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118: Mattress World Northwest Owner Reflects On Growing the Business

Written by Rob Stott

May 10, 2022

With a major bedding industry recognition on the horizon, Sean Hathaway, owner of Mattress World Northwest sat down to reflect on his time in retail. While it’s something he never envisioned getting into, Hathaway has seen massive success, growing to more than 20 locations in the Pacific Northwest.


 

Rob Stott: We’re back on the Independent Thinking Podcast and excited today. We’ve had a couple members get recognized recently, and Furniture Today has their bedding conference and named themselves a couple of retail giants. And we got one of them here on the podcast today. We’re going to try to make sure the podcast is big enough to host a retail giant, but Mr. Sean Hathaway, owner of Mattress World Northwest, appreciate you as a retail giant stepping in and coming on the podcast today.

Sean Hathaway: Thank you, Rob, and thanks for that great introduction. I appreciate it, and it’s great to be here.

Rob Stott: Yeah, absolutely. So well, before we dive into that honor and all that that entails, tell us a little bit about yourself, your background, and path into the retail business.

Sean Hathaway: Sure. Well, I’ve been doing it a long time now, and I don’t want to go back too far, but after college I had a job, corporate world. And eventually packed that in and was doing temporary work, and ended up at a warehouse working for manufacturers reps in the furniture industry. And we were building a warehouse program to service dealers a lot quicker. And I ended up doing a lot of service work for the local dealers, got hired by a retail store. Worked for a small family and decided, and had looked around that I could do that myself.

And I started a furniture store where you had sofas, where you could make dozens of changes to the style and comfort, thousands of fabrics. And from there, I kind of grew it to a full on furniture store and that was fun. I really liked doing that. And then I kind of partnered with a bigger company and I changed over to a mattress store. And one reason was it just seemed so much easier. Not all the changes and different variations on a sofa, not needing to have carpet or paint in the store. “Is the comfort of the mattress great? Do you like it? Let’s wind this deal up.” I just love that. And my main store was 50 miles away from home and I was able to open a mattress store 10 minutes from home.

Rob Stott: It’s a lot better for sure. That cuts that commute down, huh?

Sean Hathaway: Yeah. And so I did that for over 10 or 15 years, and the company I was kind of associated with basically went out of business. And I had to make a big decision, “Do I do this alone?” And I think I came up with some great solid friendships and some counsel, and we were able to turn around and go, as those stores closed, go to the ownership and say, “Hey, we’re just going to re-lease the space and start a brand new company.” And so we ended up hiring most the employees. That 12 store chain was reduced down to eight, and we had a core bunch of people that wanted to stay on and knew that the groundwork basic that company was really good. And that if we could just make some good decisions at the top, we could turn it into something great. And so we did. So we have 22 stores today and we started with eight at roughly 10 years ago.

Rob Stott: Wow. Now, thinking back to your time in the getting into the retail space, was there a moment that the retail bug bit you that you’ve realized this is what you wanted to do?

Sean Hathaway: I will tell you, it took a while. I had friends in retail and I told them all sitting down one night at dinner, “I will never go into retail.”

Rob Stott: That didn’t pan out, did it?

Sean Hathaway: No. So I definitely had to get bit at one time, and I think it was really… It started in the wholesale end when I got really value out of making the sale, servicing that customer. And it just slowly transitioned to that. If you don’t understand one thing about this business, it is 100% service and relationship oriented. 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.

Rob Stott: Walk us through what a Mattress World Northwest store looks like today obviously changing from what it had been. You mentioned furniture to now mattresses today, but if a customer walks in, what’s kind of the look and feel that you’re going for and kind of the experience that they have at your stores?

Sean Hathaway: Exactly. So it’s obviously, like you said, it’s an experience more than a look. And so we’ve got a brand, our logo. And so what we like to do is they’ve seen an ad somehow, they’ve decided to shop at one of our stores. So of course, as soon as they park, we want everything to be neat and tidy. We want them to be welcome and excited to come in the door. When they come in the door, of course we want it clean and look nice. And so we are always going to use our big brand partners the best we can. We want the big names that people recognize right up front, and we want a real smiley face getting them as close to the door as we can and welcome them to Mattress World Northwest.

