A specialty in truck mattresses and a commitment to continual improvement keep the company on a roll
In this era when competition in the mattress marketplace is increasing on all sides, and bedding manufacturers and retailers alike are being forced to adopt new ways of doing business, Estee Bedding Co.’s business plan can be summarized in three words: Keep on truckin’. This mantra has served Estee well for decades, and it is expected to continue driving the company’s growth well into the 2020s.
Based in Chicago, Estee specializes in producing high-quality mattresses and accessories for the heavy-duty truck market. The company provides bedding to leading truck manufacturers and fleets, as well as smaller independents. In addition, Estee has a growing presence in the hospitality market, supplying sofa sleepers and rollaway mattresses to hotels, and also in the education market, where it provides dorm mattresses.
The company hasn’t always focused on contract production. Founded in a garage in 1924 by Sam Trossman, Estee Bedding soon grew to fill a factory and, at one time, operated 13 retail stores. The company flourished during World War II and into the 1950s, propelled by sales of all-cotton, ticking-stripe mattresses to the U.S. military. During the 1960s, Estee also became a major supplier to large Midwestern department stores, such as Marshall Field’s and Gold-blatt’s, as well as other furniture retailers in the region, including Homer’s Furniture Co.
When Estee’s retail sales started to fade in 1970, the company began to concentrate on its contract business. By the time Tim Enright bought the company from Trossman’s sons in 1989, the company’s sales were limited to two main accounts — a line of mattresses produced for a truck manufacturer and a line of rollaway beds sold to Harris-Hub, a metal bed manufacturer that later became part of Dresher Inc.
“I saw Estee as a great challenge,” says Enright, who purchased the company with his father and a small group of investors before buying them out in 2004. Enright bought Estee with no production experience — his background was in retail management — but he immediately saw an opportunity to improve the company’s productivity and deepen its relationships within the contract segment.
“There was room for us to grow by serving the truck market with an expanded line of products that met a wider range of needs,” Enright says. Today, Estee is the largest manufacturer of truck mattresses in North America, having sold more than 2 million mattresses for use in trucks over its history.
“We know what a driver needs in a quality mattress — comfort, stability, support, durability and a price that won’t break the bank,” Enright says, explaining the company’s formula for success.
AT A GLANCE
Estee Bedding Co.
Chicago, where it operates a 150,000-square-foot production facility
Manufactures mattresses and sleep accessories for the heavy-duty truck market, as well as sofa sleepers and rollaway beds for the hospitality market, and dorm beds for the education market
Founded as a producer and retailer of mattresses for the consumer market by Sam Trossman in 1924. Since 1970, the company has focused on contract bedding. It was purchased by Tim Enright and a group of investors in 1989. Enright bought out his partners in 2004 and now owns the entire company.
Repositioning for growth
Estee’s initial goal after taking control of the company was to “find new business.” Drawing on his sales experience, he secured two more truck manufacturers as customers. Then, as more orders started coming in, he turned his attention to improving production.
“Our biggest challenge was that we were operating on the second floor of an old factory building,” he says. “We were working on wood floors with antiquated equipment and using a piecework system that was a huge pain.”
Each week, thousands of piecework tickets had to be handled and counted. “And our employees were constantly fighting over who was going to do the work,” he says. The system worked like this: A worker would pull paperwork from a green bucket to determine the amount of foam, fabric and springs to gather from the warehouse. That order then moved to another bucket, where a supervisor would check the number of mattresses to be made. When the shipping clerk’s bucket received the paperwork, it was time to load the finished mattresses onto a truck. Finally, when the accounting department’s bucket was filled, the customer was billed.
“There was a lot of lost time and labor with our old system,” Enright says. “It was terribly inefficient.”
Soon after buying the company, Enright discontinued the piecework approach. But the reliance on paperwork continued until 1996, when the company moved into a more modern 150,000-square-foot building on the southwest side of Chicago and adopted a computer-based system.
“It’s a much better space that’s close to the highways with easy access for our trucks and our employees,” Enright says of the company’s current production site.
Moving fast and thinking lean
When the company moved, it did so quickly over a Thanksgiving weekend and Enright made sure the factory was “up and running and building beds by Monday morning.” With the move, Enright converted all of the company’s processes to lean manufacturing. The approach involved streamlining the setup of the factory floor and adopting new ways of managing workflow. These steps, along with a series of other changes, enabled Estee to obtain ISO 9000 certification. Having the certification was a prerequisite to doing more business with truck manufacturers, Enright says.
