Think back, for a second, to the moment in time when you realized that the retail business was going to be your way of life. For some, that path was determined at a young age on account of your parents or another relative bringing you into the family business. For others, perhaps you paid your dues at a local retail store and worked your way into the succession plan of that business. Still others, perhaps that entrepreneurial fire inside you was sparked by time spent around the industry, and you set out to build your own business.
For Sean Hathaway, owner of Mattress World Northwest, he admits that he never expected to be bitten by the retail bug. In fact, the way he tells it, he had plenty of friends in the retail business whom he often told, “I will never go into retail.”
That didn’t exactly pan out — much to the benefit of the greater Portland region.
Hathaway’s path towards retail ownership was carved out on the wholesale side of the business working out of a warehouse for a manufacturers rep in the furniture industry. That where, he says, he saw the value of making the connection with the customer, seeing them through to the sale and then servicing them after the fact.
“If you don’t understand one thing about this business, it is 100 percent service and relationship oriented,” he says. “And that’s kind of what I’d always wanted for myself. I just really didn’t know how that was going to come about.”
His work on the rep side put him in contact with a lot of local dealers in the area, one of which eventually lured him into the retail world. That experience led him to want to set out on his own and open a local furniture store. He started out selling customizable sofas but would eventually evolve into a full-blown furniture store.
After a few years, though, Hathaway made the decision to partner with a larger company and convert the business into a mattress store.
“It just seemed so much easier,” he says. “We didn’t have all the variations anymore, we could simplify the store, and it streamlined the experience for the customer.”
In addition, it allowed Hathaway to open a location much closer to his home, cutting his commute down from some 50 miles to around 10.
The chain grew throughout the area, but despite that success, the parent company would ultimately go out of business leaving Hathaway with a rather difficult decision. The guy who never thought he’d end up in retail was looking at starting over or attempting to take over this multistore operation on his own.
“I developed some great, solid friendships and counsel over time, and we were able to turn around and go to the ownership and say, ‘Hey, we’re just going to re-lease the space and start a brand new company,’” Hathaway explains. “We ended reducing the 12-store chain down to eight locations, and we hired a bunch of the core employees that wanted to stay on and knew the basic groundwork of the business. We knew that if we could just make some good decisions at the top, we could turn it into something great.” And turn it around he did.
Since taking that business over in 2012, Hathaway has helped it grow from eight stores to 22 throughout northwest Oregon. In addition to employing hundreds of locals and serving thousands of customers, Mattress World Northwest has established a strong track record of giving back. To date, Hathaway’s company has raised over $350,000 for charities in their community, including the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, Special Olympics Oregon, the Make a Wish Foundation and the Senior Citizen Council of Clackamas County.
With over 27 years of experience in retail, Hathaway has seen the mattress shopping journey in his market evolve firsthand.
“The internet is a great place to shop and a touch competitor. It took away the middle part of our business,” he says. “Customers looking for inexpensive and cheaper mattresses, they’re not coming into our stores for the most part.”
Facing that reality, Hathaway has charged his team with creating an unforgettable in-store shopping experience.
“This is a people business,” he says. “And who’s coming into the store? People who want a great experience. They don’t want to click a few buttons and hope to find a mattress that may or may not fit their needs. Sure, they may have started that journey into our store online, and we’re going to respect that. We’re prepared to put on a show and make sure that you spent your Saturday or Sunday with us well, and we’re going to show you something you haven’t seen.”
Part of that experience, of course, leans into Mattress World Northwest’s strong ties to the community. More specifically, Hathaway himself is a big part of the marketing efforts as he strives to put that personal, neighborly touch on the business.
“It’s called a family business for a reason,” says Hathaway. “That’s not to say we all work in the business, I won’t ever require my wife or kids to work in it. But we support one another. I just want our customers to know that we’re a family just like you, and that we struggle and want to be respected when we go shopping just like you. And so, we’re just trying to bring that feeling of family into everything we do.”
Hathaway’s wife has starred in commercials and infomercials as “Mattress Millie” over the years. Employees have starred in TV spots. The Hathaway family regularly makes appearances at events throughout the community and in annual holiday videos. All in an effort to humanize the business and better connect with their community.
Just as important to Hathaway as the customer experience is the employee experience at Mattress World Northwest.
Running a people-centric company has always been a top priority for Hathaway. But some of things he’s doing and ways he approaches employee engagement will especially resonate today, at a time when finding and keeping talent has arguably never been more difficult.
When thinking about the legacy of the business that he’s built, the answer is simple to Hathaway: It’s his people, his employees. They’re the legacy.
“What serves our company and our community is to continue growing and providing more opportunity for customers and employees alike,” he says. “That is what I want the legacy to be. A company that can support families, where they can support themselves, and they can take care of their family. That’s really what we’re all here to do in the end. When someone retires, I want them to be able to literally retire. I don’t want them to have to come back and ask for part time work just to make ends meet.”
For Mattress World Northwest and Hathaway, accomplishing that goal and establishing that legacy means providing opportunities for growth within the business.
“At the manager level, we try to cross-train and interchange throughout the company so that all managers and admin staff know what goes on across the entire company,” explains Hathaway. “Especially as I get older, my biggest job is to prepare every employee in the company to step up and be more active and ready to lead. As owners, we might not like to think about it, but I’m constantly reminded of that ‘hit by a bus’ clause. I want to be sure, God forbid, if anything ever happened to me that our team wouldn’t be left high and dry. I want them to be set up for success now and well into the future.”
Of course, training and education is ongoing and happens regularly. But the commitment and desire to want to grow is something that Hathaway has instilled in every employee by simply leading by example. Every company meeting involves looking at ways the team can continue to improve, both on the performance side as well as through individual growth.
“Buy-in comes slowly and it comes from multiple employees seeing another person be successful,” says Hathaway. “For us, it starts at the top and trickles down. Our managers are great about committing to their own growth and success. And when our sales associates see that, it’s almost like proof to them that they can continue to grow in their role as well. Watching it come together, we throw our hearts and souls into everything we do, and it’s just awesome to see.”