In the coming year, the company plans to make its patented Self Adjusting Technology nonpowered air mattresses, which have been widely adopted in the medical field, more broadly available to consumers. It’s actively seeking licensing deals, strategic distribution agreements and retail partners.
John W. Wilkinson, founder and chief executive officer of the company based in Manchester Center, Vt., began experimenting with air-based support systems in 1981. An engineer who built his career in the steel industry, Wilkinson started his search for a better sleep surface using his garage as a lab and inner tubes for material.
“I had some ideas and had a friend in the nursing home industry who was willing to test the prototypes on his patients,” he says.
When the experiments proved successful, Wilkinson applied for patents and founded HealthFlex, his first medical bedding company. As HealthFlex gained market share, it also garnered the attention of Span-America Medical Systems Inc., a company in Greenville S.C., that offers pressure management systems to the health care industry.
In 1995, Wilkinson sold his company to Span-America and founded WCW as an original equipment manufacturer primarily for Span-America. He worked for Span-America as senior vice president of product development for three years before leaving to research and develop other technologies on his own through WCW.
Wilkinson obtained a patent for the first self-adjusting air system in 1998. It was, he says, the breakthrough he needed to create a sleep surface that could both reduce pressure on the body and support its alignment in a natural position.
“What Self Adjusting Technology does is to sense a specific body weight on the sleep surface,” he says. “Once a body is on the mattress, the system senses both the load and the body type and adjusts the internal pressure and volume to maximize the displacement of the body over the surface.”
Why does that matter? Because displacement, Wilkinson says, reduces pressure and shear—the force applied to the skin when a body sinks too deeply into a mattress. Shear is as uncomfortable as pressure points, causing sleepers to toss and turn.
Wilkinson believes that WCW’s Natural Form sleep system—the technology’s brand name—is the most effective bed set on the market to reduce both pressure and shear.
“Here’s the issue: A spring or foam mattress cannot displace; it can only absorb weight. A waterbed displaces, but there is no control over volume,” Wilkinson says. “Our systems are always going to be equal to the ambient conditions. They’re smart beds and work without a motor or pump.”
WCW executives have so much confidence in the efficacy of their technology that they talk in terms of creating the next industry-changing mattress. The enthusiastic reception of self-adjusting systems in the acute-care industry fuels their faith.
Leading medical centers, including Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York, Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston and Emory University Hospital in Atlanta, use the company’s self-adjusting systems throughout their institutions, Wilkinson says.
“We’ve also been embraced by the international medical community and ship 50% of what we produce” to 23 countries, he says.
Reaching out to consumers
While company executives have confidence in their products and believe the consumer market will embrace them, they know that WCW’s strengths are in product development and manufacturing—not marketing and distribution.
“Our niche is the ability to develop new products,” says Jeff W. Wilkinson, John W. Wilkinson’s son and WCW president.
Jeff Wilkinson and his siblings, Carla Bellemare, senior vice president of quality control and compliance, and John C. Wilkinson, senior vice president of operations, are the company’s owners, along with Jean Wilkinson, wife of John W. Wilkinson and senior vice president of corporate development. Together, they’re committed to shifting WCW’s business plan to focus on consumer and hospitality sales.
“While the medical market has been our core business, we recognize that it is a small percentage of the bedding industry,” Jeff Wilkinson says.
The company’s annual sales are split evenly among the medical, hospitality and consumer markets, but WCW’s leadership would like to see consumer and hospitality sales grow to represent as much as 80% of total annual sales.
“Ultimately,” says David Tilley, vice president of sales, “licensing agreements will be the catalyst for growth. There is definitely interest from several majors to license the Self Adjusting Technology.”
To date, most consumer sales have come through the company’s website (www.naturalform.com), and Tilley believes that the website will continue to be an engine of growth, at least for a while.
“We’ve hired a new e-commerce manager who has been very successful in growing e-commerce sales at other companies,” Tilley says. “We’re already seeing positive results, so I see 30% to 40% growth (in the consumer segment) as being very conservative.”
He continues: “My opinion is that social networking is extremely beneficial. You have to be very active and provide relevant content, however. One of our areas of focus right now is on creating an interactive Facebook page that allows current customers to share their experiences and engages new customers.”
In addition, the company is using social media to educate consumers about the benefits of its products.
“By linking our page to diabetes, arthritis and fibromyalgia groups, we get people to connect mattresses to health,” Tilley says.
WCW offers three nonpowered mattress models to consumers, none of which requires a pump or motor. The 10-inch, entry-level Cirrus includes as many as five preset vertical air cylinders per side, a 3-inch foam comfort layer (high-density polyurethane or memory foam) and a terry-velour cover. It has a starting suggested retail price in queen size of $1,800.The 10-inch Cumulus is the company’s best-selling consumer product and features nine horizontal air cylinders on each side of the mattress, two comfort adjustment dials, a 3-inch foam comfort layer (high-density polyurethane or memory foam) and a removable, washable New Zealand wool cover. It has a starting retail of $2,258.
The line tops out with the Stratus, which retails for $2,699 in queen size. Its air cylinders (nine on each side of the mattress) are topped with 3 inches of memory foam and covered with a removable, washable New Zealand wool cover with box-top design.
WCW also offers sheets, pillows, toppers, bed frames and adjustable bed bases on its website. A dog bed will be available soon. These items, Tilley says, represent a small percentage of total annual sales.
Consumer sales get an additional boost from the company’s relationship with Hilton Garden Inn hotels, which began in 2004.
“We have 85,000 beds in the hotels and a sell-through program that has been growing steadily,” Tilley says. “Most of the people who call our toll-free number didn’t think they were in the market for a new mattress, but had such a good night’s sleep that they wanted to find out what they were sleeping on.”
WCW recently consolidated production for all three divisions in a 140,000-square-foot manufacturing facility in Manchester Center. A 20,000-square-foot headquarters is located on the same site.
Of the company’s 100 employees, 65 are involved in production.
“Our plant is FDA-certified. Even our consumer products have to meet U.S. Food and Drug Administration standards because they are made in the same facility as the medical products,” John W. Wilkinson says.
Excess capacity has been built into the plant to accommodate expected growth. The company has been seeking strategic partnerships with other manufacturers that have well-established marketing and distribution systems and also with large retail chains. Tilley says initial interest has been strong.
“We’re looking for someone who understands the technology we’ve developed and who wants to keep it pure,” Tilley says. “WCW has a system that can drop into any company’s mattress core in place of foam layers. We see it as the Pentium chip of the mattress industry.”
WCW expects to introduce its products at trade shows in 2013, either directly or through a licensing partner.
“We’ve challenged ourselves to raise brand awareness of our products,” Jeff Wilkinson says.
WCW executives are passionate about the product they produce.
“I believe that this technology can clearly get to $1 billion in market share,” John W. Wilkinson says. “If Tempur-Pedic can get to $1 billion, what can we do with 16 worldwide patents? It will take resources and logistics, but I believe strongly that this can happen.”
|Specialty||Patented self-adjusting air beds for the medical, consumer and hospitality markets|
|Headquarters||Manchester Center, Vt.|
|Roots||Started by John W. Wilkinson in 1995. (He named the company by stringing together the middle initials of his three children.)|
|Ownership||Family owned, privately held|
|Mission||“To help the world sleep healthier”|