The Quinns: Business by the Golden Rule

I can’t believe what you boys have to do to sell a mattress!” This refrain – delivered one imagines with a shake of the head and a rueful smile – is a central element in Quinn family lore. Passed down through four generations and always spoken by the senior Quinn, it has become more, through time, than an inside joke. When they hear it “the boys” of the junior generation know that their efforts to maneuver the family business through tricky waters is recognized and affirmed. They understand, without further words being necessary, that they have the confidence and support of someone who fully understands the challenges of keeping a business such as theirs afloat.

It’s been this way since 1924 when Ralph Miles Quinn Sr. acquired equity and a managing position in Kentucky Sanitary Bedding after the company’s owners were unable to repay a loan he had made to them. For 33 years, he helped build the company while playing an active role in the growing sleep products industry. His sons, Ralph Jr. and John, started their careers there, learning as much about business ethics as about building mattresses.

In 1957, the family reached a turning point, however. For some time the Quinns had been wrestling with the succession and ownership issues inherent in a small business owned by three families. Ralph Quinn Sr., who was then 65, thought it was time for the family to try another road. At a family meeting convened to discuss the issue, they decided to establish their own bedding company. Now collectively known as Restonic Sleep Products, the Quinns set out to craft a company that reflected their own core values.

John Quinn, the company’s current president and CEO remembers: “Dad thought that the future looked best if we did something on our own. We faced all of the challenges of starting a new business and worked six days a week, getting along on very little. That first year, we made a profit of $884.”

John Quinn and his brother Ralph Jr., who died in 1990, worked side–by–side for 32 years, building the fledgling company into a significant regional player. In 1979, they relocated the business to New Albany, Ind., and from that base acquired Restonic licenses for Chicago, Birmingham, Ala., Atlanta, and New Albany. Until his death in 1974, Ralph Quinn Sr. signed the checks, watched over “the boys”, and was frequently heard, family lore maintains, to say: “I can’t believe what you boys have to do to sell a mattress.”

In fact, the Quinn family has some very specific ideas about what they will and will not do to sell a mattress. Committed Christians, they center both their personal and professional lives in the Golden Rule. John Quinn says, “Our family shares a common faith, an output of which is, we hope, reflected in the way we do business. We want to treat people – associates, customers, everyone – the way we want to be treated, and that’s not dependent on them, but upon us.”

That faith is also reflected in the way the current crop of “boys” – Lee, Bob and Tom Quinn – have structured manufacturing operations at Restonic Sleep Products. This third generation, all of whom are John Quinn’s sons, have embraced the Kaizen/Lean Manufacturing process as a way of producing product intelligently and effectively in a highly competitive market. Often referred to as the key to Japan’s early competitive success, Kaizen emphasizes gradual, orderly, continual progress and promotes a business culture that empowers all workers to be decision makers. On a personnel level, Lee Quinn, vice president of operations explains, it means: “We hire people not positions. People are the key and our team leaders believe that they can teach anyone any job that we have.”

Team leaders come from the ranks and earn their positions through their positive contributions. Vice president Tom Quinn adds: “By demonstrating leadership within the group in terms of efficiency, productivity and really good communications skills they become the supervisors and trainers. They are pretty much on their own in terms of workplace design, directing flow and layout.”

The fact that Kaizen dovetails well with their Christian beliefs is no small matter to the Quinns. Lee Quinn notes that in both Kaizen and Christianity “every action has consequences. Any time a team member acts it has an effect on the others around and downstream from him. The Golden Rule applies to viewing each other as customers. Both internal and external customers in our business have expectations about how they would like to receive product. We do our best to meet those expectations.”

The result has been impressive. “We perform well above industry standards,” say Bob Quinn, vice president of sales and marketing. “The industry would say that we can’t do what we do in the square footage that we have.”

Seeking out good advice and listening to it, as with the decision to apply Kaizen principles to their operations, is fundamental to the way the Quinn’s approach business. When the second Quinn generation recognized some of the perils associated with family businesses they promptly sent the third generation off to seminars with family business guru Leon Danco. Now that a fourth generation has entered the business – Lee’s son Chris works in purchasing and Bob’s son Chad in receiving – it may be time to take that step again, the brothers note.

Led by their father, they also are beginning to recognize that there are limits to what even the mightiest triumvirate can do. John Quinn says, “We all do a lot of things and how we cope with the physical limits of doing more and more is one of our challenges. When I think back, I know what it feels like to say, ’We can’t do this ourselves anymore.’ ” Recognizing those limits help the Quinns keep their priorities where they feel they must be. Believing that their greatest strength as a family and as a family business comes from their common faith, they prioritize their commitment to God above all else. John Quinn and his sons serve actively as elders, deacons, part–time preachers, Sunday School teachers and song leaders in their local churches of Christ. Their families are also actively involved.

All of the Quinns are also deeply committed to their families. John Quinn, at 70, still comes into the office every day and, according to his sons, often works longer hours than they do. It is he who also reiterates the family mantra. “Our focus has always been on church, family and business,” John Quinn explains. “Kept in that order, it all gets taken care of.”