Since then, Estee has continued refining its production and operational systems. This deep commitment to continuous improvement has enabled the company to meet the requirements of an even tougher technical standard, ISO/TS 16949. Developed specifically for the automotive industry supply chain, ISO/TS 16949 emphasizes defect prevention and the reduction of variation and waste. The system incorporates Six Sigma principles aimed at reducing costs, improving quality and shortening delivery cycles.
“Meeting the demanding requirements of this elite certification gives our trucking customers assurance that we are a highly reliable supplier of quality truck bedding,” Enright says. “As far as we know, we are the only bedding manufacturer in North America that has achieved this certification.”
Because such certification must be renewed annually, Enright says he and his team are continually working on new ways to improve how things are done at the company. Take that old bucket-based approach to tracking workflow, for example. Today, Estee uses a sophisticated radio frequency identification code system to manage the process, in which every workstation has a scanner and each component that goes into a bed carries a barcode and/or RFID tag. The system enables the company to record and monitor the movement of components at every stage of production, from the moment raw materials are received through to the shipment and delivery of finished beds.
“We have total transparency in our operations from start to finish,” Enright says. “If there’s a warranty issue and a cover isn’t sewn properly, we can determine exactly who was responsible and what needs to be fixed.”
The system also helps Estee with other issues, including time management, cost control and material usage. Armed with that data, the company is able to quickly identify problems and continually adjust its resources and systems.
A family-oriented culture
In 1990, operating in its former plant, Estee produced about 30,000 mattresses a year. Today, in its current facility using lean manufacturing principles, it produces 100,000 beds a year. During the same period, the company’s workforce has grown from 20 employees to about 35.
“I’m very proud of my team,” Enright says. “They are the backbone of the company — and that’s not just a cliché. We treat our employees like family, and our staff includes several cases where a husband and wife or father and daughter work here together. We also have someone who has worked with us since 1971 and, at age 83, is still an important part of our pin-up operation.”
Enright’s own family also plays a big role in the company’s success. His son Sean, “who can fix almost any machine,” serves as plant manager, responsible for everything that happens on the factory floor. Enright’s other son, Davoren, handles purchasing, quality and receivables. And his wife, Patty, who works part time, takes care of billing “and is a great ambassador to our customers,” Enright says.
As chief executive officer and owner, Tim Enright’s responsibilities run the gamut, but his strengths lie in sales and merchandising, he says. He also takes the lead on product development and pricing. An additional member of the team who helps everything run smoothly is Margaret Kerr, who oversees human resources, as well as inbound and outbound shipping.
“Since our staff is so lean, we all work very hard,” Enright says. At the same time, he makes sure to recognize and reward performance.
“We offer a lot of incentives, including bonuses and extra time off for perfect attendance,” he says. The company also has a 2-acre farm on its property that it makes available to employees. Enright provides the seeds and irrigation, and interested employees volunteer their time to tend plants after shifts and on weekends.
“They take home baskets of delicious, homegrown food every week,” Enright says. “Most years, the farm produces lots of watermelons, peppers, onions, tomatoes and zucchinis, which everyone can share.”
To keep his small, unionized team at its most productive and minimize injuries, Enright has been investing in new equipment. Recent purchases include an automatic bagging system and conveyor that eliminates the need for a worker to lift and shove a finished bed into a bag. Enright also recently bought a second laminating machine to speed the gluing process, and he plans to attend ISPA EXPO 2020 March 18-20 in New Orleans to shop for other new machines to improve operations.
“Our workers are very flexible and open to new ways of doing things,” Enright says. “Everyone is cross-trained to perform a variety of tasks as part of our lean approach, and it becomes almost a competition to see how many areas you can master. Our commitment to continuous improvement is very intense, so it’s important that everyone keeps evolving and advancing their skills.”
Evolving with the market
The same philosophy holds true for Estee’s product line. The company’s flagship collection is Made to Ride, which has been in the line for about eight years but is continually refreshed with new features. Recent enhancements include the addition of stain- and moisture-resistant fabrics. The new covers feature a textile finish that uses nanotechnology to “self-clean,” repelling both stains and spills.
“This is a big issue in trucking, especially with fleets, where multiple drivers use the same trucks,” Enright says. “If a mattress has a stain, some drivers will refuse to drive.”
