Roger Magowitz: Bedding veteran finds passion for philanthropy

Growing up in Brooklyn in the 1960s and 1970s taught mattress industry veteran Roger Magowitz two important lessons. First, he learned that if he wanted something, he’d better go after it. But equally important was the realization that connections to other people were fundamental to reaching his goals.

“Growing up in Brooklyn taught me independence and self-reliance,” Magowitz says. “There was no one to watch out for you, so you had to watch out for yourself. If you wanted something, you had to grab it. No one was going to give you anything.”

Magowitz’s childhood was not an easy one. His parents divorced when he was 2 years old. In good times, he, a brother and his mother lived in a small one-bedroom apartment. In bad times, they moved into his grandparents’ already-cramped home.

“It was a challenge,” he says. “Fifty years ago, divorce was not an acceptable practice and my mother was really stigmatized.”

Seena & Roger Magowitz

Roger Magowitz (right), was raised by a single mother, Seena Magowitz, after his parents divorced when he was 2 years old.

When Magowitz talks about his mother, Seena Magowitz, his devotion and respect for her are palpable. She was, he says, not the kind of woman who would let social stigma get in her way. And when it came to her children, Seena Magowitz used every tool at her disposal to help them attain better lives.

What Seena Magowitz lacked in financial resources, she made up for in friends, Magowitz says. She went to high school with Baseball Hall of Fame pitcher Sandy Koufax and New York Mets owner Fred Wilpon. Through them and other acquaintances, she made sure her son spent his summers away from Brooklyn.
“I’d go to Fire Island (N.Y.) and enter a completely different culture. It was the world of the rich and famous—a world of household help, sailboats, nice restaurants and camps for kids,” Magowitz says. “My mother knew what she was doing: Get the kid out of Brooklyn and let him see a different kind of life. I became driven by the experience.”

A traditional route to the good life—go to college, enter a profession, work your way up—held little appeal for Magowitz. Instead, he joined the U.S. Marines after graduating from high school.

Once again, Magowitz entered a new world. As a Marine, he met people from all over the country—people of different religions, races and socio-economic backgrounds.

Climbing into the bedding business

When Magowitz left the service in 1983, he took a part-time sales job with Mattress Discounters, a retail bedding chain with stores in several mid-Atlantic states. Four years later, he was appointed vice president of the company and offered the chance to purchase six royalty-free licenses for Mattress Discounters stores in the area around Hampton Roads, Va.

To make the deal work, Magowitz tapped every resource and drew on every connection he had. He leveraged his credit cards, sought loans from family members and negotiated favorable terms on inventory. Magowitz incorporated his fledgling business as Maggie’s Enterprise Inc. and, though still only in his 20s, he set out to conquer the world of retail bedding.

“The first few years were touch and go. I really didn’t know what I was doing, but thought that I could do anything. I was convinced that there was no one smarter than me and that if I put the effort into it, I could make it,” he says. “I put in a lot of hours learning the financial and legal sides of the business. It was persistence that made it happen.”

For the next 27 years, Magowitz built his business and, at one point, operated 34 stores under the Mattress Discounters and Metropolitan Mattress names. By early 2010, however, he had winnowed that number to 26 and was considering some profound changes to his life.

Cancer changes everything

It was a process of reflection that started nearly a decade earlier with his mother’s death from pancreatic cancer in 2001. Magowitz was shocked by her diagnosis—pancreatic cancer is generally asymptomatic until well advanced—and devastated by her death just five months later. He mourned the loss of his mother, railed against the cancer and, ultimately, resolved to find a way to beat the disease that had taken her.

Within a year, he created the Seena Magowitz Foundation with the hope of raising awareness of the disease so that early detection might prolong other lives. The foundation’s ultimate goal, Magowitz says, is to raise funds to advance science to the point where pancreatic cancer can be prevented or cured.

In 2003, he launched the Seena Magowitz Celebrity Golf Classic, again building on his wide array of connections. Since its founding, the annual fundraiser has become a major bedding industry event, drawing suppliers, manufacturers and retailers from all over the country to Arizona in December for a weekend filled with receptions, auctions, awards, information about pancreatic cancer research advances and, of course, golf.

“Most of the people who come to the event have no relationship to pancreatic cancer. They’re coming out for me,” Magowitz says. “In 2011, we had 225 golfers and a total of 400 attendees. We raised about $600,000 and received a pledge of $1.5 million. We have no paid employees and 100% of the money goes to research. I definitely feel as if we’re beginning to push the needle on pancreatic cancer.”

To focus his full attention on the foundation, Magowitz sold Maggie’s Enterprise to Houston-based bedding chain Mattress Firm in late 2010. He then signed on as the company’s charitable adviser with the mandate to focus his attention on ways to fight pancreatic cancer.

“Mattress Firm has been great to me. This is a proud moment,” Magowitz says. “How many people have the opportunity to do something that they have a passion for and change the world? Steve Stagner (Mattress Firm president and chief executive officer) is a young man with the same commitment that I have and the opportunity that he’s given me is incredible.”

Roger Magowitz & Von Hoffs

The Seena Magowitz Foundation works with Dr. Daniel Von Hoff, a pancreatic cancer researcher. Von Hoff is shown (center) at the annual Seena Magowitz Celebrity Golf Classic, along with Roger Magowitz, foundation chairman, and Von Hoff’s wife, Ann Von Hoff.

BRIEFLY

Name Roger Magowitz
Company Mattress Firm
Location Houston
Position Charitable adviser
Passion Founder and chairman of the Seena Magowitz Foundation, an organization committed to advancing awareness, early detection and the eventual prevention and cure of pancreatic cancer
Age 52
Family He and his wife, Jeanne, have been married for 27 years. They have one son, Craig.

ANOTHER SIDE

Teamwork Business, at its best, is often a creative, collaborative process and Roger Magowitz takes great pride in the retail enterprise that he built. “It was very satisfying to find that all of the effort worked,” he says. “I was able to build a team of people who enjoyed running the stores and being part of something big.”

A compassionate, concerned industry “My hat is off to the entire mattress industry when it comes to efforts on behalf of pancreatic cancer. I’ve just rallied them,” says Magowitz, who established the Seena Magowitz Foundation, a charity that advances awareness of pancreatic cancer and seeks to find a cure for the disease. “The industry has a chance of going down in history as the force that actually found a cure for pancreatic cancer.”

A crossroads Magowitz says he is reassessing “what I want to do when I grow up.” He thinks his foundation is having “good growing pains” and may benefit from professional management. He, in turn, wonders if he should start another business or devote all of his time to philanthropy. “Change is good, but balance is harder to achieve,” he says.

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