Holding on to childhood lessons

Michael Eppinger, who is the youngest of six children, grew up on a poultry farm in Wooster County, Mass. Both things, he is convinced, shaped the way he deals with the world.

“I learned a lot about the importance of a work ethic and basic common sense,” he says. “Things just don’t get done on their own. As the youngest, I learned to be a good listener, because I was always being told what to do.”

When it came time to make a career choice, Eppinger folded his background and an interest in science into the study of industrial management.

“This kind of training allows you to solve human problems related to manufacturing systems,” he says.

Eppinger began his career in 1985 at Boston–based Jordan Marsh Co., a division of Federated Department Stores (now Macy’s Co.). He held several operations management positions before leaving in 1993 to join the Wall Music, a 170–store music retailer. In 1998 he became vice president of operations at Valley Media. He joined Mattress Discounters in 2000 as vice president of supply chain.

Mattress Discounters, one of the United States’ largest specialty retailers of mattresses with 140 stores in five states and the District of Columbia, also operates a manufacturing facility for its Comfort Source brand. Two years ago, Eppinger was promoted to senior vice president of manufacturing and supply chain, adding production oversight to his responsibilities for the first time.

The “listening to learn” skills he developed as the youngest of six children have come in handy.

“It’s a little scary knowing what you don’t know,” Eppinger says. “I’ve had to learn to completely trust the people who have been doing this for a long time, but I’ve also discovered that my instincts are good. I ask a lot of questions and listen respectfully and at the same time try to influence some change.”

Change has been the name of the game since Eppinger joined Mattress Discounters. In 2000 the company, then owned by Bain Capital, had 300 stores. Two years later, it filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. In 2003, the reorganized company squeaked out a small profit and last year it realized a profit of more than $7 million on $115 million in sales. Eppinger projects that 2007 sales will be about $140 million.

Through it all, Eppinger has remained optimistic.

“I’ve always been confident in my ability and the team of people around me,” he says. “I learned early on that perseverance is necessary to succeed in anything. If you get knocked down, get up and push forward. Experience tells me if you keep working hard and make sound decisions, things normally work out.”

Winning ways A key component of successful management lies in respect for people and the work that they do, Eppinger believes. “You have to be willing to give people the time of day and be a really good, active listener. When people bring you concerns or problems, you have to take action or challenge them to take action.”

Reading the tea leaves Eppinger won a Forecaster of the Year award from the International Sleep Products Association for most accurately forecasting what would happen in the U.S. economy in 2006.

A month of his own If he could take an extended vacation, Eppinger would head west with his family. “We’d rent a mobile home and drive down the coast, whitewater rafting, hiking and mountain climbing along the way.”

You might be surprised to know Eppinger believes that colleagues in the bedding industry see him as a very serious, focused guy. And he is—at work. Outside the office it’s another story. “At home I can laugh and be silly. I let my hair down and we have a great time together.”

Current reading Big Russ and Me, a memoir by Tim Russert, host of NBC’s “Meet the Press,” echoes the profound respect Eppinger has for his own father. “It’s a fascinating account of Russert’s life growing up in Buffalo, N.Y., and the influence his dad and religion had on him. His dad worked two jobs so his kids could achieve and the nuns forced Russert not to settle for less than his best.”

Family matters Eppinger’s 89–year–old father and 86–year–old mother soon will celebrate their 60th anniversary. He admires them enormously and is quick to point out the values they taught him. “They went through the Great Depression and it never left them. They taught us never to take things for granted and to save for the future because things can change. Basically they taught us to prepare well, work hard and to live a good life.”

In his next life Eppinger can’t imagine retiring, but he can envision a second career operating a vineyard. “I see myself working like my dad, as long as I’m physically able. All of the vineyards I’ve been to have been just beautiful, and I love working the land. Sometimes I miss farming. There’s a certain simplicity about working hard during the day and knowing that you’ve accomplished something at the end of it.”

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