Longtime pillow supplier Soft-Tex raises profile

BY GARY JAMES

New products, lines and partnerships increase its visibility as a key player in sleep products

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C-SUITE The senior management team of Waterford, New York-based Soft-Tex International consists of Keith Bolton (left), senior vice president of sales; Kathy Walsh, senior vice president of business development; Jeff Chilton, chief executive officer; Tom Gibbs, chief financial officer; and Michael Wilker, senior vice president of operations.

While Soft-Tex International has been a major supplier of pillows and other sleep products to big retail chains such as Bed Bath & Beyond and Macy’s for years, the 32-year-old company has kept a relatively low profile in the broader home furnishings landscape. But with the launch of its DreamSmart line in 2015 and other recent moves to expand its products and presence, the company’s visibility is rising quickly.

Designed to help furniture stores and specialty shops better compete with fast-growing e-tailers such as Casper, the DreamSmart program features four drop-shippable memory foam mattresses, including a 10-inch luxury foam model with layers of latex and gel, an all-steel One Base Foundation, and a range of high-tech pillows and protectors. The line features creative packaging and product displays designed to meet the needs of furniture retailers. Soft-Tex can ship products to retailers by truckload or container, or directly to retailers’ consumers, depending on the store’s preference.

“The DreamSmart brand provides a competitive advantage to retailers looking for a suite of drop-shippable bedding products that don’t undercut the value of the in-store shopping experience,” says Jeff Chilton, chief executive officer of Soft-Tex, which has headquarters in Waterford, New York. “An important element of the DreamSmart program for a furniture or bedding retailer is channel exclusivity. With DreamSmart, retailers don’t have to worry that a customer is going to try a product in their store and then buy the same bed somewhere else online.”

Soft-Tex was one of the first companies to offer a boxed mattress in the early 2000s, according to Chilton. “We never dreamed the segment would take off the way it has in the past few years,” he says. “But because we’ve been involved in this segment for all these years, we have worked through the unique challenges it presents. We know exactly what it takes to create a mattress that can be compressed into a small box—and even stored for a long period of time, if needed—but still deliver the quality and performance consumers expect year after year.”

Soft-Tex-Briefly-boxAs part of its marketing strategy for DreamSmart, Soft-Tex has a partnership with ServeCo International, a Woodstock, Georgia-based specialist in private-label furniture care products, top-of-bed products, and service contracts and bedding warranties for furniture retailers and manufacturers. At the Winter Las Vegas Market, Jan. 28-Feb. 1 in Las Vegas, Soft-Tex and ServeCo showed an expanded assortment of DreamSmart products.

During the Las Vegas show, Soft-Tex also unveiled a line of Restonic-branded bedding accessories incorporating Transcend, an open-cell hypoallergenic foam that provides plush, comfortable support. Since November 2017, Soft-Tex has been the sole licensee authorized to produce and sell Restonic-branded pillows, mattress toppers, pads, protectors and other bedding accessories. “Restonic is a great addition to be able to offer our retail partners, both in-store and online,” Chilton says.

And through a third partnership, Soft-Tex also debuted the latest additions to its line of Sunbrella-branded waterproof memory foam seat cushions, featuring Soft-Tex’s patented AquaSeal technology. The two companies launched the program in the spring of 2017 at the New York Home Fashions Market.

“This is a new product for us and a new channel of distribution, so it’s going to take time to build,” Chilton says. “But we’re pleased by the response so far. There’s a big opportunity for innovative outdoor products that are capable of withstanding the elements.”

Humble beginnings

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WHERE IT STARTED Soft-Tex continues to manufacture fiber-filled pillows at its headquarters facility in Waterford.

Founded in 1986 by brothers Arthur and Harold Perry, Soft-Tex started as a small pillow supplier. In the early years, Arthur Perry would visit local hotels to drum up business and Harold Perry would fill orders overnight with the aid of a simple fiber blowing machine.

“They built their business on service,” Chilton says. “They delivered exactly what they promised, when they promised.”

When the company landed the Bradlees department store chain as a customer, the scale of the operation grew substantially. In 2004, when it secured the Therapedic license, Soft-Tex enjoyed another expansion as its pillows and other sleep products hit the shelves of hundreds of Bed Bath & Beyond stores. And starting in 2012, when Chilton joined the company and Soft-Tex introduced a groundbreaking knit cover for a line of foam pillows for Macy’s, the company experienced yet another growth spurt.

