BY DOROTHY WHITCOMB
Since its founding 10 years ago, Ascion LLC has evolved from being the manufacturer of a single product—latex air cylinder mattresses—into a multiproduct, technology-driven company.
Martin Rawls-Meehan, president and chief executive officer, has linked new products—and, in fact, tied his company’s future—to the changing attitudes of consumers toward their bedrooms. He has leveraged his company’s strength in technology and electronics to create products that integrate 24/7 connectivity into the sleep environment. His goal is to create innovative products that will both enhance sleep and keep pace with social and cultural changes fueled by ever-evolving technology.
Rawls-Meehan co-founded Ascion, based in Franklin, Mich., in 2003 with Tony Chang (now a silent partner). Chang’s family manufactures latex in China, and the pair traveled there, Rawls-Meehan says, “to try to understand the properties of the material and its manufacturing process.”
Ascion’s first product was a mattress made from natural rubber air cylinders that could be reconfigured to suit a consumer’s comfort preference. Adjustable bases, the product for which the company is best known, quickly followed. All of the company’s products are marketed under the Reverie brand name.
The pair built the company from scratch.
“We got into the latex business and then the adjustable bed business by making cold calls to potential customers,” Rawls-Meehan says. “Eventually, we built up credibility and things began to resonate.”
What resonates with Rawls-Meehan is innovation.
“There’s always so much to learn,” he says. “Every day in business I encounter things that I wish I knew more about. Those things drive me to learning. As a business owner, I think that you owe it to your customers and employees to make the most informed decisions that you can.”
Rawls-Meehan’s 30 patents are the fruit of his quest to stay ahead of the curve. He’s also named as the co-inventor on more than a dozen other mattress-related patents.
‘House hot spots’
One of the company’s patents, dubbed “Made for Mobile,” is integrated into its Reverie 7S (Supreme) adjustable base. Both Wi-Fi and Bluetooth capability are built into the bed and supported by the industry’s first remote app for smartphones and tablets, according to the company.
Compatible with any mobile device, the app enables users to wirelessly control the Reverie base, televisions, sound systems, lamps and other electronics that are plugged into Remote Frequency Outlet adaptors. The adaptors also have been patented by Ascion.
Rawls-Meehan says that the 7S was developed in response to “today’s tech-focused culture.”
“The 7S’s capabilities make it more convenient and comfortable for consumers to operate on their 24/7 life and work cycles,” he says. “They can be fully functional and productive from bed or (users) can enjoy the comfort of adjusting their bed, TV and lighting remotely to watch a movie. Either way, we’ve turned the bed into the ‘house hot spot.’ ”
The bed, which retails for $1,700 in queen size, has been redesigned aesthetically and mechanically. Aesthetic changes include upholstered side panels available in five colors and an inner bed skirt, which covers the metal parts of the bed when it’s elevated.
Reverie offers two other adjustable beds. Like the 7S, the 5D (Deluxe) features the company’s patented massage technology and preset memory positions, including an anti-snore position. Both models also offer a zero-gravity position, which, Rawls-Meehan says, “elevates the head and foot of the bed to the level of the heart eliminating strain and enhancing relaxation.” The 5D retails for about $1,300.
The company’s adjustable bed line opens with the 3E (Essential Plus) model. It has the same mechanical platform as the other models, but lacks the massage function and wireless capability. It retails for about $800. Reverie also manufacturers private-label adjustable beds.
“It’s a great time to be in the adjustable bed business,” says Ray Totaro, vice president of sales. “Retailers are realizing that they’re not getting new customers coming through the door and are looking for what else they can sell to existing customers.”
Innovation & quality
Reverie’s sales figures reflect Totaro’s enthusiasm.
“Our core customers across the board have consistently grown their business by approximately 40% for the last couple of years,” Rawls-Meehan says. “Our sales have grown by 35% to 40% (over that same period) and our target for this year is 35%. If we keep doing our job, our sales of adjustable beds should continue to grow by 30% to 40% annually for the next five years.”
But Rawls-Meehan sees a potential problem with meeting those projections.
“As an industry, we face an enormous challenge,” he says. “As a product becomes more popular, others want to enter the fray, saying they can deliver at half the price. Adjustable beds aren’t easy to manufacture. Ten years ago, quality issues pushed them to the back of the line for a while. If the bottom line becomes too much of a focus, we run the danger of quality disintegration again.”