And so really, I think everything’s about a first impression. A warm smile, a nice greeting and a clean store. It’s the Northwest, trees are famous here so we’ve got kind of a treeline motif that we use that people seem to like. And I think it’s got nice basic colors, we’re red, blue, green, and white. But then we really want to ask the questions of, “Why are you here? Why do you need a mattress? What’s up with your sleep? How can we bring you and your partner back together to enjoy going to bed and waking up refreshed? And how can we do it where you’re going to have fun during this process? And we’re not going to grill you. We’re not going to try to force something down your throat, but you gave up your Saturday to come in here. Let’s have a good time and get you a better night’s sleep.”

And after that, we’re going to do a comfort test. And we have a unique, I think this is another question, but segueing into that, we carry, on top of the main brands, we carry some very unique items. And so we’re going to go out of our way to make sure that customer gets a presentation of something they’re not going to see in other stores in town, because let’s face it, every town’s got a lot of great furniture and mattress stores. But I think sometimes we walk right by something a customer will look at and we hope that they’re going to reach out and ask us about it, and we’ve got to reach out and show them and give them some benefits of why that might be great for them. And so we try to do that with every customer.

Rob Stott: I mean, you’re explaining kind of the perfect retail strategy, right? And so cliche, but easier said than done. What’s it take as a business owner to really incorporate that way of thinking into the business? And how, I guess, without sharing secret sauce, right? This is the million dollar question, right? Without sharing the secret sauce, what did it take for you to get that kind of buy-in across the company?

Sean Hathaway: Buy-in comes slowly and it comes from multiple RSAs seeing another person be successful. Anytime we roll out a product, we try to make a huge deal and we’ve got a formula. And our formula is, “Why is it good for the consumer? Why is it good for the RSA, and have we made it easy for you to do your job?” So we’re going to introduce a new product with some key RSAs and our admin team and our warehouse. And me and the sales team are going to be like, “We want this great new product. We want it tomorrow. We want to start selling it by five o’clock.” And then admin team’s like, “Well, how many do you have in stock? How are we going to get it here? Do you have space in the warehouse? Can you afford all that?”

And so we try to work out all those issues. When we finally bring it to the RSA, we’re going to say to them, “Here’s the value to you, here’s the value to your customer and it’s in stock, it’s ready to go. And we’re going to come train you and show you how this works, why it’s a better night’s sleep.” So we’re going to try to integrate all facets of our company before we kind of unload it on the RSA and the public. And so a lot of times it’s not so much the product, it’s the secret sauce. It’s how we bring it to the marketplace. But of course, we always try to vet a product and we want to bring in something that’s going to be strong for the company. And one of our core values is help the customer get a better night’s sleep. So it’s got to satisfy that.

Rob Stott: Now has that way of thinking changed over time for you as a… The way you kind of take product and go to market and that sort of stuff. Have you seen that evolve throughout your time in retail?

Sean Hathaway: Yeah, because at first we didn’t even have the slogan. It was like, “Well, we need to make money. We need to have products with margin, and what’s moving, what are those guys selling?” And that morphed into we finally have a dedicated plan with a ten year plan and which breaks down to a one year plan. And so when we want to disturb our showroom, we want to make sure, “Why are we doing that? What are we replacing? What are we moving out of the way? And is it going to benefit Mattress World Northwest as a company, the RSAs the people that work here and ultimately a better benefit our customer or we’re really just wasting our time.” So, you know what? I talked so much there, Rob. I lost my train of thought. So you better re-ask the question.

Rob Stott: No, you’re going down the right path and kind of leading to what I was going to ask, and kind of following up on that is the way you’ve gone about doing business has evolved, but what about the actual… what changes have you seen sort of specifically in the way you go about doing business and what are you guys doing to stay ahead of that curve?

Sean Hathaway: Great. And I do remember the last part of that question. So we get buy-in from our top management, and we have five managers and they get out to the stores. And so it’s repeat, repeat, repeat, and teach by showing. And so we kind of demand our managers participate in the stuff that we’re doing. And so once we get a little buy in, that’s proof to another group of people, which is proof to the larger group. And I bet you, that’s probably how most people roll out stuff, but we always are firmly… We do samples. And we set up a sample one or two or three stores, and we really throw our heart and soul into it to see if it works. And if it works, then the other RSAs in other stores ask for it by name.

Rob Stott: Gotcha.

