Eitel enjoying 'great game of life'

Charles R. Eitel believes in change—positive, proactive, get–to–the–heart–of–the–matter change. The fact that he also believes in people’s inherent ability to grow allows him to create a powerful platform for resolving even the most difficult business problems.

Before joining Simmons in January 2000, Eitel built a reputation for turning struggling companies around. For nearly three decades, he worked for five different carpeting companies and ran three of them. Just prior to joining Simmons, he served as president and chief operating officer of Interface, a global commercial interior products and services company. With Eitel at the helm, Interface was named one of the “100 Best Companies To Work For” and one of “America’s Most Admired Companies” by Fortune magazine.

Joining Simmons, he says, offered a compelling opportunity “to produce a product that is important for people’s well–being.” It also provided another chance to act as a change agent—a role Eitel clearly relishes.

“Eight years ago, (Simmons) was autocratic, bureaucratic and ineffective,” he says. “Today, we have phenomenal relationships with our dealers, and there has been dramatic improvement in quality and safety.”

Sales figures reflect the shift. When Eitel took the helm in 2000, Simmons’ annual sales were about $600 million. By the end of 2001, the overall economic impact of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and the bankruptcy of three of Simmons’ biggest customers—HomeLife, Heilig–Meyers and Montgomery Ward—threatened profitability.

This year, Simmons’ annual sales will approach $1.3 billion. What caused the dramatic growth? In large measure it was shifts in corporate culture fostered by “The Great Game of Life.”

“The Great Game of Life,” an experiential program developed by Larry Wilson of Wilson Consulting, uses physical events to challenge individuals and teams to exceed self–imposed limits and to expand people’s expectations of what they can accomplish. It cost Simmons $7 million over four years and was not an easy sell to Fenway Partners, the New York City–based private equity firm that then owned a controlling interest in Simmons. Even Eitel’s management team and employees were skeptical, but Eitel prevailed.

He has never looked back.

“The best way to be sure you have a lot to look forward to in life is to create a future that you want to live in. The investment we made in our people is the investment they make in us,” he explains. “ ‘The Great Game of Life’ liberated our people. Today, they are a productive, fun, empowered group.”

The company’s recent acquisition of foam bed producer Comfor–Pedic presents Eitel with his next set of challenges and is central to the future Eitel wants Simmons to live in.

“We tried (memory foam) twice before and failed because we truly didn’t have a better product,” he says. “Comfor–Pedic provides a phenomenal product and the only one originally designed for sleeping. I think specialty sleep will eventually evolve to be 25% of our business.”

Core values Eitel believes that most companies don’t really understand core values. Core values, he says, are beliefs that are “so deeply seated that they can’t be unseated.” At Simmons, those values are caring and support. The core value of Eitel’s personal belief system is respect for the individual: “I try to put myself in other people’s places and try to see how they respond to things.”

Life outside the office “I love to be outdoors and play almost every sport you can imagine,” Eitel says. A good day is one spent on his boat—a 54–foot Savannah yacht—or indulging his interest in underwater photography. A self–described car nut, Eitel loves driving fast cars and admits to having “way too many.” He and his wife, Cindy, also collect art and have a particular fondness for Impressionism and pieces reflecting the American West.

Honors and associations Eitel’s alma mater has inducted him into the Oklahoma State University Hall of Fame, the College of Business Hall of Fame and the Alumnae Hall of Fame. He is active in many civic and professional associations including the Young Presidents Association, International Business Fellows and the Oklahoma State University Foundation Board of Governors. Eitel serves of the boards of Ladd Furniture and the George West Mental Health Foundation.

Memorable moment In 2003 Eitel held a company meeting at Reynolds Plantation near Atlanta. As he stood offstage with former President George H.W. Bush, the meeting’s surprise keynote speaker, Eitel’s daughter Jennifer opened the proceedings by singing “God Bless America.” Eitel remembers: “I turned and saw tears rolling down the president’s cheeks. He cried; I cried. I really love our country.”

Current reading The Commanding Heights: The Battle for the World Economy by Daniel Yergin and Joseph Stanislaw.

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