty modest pace. But then we went to television advertising in 1979 and we got the 800 number in 1989, and to me it was this huge jump into the big time. It was suddenly direct response. I remember in 1988 talking to my executive team and telling them, “We can bring in over 4 million this year, 8 million in 1989 and 12 million by 1990, the third year.” By the look on their faces, I knew they thought I was out of my mind. Ultimately, we exceeded those projections.
A NATURAL PROGRESSION
RL: Have the members of your executive team been with you for awhile?
NB: My son, Luis, is president and COO and runs the New York metro business; he also oversees advertising and marketing. Joe Vicens is the executive vice president and runs the national program; he has been in the business for over 20 years. Greg Nooney is vice president of the call center and has been with the company for over 20 years. John O’Connell is vice president of the retail showrooms and comes to us from Bally of Switzerland. And Steve Simon, a long time mattress industry veteran and former mattress manufacturer, is the vice president in charge of merchandising.
RL: Those are big steps along the way when you go from a one- or two-person shop to adding people to run departments. Did it happen naturally, or did you plan it?
NB: It was a progression having to do with producing the best customer service. Remember, the only experience that we had in the early years was with the telephone business. Then, customers told us that they wanted to see the mattresses before buying them, so we had to create showrooms and hire people to work in them. And as more and more people began to call, we hired more and more people to answer the phones — again, we didn’t want our customers to be put on hold because there weren’t enough people manning the phones. So, yes, it was a natural progression that was directly tied to what the customer needed from us.
GIVE ‘EM WHAT THEY WANT
Robert Levin is the Editor-in-Chief and Publisher of The New York Enterprise Report. Levin has extensive experience with midsize and small businesses, having previously held CEO, CFO, and COO positions with companies in several industries. He is also a contributor for The Huffington Post. Levin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and (212) 307-6760.