Sean Hathaway: So that’s the way to do it. The changes I’ve seen are the internet took away the middle part of our business, the inexpensive. And so the RSA today has to keep on their toes. They don’t get to talk to… I mean, we like to talk to people. We like to have a good time. This is a people business unless people are coming into the store. And so who is coming into the store? People that want a great experience. They don’t want to click some buttons. They want maybe something a little more expensive or unique. So if they have decided to… And the internet is a great place to shop, I mean, what a tough competitor. It’s really, I think, up leveled our whole business. I mean, you have to be on your game nowadays to compete with all the online marketplace. So if you come into our store, we’re prepared to put on a show and make sure that you spent your Saturday and Sunday, your time with us well, and we’re going to respect that and show you something you haven’t seen.

Rob Stott: I want to step back even a little further for you because you mentioned at the top how you started as a furniture business and went through some iterations and changes and partnerships. Was there something that made you want to convert from that furniture store into a mattress store?

Sean Hathaway: Yeah. I mean, it was simple. It was just ease and the ability to do business in a more simple way. A sofa needs the fabric. It has legs, it has multiple cushions, styles of cushions and the fabric. It has a long delivery time. It has the ability to be damaged, what I noticed with a mattress shopper. And I loved it. I loved decorating. I loved helping people put together their new addition, their new family room, the kids’ room. I mean, I loved that part. It was way more of a story and a conversation than, “We need a mattress for a bedroom.”

And that’s still a great conversation, but it’s just not as involved as a whole new family room and a whole new dining room. And so then you get to hear the whole family story. “Why are you getting a dining room?” “Well, every Easter we do this and every Christmas we do that.” That’s what makes this business fun, but it’s also a business. And what I notice working hand in hand with mattress retailers was, “I’m not getting a good night’s sleep. Can you help me?” “I can get my product delivered in three to four days or overnight?” “Yes.” And less damage. For a business model, you still got to work with the people, but it streamlined everything down.

Rob Stott: I mean, that makes a lot of sense. And it kind of, I guess, too, as a business, it allows you to focus, right? Because I mean, of course you see a lot of mattress and furniture stores and across the nationwide membership, all four cat verticals that were involved in businesses that, and they do it well. But for certain businesses to be able to focus in on that category really allows you guys to enhance that experience for the customer. And hearing you kind of talk about what you set out to do for the customer, I think, I mean goes to show just why the recognition is what it is, right? When you get to kind of hone your craft and really enhance what you’re trying to do for that customer.

Sean Hathaway: When you’re starting out with a small company, I mean, usually it’s you and a pickup and a sofa, three cocktail tables, two lamps, is one kind of delivery in your pickup and a matt and box in your back of your pickup is another kind of delivery. And I really like the matt and box idea.

Rob Stott: It’s a little bit easier, in some ways lighter for sure, but no, I get it. I get it.

Sean Hathaway: The weights and change. I go into our warehouse, I try to help on deliveries now. And I look at what our guys are doing and I just went, so I’m like, “I’m so in over my head now. Thank God for much younger, stronger people than me doing the deliveries.” And I try sometimes, and I’m just like, “Thank you for helping.”

Rob Stott: No. That’s aal right. One thing I love about your business and that anyone that goes to your website, it’s front and center and plain as day. You guys incorporate a lot of personal touch into what you do and family.

Sean Hathaway: Yeah.

Rob Stott: So talk about that a little bit and why that’s so important to you and your brand and the business.

Sean Hathaway: So every company meeting is really about again, up leveling everyone in the company, but putting the customer first. And I think early on, I said, “Look, I’m out in the community.” my family. I go to TaeKwonDo three days a week. We shop at Albertsons. We go to target. And in my neighborhood, we run into people all the time. I’m on TV. I only need people coming up to me saying, “Thank you very much. The store I went into was wonderful.” I said the first time someone comes up to me and tells me what a horrible experience they had and they want to kill me, I said, “We can’t have that. It’s got to be good because I want to live just a regular life and my kids are out there.” And so I think everybody really understood that. And I think everybody really wants to be respected.

And I think when we just put that front and center, we do that. And so in terms of family, I call it a family business, but my family’s not really into it. They support me. My wife supports me a hundred percent. She’s a great sounding board. And when we go out to events, we take a blow up. It’s got a fan that blows it up and it’s a mattress, and we call her Mattress Millie. And my wife absolutely loves to be mattress Millie. She loves to dance. She loves to get hugs. She loves to do the photo ops. And so we go out and do these events and fundraisers, and I kind of walk her around and she steals the show with pictures and dancing. So yes, that’s fun.

Rob Stott: Now you say, obviously, it’s you in the business and you got the rest of your… Is that something that you always wanted to do or did that level of marketing kind of evolve with the business over time as well?

