BY DOROTHY WHITCOMB
Described by colleagues as the “King of the Multitaskers” and in the media as the “Wizard of Ahhhs,” mattress manufacturer Earl Kluft is a complex man with a straightforward goal—make the best product possible.
As far as Kluft is concerned, it takes a lot of multitasking to create beds that draw ahhhs—for both their luxurious feels and their price tags, which can reach five digits.
Kluft learned a commitment to quality and attention to detail early by observing how his family ran its business, Deluxe Bedding in Commerce, Calif.
“Even before I started working there at 14, I remember my dad taking me down to that little original factory and just hanging out,” he says. “I found it fascinating. I loved going there and I loved to help.”
Although his family expected him to join the business after he finished college, Kluft went on the road, selling school furniture for Virco Mfg. Corp. It was a gutsy decision for a young man who had been groomed since childhood to step into the bedding business his grandfather founded in 1946. Kluft returned to the fold when his father offered him a 5% share in the company.
“It was never really about the money,” he says. “It was about building the business and making a great product. The company is like its own organism and I’ve never really felt that it was actually mine. I feel like I’m the caretaker or a steward. The company actually belongs to the people who work here and the customers.”
Kluft became president of Deluxe Bedding in 1985 and, by 1990, he was its sole owner. He led the company during a time of dramatic growth, much of that spurred by its Spring Air license. As Spring Air California, Kluft’s company was the organization’s largest franchisee, a position it held for more than 25 years.
Kluft was actively involved in building the licensing group’s business and brand, playing a key role in product development and serving as the group’s chairman in 1992–93.
In 1996, he launched Chattam & Wells, a high-end line he describes as “the genesis of modern-day luxury bedding.”
“The industry really took notice,” he says. “It changed everything in the luxury bedding market.”
Kluft sold Spring Air California and the Chattam & Wells brand in 2003 to the former Spring Air Partners, bringing a close to that decades–long relationship. A year later, he jumped back into bedding, founding E.S. Kluft & Co., which specializes in the type of luxury beds Kluft loves to make.
Long fascinated by the handmade Aireloom mattresses once favored by Hollywood celebrities, Kluft purchased the 70–year–old brand from Eastman House in 2004.
“When we bought the brand, it was down to $2 million in sustainable sales, but I really believed in it,” Kluft says. He breathed new life into the brand and, in 2010, E.S. Kluft posted $25 million in Aireloom sales. Kluft believes future growth will remain strong.
“Our star account has been Bloomingdale’s and I just got the ‘Hotel’ brand business at Macy’s,” Kluft says.
Kluft’s eponymous brand, which sets an even higher standard for luxury, also is thriving. Its six handmade collections added another $15 million in sales to the 2010 bottom line. With $4 million coming from other brands, the company’s total annual sales for last year topped $44 million.
“The luxury business is healthy compared to other segments of the market,” he says. “The high rollers are back and people who want a good night’s sleep are spending money.”
Still, Kluft acknowledges the challenges of operating today.
“This has been a rough year. We’re only even with last year’s sales,” he says. “The scary part about being a businessman in this environment is that the economy is fundamentally not fixed.”
Kluft is betting, however, that the future will be better and he continues to position his company for growth. In June, he purchased an 86,000–square–foot manufacturing and distribution center in Denver, Pa., from Park Place Corp.
The facility augments Kluft’s 127,000–square–foot factory headquarters in Rancho Cucamonga, Calif., and gives the company a base from which to cultivate and service East Coast business.
“Kluft and Aireloom brands are so unique that there has been growing interest by high–end retailers who were interested in carrying them but hesitant to make a commitment because we only produced in California,” he says. “This new facility changes all that.”
Name Earl Kluft
Title: Owner & chief executive officer
Company: E.S. Kluft & Co.
Location: Rancho Cucamonga, Calif.
Education: Kluft earned a bachelor’s degree in business administration from Chapman University in Orange, Calif., in 1971.
Family: Earl and Pamela Kluft have been married for 27 years and have three adult children. He says their two pugs are important parts of the family, too.
Gift of giving In June, City of Hope’s National Home Furnishings Industry chapter presented Earl Kluft with a lifetime achievement award in recognition of his support of the cancer research and treatment center in Duarte, Calif. Over the course of more than four decades, the industry group has raised some $43 million for City of Hope through events such as golf and tennis tournaments. “Cancer is important to all of us, but City of Hope also does important research into heart disease, HIV/AIDS, stem cells and diabetes,” Kluft says. “It feels good to give back and to help people. My wife says that she wishes we could add another zero on every check we contribute.” The Klufts also donate to summer day camps for underprivileged children and organizations that support Israel.
A new high E.S. Kluft & Co.’s Palais Royale bed was featured in a newspaper article in June 2010 as the most expensive bed made by an American company. The reporter interviewed Kluft extensively for the piece, which explored the larger luxury bedding market. The Palais Royale, with a suggested retail price $33,000 for a king size, includes 10 layers of cashmere, mohair, silk, New Zealand wool, horsehair, natural latex and certified organic cotton in the mattress and a box spring made of hand–tied coils. It takes 10 workers about three days to make a single bed set. “To build something that good was the crowning achievement of my career,” Kluft says.
Small wonders Kluft treasures his collection of handmade Swiss timepieces. Called “complicated watches,” they contain thousands of parts and perform multiple functions. “I love looking at them and winding them but I don’t keep them under glass,” he says. “I use them.”
Favorite retreat The Post Ranch Inn, a luxury hotel set in beautiful Big Sur, Calif., is a favorite place to get away from it all. “I love to walk out among the trees and get totally involved in watching nature,” he says. “I lose myself in it.”
Being Earl Kluft “My left and right brain work simultaneously and my mind never stops racing,” Kluft says. He has channeled his energy and creativity into building successful businesses and community involvement. And he knows that he’s up to the most daunting of tasks. “I’m a survivor,” he says. “No matter what happens, I’ll find a way to survive.”