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Former Serta Simmons Executive Pays Tribute to the Legendary Walter Corky Hellyer

The mattress industry is a family business!

On today’s Dos Marcos episode, Kinsley and Quinn, welcome the legendary Bob Hellyer, former Executive Vice President of Serta-Simmons Bedding, to pay tribute to the late Walter Corky Hellyer, his father.

Together, they discuss growing up in the industry, how his father’s legacy shaped Hellyer’s work ethic, the “Sealy war” and how that changed the industry, his father’s contribution to the mattress retail landscape and what Corky considered his proudest accomplishments.

Plus, they discuss the “simple formula” for success that’s tried and true and has lasted for generations.

FULL TRANSCRIPTION

Mark Quinn: What a great show. Today we have a legend in the industry. Bob Heller here to talk about another legend in the industry. His father, Walter Corky Heller, who just passed away on January the 13th. He was 89 years old, and we’re gonna hear all about him and his role in how he helped develop the entire mattress category starts right?

Mark Quinn: bob Heller, good to see you. Thanks for

Robert Hellyer: joining us. Well, great to be here. And I just want to qualify on the front side. I’m too young to be a legend, so, um, just a in your own line industry. Well,

Mark Kinsley: hold on, let me hold on a second. If, if I would’ve introduce Mark Quinn as a legend in the industry, I don’t think he would’ve corrected me.

Well,

Robert Hellyer: I, you know, oh, I think you’re right, mark, and that that kind of illustrates the difference. I mean, Quinn and I had the opportunity to work together for a long time. I just wish there were things he actually learned during that period. ,

Mark Quinn: well, you can both bite me. Let’s start with that. Uh, certainly wouldn’t own legendary status.

Bob, you, on the other hand, you get it because you’re just old. So that’s how that works. Yeah, thanks. But no, uh, . No, Bob, it, it, it’s, it is. You may not agree with that, but you know, look, you’ve been around the industry for a long time. And we wanna head you on the show because you have such a good wealth of knowledge to level set everyone.

It’s kind of funny. My very first job inside the industry was with Stearns and Foster 30 years ago. And so I was working with Stearns and Foster, and back then Bob, we just had Stearns and Foster reps in Sealy reps. So it was different, right? They weren’t combined forces yet. Wasn’t even a mapped program at the time.

And so I worked for a year in Jacksonville and then they were gonna get rid of my. So somebody called Heller and said, Hey, will you have mercy on this kid? He’s working outta Jacksonville, Florida. Will you take him on your team? And Heller’s like, yeah, whatever, I’ll take him on my team. So he had me, Craig Mc Andrews, and Steve Stagner all on his team.

At one point, all of us graduated from Stephen F. Austin. And, uh, anyway, we were all working for him at one point, but Job, really, Bob, Bob Heller actually saved my ass and saved my job. So thank

Robert Hellyer: you, Bob. You’re quite welcome. If hindsight was for funny people who dunno,

Mark Kinsley: for people who don’t know, Bob, give us a little bit of your cv.

You, I think some people know you from, uh, president of Simmons. Uh, different roles in industry and leadership, but kind of give us that chronology

Robert Hellyer: if you want. Yeah, sure. Be happy to, and you know, every private equity. Um, inquiry into the betting industry makes the same first observation, which is it’s an incestuous industry.

To which I always respond. Yes, it is and uh, yeah. So I’m fourth generation in the betting industry. Um, there’s a lot of families out there with the same kind of genealogy. I know that the Carmen family is four generations. Um, Earl was third, I believe. So the CLS had three generations, and it just boom, boom, boom.

It goes on and on, on both sides of the fence from manufacturing and the supply side. Um, you know, you look at the rights at Rita Thomasville and, um, the cults, and there’s some deep roots in this industry and, and long, long friendships. So my, I, gosh, my story, my first job outta college. So my dad was third generation.

He took over Columbia betting company in Chicago, a family owned business. He was third generation. Um, in 1968 he was president of Columbia Bedding and he sold it in 1981, um, kind of right at the end of the Sealy wars. But the Sealy wars took a lot of gas out of a lot of tanks in the industry. Um, so my dad sold the business, uh, the year I graduated from college.

And I always joke, had I known, I would’ve studied. So, uh, , I went to, I went to work for Stearns and Foster outta college and it was kind of interesting. The grandson of one of the founders, um, foster Stearns was on the board of directors. The president of Stearns at the time was a guy by the name I believe, John Broderick.

Um, so I worked there for a couple years and then Ernie Wiler bought Stearns and Foster and. Things changed, uh, rapidly, and it was, uh, it was a heck of a ride. And it finally co and Mark alluded to it. Um, when John begs came to, uh, Sealy, Inc. As c e o, uh, we combined sales forces. We had to figure out a fit for the Stearns and Foster brand.

I will say the majority, vast majority of the Sealy. Executives in the company wanted to make it the promotional lead in to Posturepedic because in their minds, Posturepedic was the greatest bet ever built. Um, but working with Gary fio and Dave Mawa, they allowed us to make it a luxury brand. And it ultimately became the first nationally distributed luxury brand, the industry.