Chilton joined Soft-Tex as executive vice president of sales and marketing. A former executive with Pillowtex and Perfect Fit, Chilton had helped Soft-Tex develop its relationship with Bed Bath & Beyond while at Perfect Fit when he reached out to the Perrys for mattress pads. In 2014, he was named president and in May 2016, he became CEO when Arthur Perry retired. Although Arthur Perry and Harold Perry are retired and no longer active in the day-to-day running of the company, they both continue to serve on the board.

Today, Soft-Tex is majority owned by Hudson Ferry Capital, a New York-based private equity firm that specializes in niche manufacturers. Under its new ownership, which took control of the company in 2014, Soft-Tex has increased its domestic warehousing capabilities in Charleston, South Carolina, as well as its sourcing in China. The company has three exclusive partnerships in China to produce foam products, backed by its own staff of 12 in Shanghai. The team includes a chemical engineer, logistics experts and quality assurance specialists.

Soft-Tex continues to operate its own plant in Waterford, where it produces the fiber pillows that still account for 20% of the company’s pillow business—at one time, before the popularity of memory foam, they were 80%. The Waterford manufacturing facility is 120,000 square feet with approximately 50 employees and houses the pillow-blowing operation, as well as distribution. Harold Perry’s daughter, Melissa Kearns, is the company’s operations analyst. The company also has a showroom in New York City and a sales and marketing office in Mooresville, North Carolina.

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EVERYTHING FOR SLEEP Soft-Tex’s year-round showroom in New York City features a comprehensive assortment of the company’s sleep products line.

“We moved our warehousing from New York to Charleston to cut costs and enhance our ability to service customers,” Chilton says. The 140,000-square-foot facility employs 25 people and processes more than 100 containers a month.

“We’re constantly growing in Charleston,” Chilton says. “We run drop-ship programs for a number of big customers out of this facility and also support all our other customers from there, as well.” Drop-ship sales account for about 20% of Soft-Tex’s overall business.

In recent years, Soft-Tex has expanded its customer base to include a host of major retailers. In addition to Bed Bath & Beyond and Macy’s, its customers include Aldi, Amazon, The Bon-Ton, Boscov’s, Denver Mattress, Dillard’s, HomeGoods, Kohl’s, Lowe’s, JCPenney, T.J. Maxx and Wayfair. The national brands it produces include Sensorpedic, Biopedic, SensorGel and SwissLUX, plus the licensed brands Restonic and Therapedic.

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OUT OF THE BOX The 8-inch SensorGel boxed mattress from Soft-Tex is one of Macy’s best-sellers.

“People may not know the name Soft-Tex, but they certainly know the brands we produce,” Chilton says. “Among our customers, we have a well-established reputation for quality products, and strong back-end and operational expertise. Our performance scorecards are always impeccable, and we’re known for going above and beyond the call of duty to take care of business and make sure our customers are happy.”

Helping to manage that process is Erik Sanchez, who joined Soft-Tex in August 2017. Previously group vice president of reporting and analytics for Macy’s, Sanchez oversees sourcing and product development for Soft-Tex. Reporting to Sanchez are Eric Linn, vice president of marketing and communications; Eric Hasper, lead designer and manager of the company’s showrooms in New York and Las Vegas; and Steven Ge, vice president of China operations.

Thinking green

The same “set the bar high” attitude applies to Soft-Tex’s sourcing. In late 2016, Soft-Tex was the first company to achieve the CertiPUR-US certification for molded flexible polyurethane foam used for pillows. The company also has CertiPUR-US certification for foams used in its mattresses and toppers.

In addition, Soft-Tex offers pillows and mattress pads made with environmentally friendly components, such as 100% organic cotton covers and DuPont’s Sorona plant-based fiber.

The quality of Soft-Tex’s products earned special recognition in 2017. A Therapedic-branded memory foam topper was chosen as an expert pick for college and a wedding registry favorite by Bed Bath & Beyond; a SensorGel model offered by Macy’s was named one of Bravo TV’s most-wanted products to sleep better; and two Soft-Tex pillows were selected as Amazon Choice products.