The Made to Ride line includes three models — Rest Stop, Long Haul and Dreamline — in seven standard sizes. Rest Stop, which starts at $177, is a 6 1/2-inch innerspring model with two layers of polyurethane foam for comfort and support. Long Haul, priced from $247, is an 8-inch mattress with a top layer of “air technology” memory foam, a middle foam layer for support and contouring comfort, and a base layer of high-density foam, all covered in a stretch knit cover with cooling properties. Dreamliner, the top-end model, priced from $284, is a 9-inch mattress that has similar features as the Long Haul but with an added layer of patented microcoils that flexes four ways.
“These mattresses were created specifically for truck drivers to help them relax and sleep better when they are away from home,” Enright says. “Truckers tend to be big guys, so it’s important to have a dense support layer beneath the comfort foam.”
Estee describes its open-celled air technology memory foam as having “air capsules” to provide comfort and support at virtually any air temperature, and the company says it is well-suited for a truck cab, where temperatures may vary greatly. “This foam can be put in the freezer and still stay soft,” Enright says. Meanwhile, cooling technologies in the top layers and temperature-regulating mattress covers keep sleepers cool when temperatures soar.
“Our foams self-adjust to the cab’s temperature to keep drivers comfortable so they can get quality rest,” he says.
All three Made to Ride models also feature a nonskid bottom — an important feature that ensures beds stay in place when trucks are in motion. The beds also come with a canvas laundry bag, an extra that truckers “really appreciate since they are living on the road for long periods of time,” Enright says. All materials used in the beds have been tested to meet or exceed applicable federal motor vehicle flammability standards.
Estee markets its beds directly to truck manufacturers for inclusion in models sold through dealership networks and also sells to major fleets, as well as to aftermarket parts distributors. The company services customers in Canada, Mexico and the United States.
In addition, the company sells mattresses, pillows and sheet sets directly to individual drivers via its recently enhanced website. Estee ships beds bought online directly to customers in a compact box for easy delivery. Shipping is free, and if customers aren’t satisfied for any reason, they can return the mattress within 100 days at no charge.
“Nobody has taken us up on that yet,” Enright says. “But it’s important that customers know we will do whatever it takes to make sure they are satisfied.”
With all of its truck beds, Estee offers a wide variety of sizes, and the ability to do custom sizes is important, Enright says, because the space allocated for beds in truck cabs can vary widely from manufacturer to manufacturer.
“One leading truck maker has 17 different bed sizes that we make,” Enright says. “As long as there’s a minimum volume, we’ll make any size that a customer might need.”
One common footprint for a truck mattress is 42 inches by 80 inches, Enright says. He adds that Estee doesn’t use terms like twin, full or queen in its product descriptions because “these sizes simply aren’t relevant in our business.”
In addition to truck beds, Estee offers a line of sofa sleepers for use by hotels called Hotel Sleeperzzz. Other products include rollaway beds for hotels and dorm mattresses for schools. As with its truck beds, Estee has the ability to make custom mattresses to fit a wide variety of sofa sleeper and rollaway dimensions.
Hospitality beds represent a growing market for Estee, and the company is rolling out an enhanced landing page on its website this month that spotlights this part of its line. In 2019, Estee updated the truck-related content on its site to include more customer reviews and other features.
Building on strengths
As Estee moves into the new year — and a fresh decade — the company is preparing for a bit of a slowdown. But that is to be expected, Enright says, given how strong sales were in 2018 and 2019.
“The last two years were record periods for the truck industry,” he says. “We had a very good run until the fourth quarter of ’19, when activity started to slow. We expect that to continue for the near term and eventually pick up again as fleets age.”
Unlike retail, Estee’s business remains fairly steady during a typical year because truck manufacturers operate within a framework of annual plans and budgets. “We don’t face the ups and downs that the retail business does, where so much depends on holidays and other promotions,” Enright says.
While Enright does see one big long-term threat looming on the horizon — the rise of driverless trucks — he doesn’t see that transition occurring anytime soon. “Sure, self-driving trucks are being tested, but there is still a human driver on board to keep an eye on things. It will be many years until we get to the point where there is no driver in the truck.”
In the meantime, Enright adds, long-haul trucks still will need quality beds — and that means his plant will stay busy. And, in this era when fleets are fighting hard to attract and retain drivers, the humble in-cab mattress may play an even bigger role within the truck.
“One of the large truck fleets that is having trouble keeping drivers did a survey recently that asked, ‘What can we do to retain you?’ One of the most common answers was ‘Give us better mattresses so that we can get more sleep.’ ” •