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Mitchell's mattress man returns home

Harry Roberts, co-owner of the national store Mattress Firm and a Mitchell native, stands in the company’s new store Tuesday in Mitchell. The store is located at the Highland Mall. (Sean Ryan/The Daily Republic)

When Harry Roberts, of Mitchell, saw a business opportunity, he took it.

Harry moved to Houston, Texas, where his two best friends were, Paul Stork and Steve Fendrich, and began a company called Mattress Firm. On July 4, 1986, Mattress Firm opened its first store in Houston. Mattress Firm celebrated its 28th anniversary over the Fourth of July this year.

Mattress Firm is the largest specialty mattress retailer in the U.S. The company has grown beyond 1,600 stores in more than 35 states, according to its website.

It's been years since the Mitchell native opened his first store, and now he's finally returned home. Mattress Firm opened its first store in Mitchell on June 21.

"We never even thought of being in Mitchell," Harry said. "Now I have both of my nephews working for a Mattress Firm in Mitchell. How cool is that?"

It is the fourth store in South Dakota, and Sioux City will get one in the coming months. Three are located in Sioux Falls, and Roberts said the idea is to venture west.

Roberts, along with co-founders and best friends Stork and Fendrich, sold Mattress Firm in 2000, allowing them to retire.

"It was a great opportunity," Harry said. "I was just turning 40, and to retire at 40, that's hard to pass up. It wasn't an easy thing to do. There were a lot of tears of joy and sadness."

Harry is now a majority owner of Mattress Firm stores with his brother Charlie Roberts in Oklahoma, Iowa, South Dakota and North Dakota markets.

"We give up complete ownership so other guys can become entrepreneurs," Harry said.

Jack Smith, who owned American Bed, is credited for thrusting brothers Harry and Charlie Roberts as well as many others into the mattress industry, Harry said.

"Jack was a definite mentor for me, especially because my father died right before I started college," Harry said. "He was awesome and did a lot for a lot of people and he got us all into the mattress business."

Before Mattress Firm

Harry and Charlie grew up around their family's entrepreneurial ways. Harry spent a lot of his time on the corner of Sixth Avenue at the Mitchell bar his father owned, "The Sixth Avenue Lounge." The older brother, Charlie, owned Charlie's Pizza across from the Corn Palace for about six years before he sold it.

Harry was close to his father, he said. His father died of cancer during Harry's junior year at Mitchell High School and the unfortunate circumstance changed the course of his life, forcing him to explore business opportunities outside of South Dakota. Harry said he would have most likely stayed in Mitchell working for his father if he hadn't died so young. Harry's father's life insurance paid for his tuition at the University of South Dakota.

"An education was expected (in my family)," Harry said. "My mother and father both graduated from Cornell University, so they were educated."

Harry graduated from Mitchell High School in 1979 with Stork, who is from Mitchell. Harry's sister, Carol, met Jack Smith at USD. Smith opened up a retail mattress store in Houston. Harry helped Smith move to Houston in his freshman year to help set up the store with the possibility to come back and work for him, and Harry did just that in 1983 when he graduated from USD.

During Harry's senior year, Smith came back to USD to recruit college students to work for him after graduation. Harry was hired along with his fraternity brother Fendrich, fresh out of college. Fendrich reported to Chicago to work while Harry was sent to San Antonio to start selling beds. Stork was living in Houston and working for American Bed about two years prior to Harry's and Fendrich's arrival.

How Mattress Firm began

In 1984, Harry moved to New York to continue the expansion of American Bed. Harry and several other guys, many from South Dakota, helped set up nine stores within a year scattered in different locations in Manhattan and surrounding the city. Harry was involved in just about every aspect of the business, including advertising, inventory and books.

"The learning experience was done on the fly," Harry said. "I did everything. It was like running my own business. It was an incredible experience."

American Bed began to struggle due to rapid expansion and couldn't control its bills, Harry said. Things began to fall apart and Harry figured that he, Stork and Fendrich could build their own company with the skills they acquired working for American Bed if they expanded their company slowly, unlike American Bed.

Stork and Fendrich lived in Houston, so Harry moved from New York to Houston. The three co-founders pitched in $5,000 each to start the company and after about two months, the first Mattress Firm was opened on July 4, 1986.

Starting the business wasn't glamorous. The three men didn't pay themselves for 13 months. Stork lost his house in foreclosure while Harry and Fendrich lived in a small apartment making ends meet.

"If we didn't sell a bed, we might not pay a bill we needed to pay," Harry said. "That went on for a while."

The three men opened up four stores within a year. The three co-founders had to come up with a company name, and they wanted to change people's perception of the mattress business to be more positive.

"Our goal was to come up with a name that said 'Mattresses' because at American Bed people didn't always know what you were selling," Harry said. "So we had to have that in our name so when people see it, they know that you sell mattresses."

"The word firm has a double meaning," Harry said. "We liked the way it sounded. It sounded like an accounting firm."

'It's always been about the people'

From the beginning, Harry said he and his co-founders Stork and Fendrich focused on their employees as much as their product.

"It's always been about the people," Harry said. "It's always been the way we treat our people. We are always focused on our employees; our attitude is the employee comes first. If we have the right people, they will take care of our customers."

Each co-founder had a role; Harry was in charge of advertising and merchandising; Stork was in charge of operations, which included selecting the beds and handling deliveries; Fendrich was the accountant. Meanwhile, Charlie was behind the scenes helping the three co-founders build their business plan and structure the company.

"It was a really unique partnership," Charlie said. "They were also great communicators and the partnership stood the test of time and the growth of the business was a result of that."

A family business

Mattress Firm has been a family affair. Harry's brother Charlie found his way into the mattress business after spending 20 years in the hotel business, working for Marriott. Co-founder Paul Stork's son, Jonathan Stork, currently works for the Mattress Firm in Mitchell. Harry and Charlie's father was partners with his brother in the hotel business, just like Harry and Charlie have in the mattress business.

Paul Hollister, Harry's nephew who was born in Rapid City, is the managing partner of Mattress Firm and supervisor of the stores in South Dakota as well as Iowa.

"We have a very close family," Hollister said. "My mom is very close to her siblings, my mom and dad were both raised in South Dakota. Charlie and Harry are very involved with the business and want to be around to help with anything."

Hollister said that he, along with Harry and Charlie do much of the work the store employees do, which includes setting up an individual store at a location without paying a team to set it up. Even now, they carry and deliver mattresses.

"The company really means a lot to Harry and Charlie," Hollister said. "The brand we want to deliver is an important thing to both of them because they're from South Dakota and they're able to bring the company to their hometown of Mitchell."

In 2004, Harry and Charlie became franchisees for a company called Mattress Pro in the San Antonio market, Charlie said. In 2008, Mattress Firm bought out Mattress Pro. The two brothers then started a consulting business, Roberts Brothers Consulting Group. Then the two brothers became franchisees for Mattress Firm, opening up several markets for the company in Oklahoma, Iowa, South Dakota and North Dakota, Charlie said.

Harry, along with his brother Charlie, are majority owners of each partnership in several markets. There are three people with equity in the company who are running the market in their corresponding areas day-to-day Charlie said, and they oversee everything as majority owners.

"My job now is to help other people be successful," Harry said. "My brother and I are in on that together, and that's pretty neat."