“Soft-Tex’s mission is to help consumers sleep comfortably and live better through innovative design,” Chilton says. “We’re extremely proud of these recognitions that we’re delivering on this mission.”

To be successful in today’s competitive business climate takes more than a quality product, Chilton adds. That’s why Soft-Tex is devoting resources to the merchandising side of its business, developing best-in-class physical and digital solutions to enhance its retail partners’ ability to reach and sell to consumers.

As part of this effort, Soft-Tex recently made two hires: Taylor Jones, director of digital marketing, who oversees the company’s digital assets, strategy and marketing channel development; and a digital marketing coordinator. The new Digital Marketing Group is led by John Timmerman, Soft-Tex’s divisional vice president.

In late 2017, Soft-Tex announced it had increased its digital marketing firepower with two new technologies: Salsify, a robust product information management and digital management platform, and Upfluence, a marketing technology platform aimed at high-presence digital “influencers.”

These platforms, in combination with other strategic partnerships, enable Soft-Tex to better help its retailers create product pages with search engine and conversion attributes that improve the online shopping experience, drive traffic and generate sales.

“Online customers can’t touch and feel a pillow, topper or mattress like they can in a store, so having the best tools to articulate differentiating factors is critical,” Chilton says. “We feel that our new technology ‘stack’ is comprised of the right platforms and systems to help us better highlight the features of our cutting-edge sleep and comfort technologies in such a way that attracts and converts new customers.”

Retail is not an easy business, Chilton adds. “There have always been a lot of challenges, but the advent of Amazon and e-commerce has taken those challenges to a new level,” he says. “Retailers are hungry for ideas and tools, so we’re doing everything we can to support them.”

Those efforts include an active social media program. “You can’t just post a photo of a pillow online and hope it sells. It’s important to develop an ongoing relationship with consumers. We are constantly posting and tweeting insights and information about sleep on our website and social media to build awareness and drive traffic to our retailers,” Chilton says. “Our customers see us as an extension of their own efforts.”

Emerging opportunities

Soft-Tex’s efforts to build its retailers’ business—and its own—are paying off. The company registered double-digit growth annually each year from 2012 to 2016. And while 2017 was flat, the company is forecasting 12% growth for 2018. Chilton says Soft-Tex’s annual sales fall in the neighborhood of $60 million to $100 million—a big jump from 2010, when sales totaled $10 million. In recognition of its recent growth, Soft-Tex was named to the list of 50 Fastest Growing Companies of 2017 by the Albany Business Revenue.

Going forward, Soft-Tex expects to continue broadening its presence in its core bedding categories. But it also is looking at line extensions, such as dog beds, and heating pads and blankets.

“There’s still room to grow with memory foam in mattresses,” Chilton says. “But the market for memory foam sleep accessories has peaked in some ways. As a result, we’re looking at other ways to grow our business that leverage our strengths in product design, sourcing and marketing.”

In addition, the international side of its business is garnering more attention. In June 2017, the company hired Larry Wilkins as its first director of international sales. In that role, Wilkins aims to expand Soft-Tex’s business with distributors in Asia, Canada, Europe, Latin America and the Middle East. An experienced global marketer, Wilkins served most recently as vice president of international sales for MindsInSync, a diverse consumer brands company.

“We’re very excited about the prospects for our new international division,” Chilton says. “We see a lot of opportunity to take our brands overseas, especially in markets like Japan and China, and Soft-Tex Asia is already set up in Korea. Industry insiders in these countries know what we’ve accomplished with the SensorGel line at Macy’s and they’re looking for ways to export that success to their home markets.”

While Soft-Tex executives have considered going direct to consumers in the U.S. market, they have opted instead to focus on what they do best, Chilton says. “We know how to design and build product, manage a supply chain and keep on top of all the operational pieces that go into satisfying our customers and their consumers,” he says. “That’s enough to keep us very busy.”

In 2018, Soft-Tex plans to launch a new corporate giving program. The company began stepping up its efforts on that front in 2017 after Hurricanes Harvey and Irma devastated Houston and South Florida.

“When people have their lives disrupted in this way, one of the first things they often need is a bed,” Chilton says. “With these two catastrophic events, our company was in a great position to help, and we’re going to look for more opportunities to help in the coming years.”

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