Serta licensee Salt Lake Mattress embraces history, retailer relationships, challenges
BY DOROTHY WHITCOMB
Although they are acutely aware of the challenges facing independent manufacturers throughout the country, executives at Salt Lake Mattress & Manufacturing Co. are optimistic about the continuing stability and growth of their business. As they prepare to celebrate their 125th anniversary this year, they believe their strong identification with the Serta brand, regional population growth, and a talented, dedicated workforce will help them weather the challenges of globalization and industrywide consolidation.
Although the Salt Lake City-based company officially was incorporated in 1892 by Frederick Eberhardt, its roots reach back to the 1870s and predate the territory’s 1896 admission into statehood.
“Eberhardt was born in Wisconsin and came to Utah to make his fortune mining,” says Curt Crowther, current owner. “When that didn’t work out, he started making springs and, over time, began to manufacture furniture and mattresses. He started with a $150 loan, and we have ledgers showing that, 16 years before incorporation, he had quite a good business going.”
The Eberhardt family owned and operated the company for three generations. John Eberhardt, a grandson of the founder, hired Crowther in 1974 to help implement the then newly-mandated federal cigarette flammability standards.
“I was a kid off the street who had just finished college,” Crowther says. Just a year later “the kid” was appointed vice president, and, “by 1980, I was really running the company,” he says.
In 1985, Crowther, who was 35 at the time, bought Salt Lake Mattress from the Eberhardt family. Today, it remains wholly owned by him and his three children.
A seminal moment in Salt Lake Mattress’ history came in 1933 when the company became “one of the original group of Serta licensees,” says Spencer Bennett, vice president of sales. “We are also one of only five remaining independently owned licensees in the United States, and to the world we are Serta.”
“Our strong association with the Serta brand is a big part of our success,” says Matt Ross, executive vice president. “We have been able to take the strength of a national brand and use it to our advantage while combining it with a small business approach when we work with our customers.”
The company’s business plan centers on leveraging these combined strengths to better serve the needs of its customers. “It’s really the best of both worlds,” Bennett says. “Although we are part of the Serta brand and have the product development tools and resources that are part of Serta, our customers see us as a local company that can make decisions quickly and easily.”
Servicing the specific needs of individual retailers also is central to Salt Lake Mattress’ business plan. “I can’t sing the praises of my sales team enough,” Bennett adds. “They are committed to supporting our customers with high quality retail sales associate training, merchandising and advertising support.”
The cohesiveness of the company’s sales team is grounded in an overall culture that company executives believe emphasizes integrity, honesty and loyalty. “I know it sounds kind of cliché, but it really is like a big family here,” Ross says. “We have the right people in the right positions, and the quality of the people who work here is a big advantage for us.”
When people come to Salt Lake Mattress, they tend to stay. Ross, who joined the company four years ago, is the new kid on the block. “Our plant manager has been here 37 years; the office manager, 31 years; the production manager, 27 years; the plant supervisor, 17 years; and the vice president of sales, 14 years,” he says.
The team, which also includes about 100 production workers, “manufactures about 1,000 pieces daily in one shift at our 110,000-square-foot facility,” Bennett says. The vast majority of the mattresses produced there are Serta-branded pieces.
“Sales of Serta brands account for about 85% of our current annual sales, with the balance coming from sales of our Sunset brand,” he adds.
The Sunset brand has been part of the company since its inception. Although there are no specific Sunset collections today, the brand is used as a vehicle “to meet the needs of retailers that can’t be met by Serta and includes beds of all constructions, with retail price points ranging in queen size from $299 to $999,” Bennett says.
Success with Serta
Salt Lake Mattress offers Serta’s entire line to its customers. “We manufacture the full range from low to high and in all constructions,” Bennett says. “There are beds in the new iComfort Hybrid line that came out in spring 2016 that we’d never made before, and we’ve done exceptionally well with them. The quilt-top iComfort hybrid has been well-received at retail, but the smooth top also is beginning to catch on.” The iComfort Hybrid collection ranges in price from $1,299 to $2,999.
Salt Lake Mattress also “does well with gel-infused foam core hybrids, which are the perfect blend of traditional and modern technologies, and range in price from $299 to $3,000,” Bennett says.
The Perfect Sleeper collection remains a favorite with the company’s retail base. Mattresses priced from $799 to $999 sell best, Bennett notes.
Adjustable bases have sold briskly since Salt Lake Mattress began offering them to retailers in 2011. “Our adjustable base sales have grown approximately 25% per year over the last five years,” Ross says.
The company’s overall growth rate also has been strong. “For the last 10 years, we have had a compounded average growth rate of 8% to 10%,” he adds.
“This is a steady, slow growth business,” Crowther says. “We’ve mirrored Serta’s growth since the beginning. We’re about 2% of Serta’s territory, and we’re about 2% of Serta’s growth.”
Bullish on growth
Some of the company’s expansion has been fueled by population growth. “As the West has grown, our company has grown proportionally,” Crowther says.
Salt Lake Mattress’ territory includes Utah, southern Idaho, western Wyoming and about half of Nevada. In 2015, the U.S. Census Bureau placed three of these states—Utah, Nevada and Wyoming—on its list of the 10 fastest-growing states in the country.
Data from that year’s report indicates that Utah’s population had increased by 8.4% since the 2010 United States Census. The bureau’s data also shows that the population of Nevada increased by 7% and Idaho by 6% over that same period.
Hospitality and contract sales also have been strong contributors to Salt Lake Mattress’ overall growth. “Fifteen percent of our current annual sales come from this category,” Bennett says.
“We’re bullish on contract because of projected population growth for the region and because we have five national parks in the region, which have independent hotels and many hotel chains, which we service through Serta contracts or in the local market,” he says.
The company’s channels also include Serta’s national accounts for retail chains such as Macy’s, Sears, Mattress Firm, Big Lots and Sam’s Club, as well as large regional chains. RC Willey, the Salt Lake City-based furniture, electronics, flooring and sleep products chain, is an important account for Salt Lake Mattress.
“We also have mom-and-pop stores, and the commonality with our retailers is that we offer them good product, good service and good representation, and work with them to grow their business,” Bennett says.
Challenges and opportunities
Company officials rejoice in the trends that are going their way, but they remain acutely aware of the challenges that they continue to face. Although their region is growing, “our population is very sparse relative to the East Coast, and we have a challenging area to deliver in,” Crowther says.
Growth also is beginning to put a strain on their manufacturing facility. “We moved into our current location 16 years ago, and it’s starting to feel very small,” he says. “New equipment always seems bigger than what it’s replacing, but we would go to running multiple shifts before we considered moving again.”
“Trying to compete with Chinese products pricewise also is a significant concern,” Crowther says. Although he understands why retailers “would use a brand—any brand—and then augment their gross margins with Chinese and other imported products,” he finds the practice “worrisome.”
Company officials point to internet sales as another looming challenge. “How will they affect our customer base and how will they affect us?” Crowther asks. “It’s a challenge to our business that has to be addressed.”
Crowther takes his company’s relationship with its customers very seriously. “We owe our success over the years to the efforts of our retail base,” he says. “We wouldn’t be here if we didn’t have quality customers. We like to brag about how good we are, but a big part of the praise goes to the retailers and our great teamwork over the years.” n