He hopes to mitigate that challenge by keeping his company and its customers focused on what, he believes, sets the Reverie brand apart: innovation and quality.
“We design our own electronics, and a significant amount of vertical integration allows us to control quality from inception to delivery,” he says.
The company’s decision to begin “reshoring” the manufacture of adjustable beds has contributed to its ability to control quality. In January, it began production of the 7S model at its Silver Creek, N.Y., plant.
“We will continue to bring more of our adjustable bed manufacturing back to the U.S.,” Rawls-Meehan says. “It’s going to be a big part of our future. Shipping costs are only going to go up and, at a certain point, adjustable beds are going to become front and center with consumers. That means we’re going to have to be flexible and capable of customization.”
In addition to the Silver Creek plant where Reverie mattresses also are produced, the company has a facility in Walpole, Mass., which is devoted to research and development. A move to a new headquarters facility in Bloomfield Hills, Mich., should be completed by the end of this summer. The 15,000-square-foot facility is three times the size of Ascion’s current headquarters and will house all marketing, sales and executive functions, as well as “more significant R&D,” Rawls-Meehan says.
Ascion’s expansion also makes way for new mattress and pillow lines.
“We scrapped pillows last year and are coming up with a whole new line that addresses the needs and requests of our retail customers and consumers,” Rawls-Meehan says. Prototypes will be shown at the summer Las Vegas Market July 29-Aug. 2, and the new line will be launched in January 2014.
The company shelved its mattress program in 2008. It revamped the line and then relaunched it 20 months ago.
“This is the first year that we’ve strongly marketed mattresses again, and we project that their sales will account for between 10% and 20% of our total annual sales in 2013,” he says.
Ascion’s goal is to elevate mattress sales to a much larger percentage of its total annual sales.
“I hope that within two years they will be responsible for 50% of total annual sales,” Rawls-Meehan says.
Much of this growth is being fueled by the company’s partnership with Celebrity Cruise Lines to provide its Dream Sleep Systems for each of the rooms in all 11 of the line’s ships. To date, five ships have been outfitted with the systems, which include an adjustable base and mattress.
While the sleep systems have been sold primarily online, Ascion now is considering wholesaling them.
“We’ve been getting requests from retailers to sell our mattresses, so we’ve been testing three different air cylinder mattresses with adjustable bases within the wholesale division,” Totaro says. “We want to offer a program based on the feedback we’ve been getting, and we want to make sure that we roll it out correctly. We don’t want to over commit and under deliver.”
In addition to selling directly to consumers on its website, Ascion’s channels of distribution include top 25 sleep shop chains, individual sleep shops, distributors and buying groups, home shows, and state fairs.
The company sells throughout the United States with the majority of its major accounts located in the Midwest. It currently uses four distribution centers located in California, Florida, New York and Texas. Ascion sells into Canada, as well, with the bulk of its business located in the eastern part of the country.
The company prides itself on being “customer-centric” and goes to great lengths to understand the needs and desires of consumers.
“We want everything we do from a product development standpoint to be relevant,” says Lisa Tan, director of marketing and strategy. “Focus groups are a big part of our strategy, but one of the best ways to get feedback is to see what customers are saying, completely unsolicited, on social media. For us, the key objective with social media is engagement and having a direct line to people who use our product.”
|Specialty||Adjustable beds, mattresses, pillows and sleep systems|
|Ownership||Martin Rawls-Meehan, president & chief executive officer, and Tony Chang, silent partner|
The company’s newly revamped website is designed to engage and educate both consumers and retailers. Consumers can access product information and sleep research, as well as find retailers who sell the Reverie brand. The website’s dealer portal gives retail sales associates access to point-of-purchase materials, product specifications and manuals, and information related to sleep.
Tan believes the fact that the brand received the Women’s Choice Award last year from the consumer research program WomenCertified validates the company’s efforts to meet consumer needs.
“The award is based on a third-party survey that showed that nine out of 10 female consumers would recommend Reverie to a friend. Our goal is 10 out of 10,” she says.
Meanwhile, Rawls-Meehan has no intention of resting on his laurels.
“We’ve developed some sensor technology that will allow us to do everything from pressure mapping to tracking sleep quality,” he says. “We have proprietary algorithms and sensors that can accurately measure the amount of light sleep and REM sleep and then adjust the bed to reduce pressure. I think it’s really going to make some noise in the industry. I think a lot about paradigm shifts and what’s the next great thing. That’s where we really want to be.”