Sean Hathaway: It’s evolved over time. I’ve never really wanted the family to be a family business. I don’t require everybody to work in it. There’s plenty of work to be done to teach kids how to work. But I just want everyone 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 feel. And so on holidays, we’ll bring the whole family into a year end Christmas video, get the whole family and the company in there.

We use our employees as our actors and our TV commercials, and then of course, myself. And just recently, because my wife performed so well in 30 minute infomercials, we’ve added her to the commercials. And I will say that more people talk to me now about having her included. They just really like her. And I think one of the comments that I get in the stores, the retail associates back to me is like, “I saw the owner on TV and he seems like a regular guy, and that’s why we came to this store.” And that’s what I want to be, a regular guy.

Rob Stott: No. I mean, that’s awesome. And it kind of, I mean, it humanizes it, right? Everyone sees a business on TV, but when they can put a face to it and they see to everything that you’re saying about wanting to make that connection, it really brings it in. And not even just for customers coming to this. I imagine that has a ripple effect across employees as well, just wanting to have it be that family sort of feel to the business and the way you guys talk about yourselves.

Sean Hathaway: Yeah. That’s probably my most important job and the job as we get bigger that I fall on my face the most, and that is going to each and every store and letting each and every RSA know that my family appreciates them working here every single day. It’s a hard job. And seeing what the company, what I can do for them at their time in their life. And that’s a dangerous proposition because usually I get a handful, but I really just like visiting with people and we’ve always had kind of an open door policy with kids. It’s really expensive as a retail person to juggle your kids between school and husband and wife and work.

And so we’ve almost always had every child growing up in our company. And it was something I just had to kind of accept in the very beginning. It’s just kind of what we did and what had happened before. And it’s not always the best for business, but it’s always the best for the employee. And so it’s been fun to watch all the kids grow up and see them at the summer picnics and stuff like that. So yeah, we are a family in that way.

Rob Stott: No, I mean it’s cool to hear you kind of talk about it because I mean there’s so many aspects of retail that you could talk about and kind of analyze and things like that, but that boils down to the customer experience, the employee experience and how you kind of create the best for both of those worlds. And I think it a testament, right? That you must be doing something right at Furniture Today. You got this honor coming down the Pike and being named one of their bedding retail giants at the bedding conference that’s coming up. And when you hear that, what goes through your mind or what’s it mean to you when you hear that kind of honor being bestowed upon Mattress World Northwest?

Sean Hathaway: Well, the very first thing is that’s incredibly humbling and exciting all at the same time. The 18 year old in me says, “Look, mom, grandpa, I did it. I’m worthy. I was worth going to college.” And then the adult me, I’m really proud. And then I really feel like I have to go through the whole company and thank everybody individually. We have a corporate consultant and five managers. And I have a general manager that I can’t make stay home and not come to work. I have a corporate consultant that constantly is bringing us fabulous information. And that team, about 10 years ago, started out and set some goals and we just continually hit them. And so I think for us when we were just scrapping and plying at the very beginning, just trying to keep the stores open and go from the eighth store to the ninth store, that we look back today.

And we’re all super proud about what we did, about being recognized because there’s a lot of years in there where you’re down on yourself. “Why couldn’t we do this? Why didn’t we do this? We missed that mark.” We did hit lots of little great stepping stones, but then there was just somewhere in the middle where it flipped overnight, where we went from struggling to things were growing really great. And we’re going to hit that struggle mark again, we’re just thankful, I think, that we’ve built a team now that when we hit that next big hurdle, I think we’re all going to be able to work together. So I think there’s a lot of great companies and they deserve tons of recognition. We’re just glad to be thrown in there.

Rob Stott: And you mentioned the ups and downs. I think your business has been around for just over 20 years, is that right? Am I right about that?

Sean Hathaway: Yes. 27 now.

Rob Stott: Wow. So you think back to kind of when it started and what it’s gone through over the course of those 20 years, you’ve been through some, I mean, just economically you think about some of the things that you’ve gone through with the in 08, 09 and even more recently the pandemic. So I mean, again, a testament to that. I think you guys having been through that, what’s it do for you as a business? You kind of talked about it there and that it sets you up for to know how to weather these kinds of things, but just talk about those experiences.

Sean Hathaway: Well, I mean, I can remember in the last great recession, I had a retail store on my own and I had the two roads that accessed the store were torn up. All the blacktop was removed. There were two tractor trailers and a CAT parked in front of my store. The street had been shut down from three lanes to one, and nobody wanted to go into the neighborhood. On the news they said, “There’s officially a recession.” And thank God I had some savings. So I spent every bit of it. So the way we grew the business was slow and smart, and we save and save and save money, and we keep it in the bank for the business. We try to stock everything we have. And I think that everybody in this company, when we started it, converted to all mattresses 10 years ago. Everybody in the company was kind of running scared. And fortunately we’re now prepared. And the steps everybody takes, it’s like, “Hey, we did that wrong way back. Let’s do it this way.”

And so everybody’s on board from top to bottom. Unfortunately we still have some bad habits that stem from being hurt when we couldn’t deliver product, or it took eight weeks to get something in. And so we’re still going back and correcting and saying, “Hey, we’ve got the product in stock. It’ll be here. You handle the customer in a little different way. It’s not the old company.” But those things get burned into you. But I think we burned in some good preparation as well. So we’re always looking ahead. Of course, we’re nervous about what they say about the economy now, but we’ve got great savings. We’ve got great stock. We feel like we have a great plan, and hopefully we’ve prepared our staff as well that they’ve got their financial home in an order so they won’t be hurt if there’s a little slow down in the furniture industry.

Rob Stott: Oh, I mean, you kind of learn a lot. Everything’s an experience and of course, and you learn from it and grow from it. So crazy to think that in company’s history, there’s been just a number of ups and down, but that’s any business, right? So it’s-

Sean Hathaway: I think there’s been four major ups and downs. I mean, yeah.

Rob Stott: Every six years just about.

Sean Hathaway: Yeah. I mean, our stores were closed for two months solid during COVID. And so you drop all these plan for a little downturn, no one ever told you, “Hey, consider closing your stores for two months.”

Rob Stott: And see what can happen, but hey, here you are on the other side of it.

Sean Hathaway: Yeah.

Rob Stott: And all the better for it. So another thing that this kind of recognition gives, I think gives you a chance to do is hopefully that you’ve had the chance to is kind of sit back and look at what you’ve done and reflect on sort of what you hope a legacy looks like with the business that you’ve got and kind of the lasting impact of it. So I what comes to mind when you think about that?

Sean Hathaway: Well, I actually think about that every day. I mean, again, our corporate consultant is on me every day, “What’s our legacy going to be?” He likes to bring up this hit by a bus clause. And so on the one hand, just as a practical business, we’re trying to train and interchange so that all managers and all admin know what the other person’s doing, and cross training. And we don’t want to go the typical route. As I get older, we don’t want to go from 22 stores down to 10, down to 2, down to a G-O-B. That doesn’t serve anybody in our company. What serves our company as to growing and providing more opportunity. So we want everybody to… our managers to be super smart. And all of them are young and they want to grow. They need to be able to work together.

And then I need to be able to train them in the few things that I do now in the business to get one or two of them to be very great at it so that I can step aside more at a time that the more I think about it, my biggest job is to prepare every employee in our company for their retirement. And I think that’s… So the legacy that I can leave is a company that works, that I can step away from and they can step up and run the company on their own so they’ve got a means to support their family. But then on top of that, all of us, you, me, everybody, whether you work for Nationwide, or whether somebody at Mattress World works 20 or 30 more years at Mattress World, you’re going to work and you’re going to work hard.

And so, my goal, and I’d say at every meeting, “When you retire, you know what I want you to do? Retire. I want you to go do something that you want to do, live out your dream. I do not want you coming back and asking for part-time work to make ends meet. I want you literally to retire.” And 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.

Rob Stott: All right. That’s so cool to hear. I mean, anyone can kind of say those things, but to see you guys doing it and doing it well, and it’s awesome. I mean, that’s why I love to have a podcast is because I get to connect with people like yourself and hear these kinds of stories and the things that you guys are doing. And so it’s cool to hear, but we, I guess, just wish a congratulations of course to you guys for the honor. And it’s great to have this opportunity to connect because of it. But I look forward to continuing to follow the story here, Sean.

Sean Hathaway: Oh, awesome.

Rob Stott: And seeing what you guys do and catch up and see how things are going and how you continue to grow. So one award does not… This is not an end point, of course, for you guys.

Sean Hathaway: Right. Yeah.

Rob Stott: You guys got a lot of work still left to do so we’re just happy to be able to share in that journey and see where you guys can take it. So we appreciate you again, taking the time and sharing your story with us on the podcast.

Sean Hathaway: Well, I appreciate your time and helping share it. It’s been a pleasure. Thank you, Rob.

Rob Stott: You bet.

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