Uh, and then there was, you know, being faced with, do I want Sealy on my card? And I. I always looked at Sealy as order takers. They never really sold anything. They just rode the strength of the brand. Uh, so I took an opportunity to jump over to Simmons and went to work for Tony Solitary in Janesville with young kids at home.

That promise I’d be home most nights. And that lasted about six months, and, uh, started spending a lot of time on the road and ended up in, down in Atlanta as uh, president s Simmons. And that’s, that’s my story.

Mark Quinn: Well, Bob, we know that you’ve had some time at Spring Air King’s down. You’ve also, uh, went back to S S b, uh, for a stint there recently.

So you’ve just got so much time in the industry. You and I are, have been very close friends for a long time, and I’ve learned so much from you and your knowledge about the categories. So, But a lot of that Bob comes from quirky. Yep. And we, we want to talk about him today and remember him because he, he was connected to so many people in the industry.

Can, can you tell us a little bit about him and, and you know, what that, you know, what he taught you maybe about the industry and maybe just in general as you were coming up in business? Yeah.

Robert Hellyer: You know when, when dad was in the business and he was chairman of IPA in 1980, Um, it was

Mark Quinn: really, he, he was a founding member of

Robert Hellyer: ipa, wasn’t he?

Bob? My, my great-grandfather was your great-grandfather, right? Grandfather was Zola Green Here. I got, there’s Zola Green on the cover of Betting magazine and when he died in 1935. So the Look at that handsome guy. Yeah. How about that? Um, but yeah, so multi-generational, but you know, the lesson I learned from my dad and I.

Great opportunity of working for my dad and grandfather, uh, when I was growing up in the factory. And, um, his, his one lesson, his approach to life was always, you’re never wrong doing the right thing. You know, pretty simple, but pretty profound at the same time. And when you look at his tenure in the industry before the Sealy franchise wars, that was really ignited by, by.

who I had the opportunity to work for and loved to death. Um, it was, the industry was fraternal because it was dominated by licensing groups. The only privately owned nationally distributed line at the time were, um, Stearns and Foster and Simmons. Um, and Stearns was really more regional than national, so it was really Simmons company.

Everyone else was spread around the country and had their regional geography to do business. So when you look at the, you know, veer Weers at Omaha Bedding, um, these are people I grew up admiring, um, close friends of my parents in the Pats at Cert Memphis, uh, Dallas, Jurgen, spring Air, Denver. I mean, the list goes on and on.

Tom Wright, at Wright, at Thomasville, uh, Roy Younger who was, or Howard ha’s president of Cel Inc. Not Roy Uner. Um, Dick Rowe and then Roy Younger worked under Dick Rowe. I mean, just talk about legends of the industry. These, these people actually shaped the industry and it was incredible. But then the, um, the Sealy wars hit and that, that kind of changed everything.

We became a, uh, very competitive industry and through consolidation and everything else, it really changed his character. But it’s. , I think the greatest small industry in the world. I mean, I just love it to death.

Mark Kinsley: Bob, go there for a minute and talk about, talk about the Sealy wars in relation to, to your dad in relation to Corky.

Yeah. Do you, do you have any stories that, uh, maybe kind of illustrate his philosophy on life? What are some of the stories you remember most about him?

Robert Hellyer: Oh gosh. Yeah. I, I’ll tell you a funny one first. So when you’re a regional manufacturer, um, You, your life depends on a few significant accounts and the, the longest standing biggest account for Columbia Bedding was also Mar always Marshall Field and Company.

and in the, um, sixties and early seventies, the buyer at Marshall Fields was a, a character by the name of Bert Kisselburg. And Bert bought a house in St. Charles, Illinois and invited all the suppliers out to the house for a Saturday picnic. Bring your family. It’s gonna be great. So we piled in the station wagon and like everyone else at the time went out there and, um, The kids had a great time playing, but uh, my dad and many others were met with a paintbrush and a paint can, and Bert had them paint his house that day on that Saturday.

Uh, just, I mean, that’s the way business was done. Uh, just incredible. Painted his

Mark Kinsley: house.

Yeah.

Robert Hellyer: Huh?

Mark Kinsley: The come on over. Food and grain. A little bit of hazing or what? Oh, just

Robert Hellyer: unbelievable. Unbelievable. And then, you know, you just look at Chicago where it was the focus of our business. And another classic and lesson I learned from dad is the buyer at Carson Perry.

Scott, I believe his name was Pat Walsh. Um, really enjoyed his lunch hour. I mean, if you, you think of Mad Men and back in the day, what lunch hour on State Street in Chicago was always at Don Ross Blackhawk on Wabash, and it was extended so the, the mattress suppliers would try to see Pap before lunch and try to get something done.

But Pat was all about lunch and he had an assistant buyer who I just loved to death, Henry. , um, and Henry was a big person and he would often carry Pat back to the office after lunch and put him in his chair. And if you really wanted to get orders written, He took care of Henry and did it in the afternoon when Pat was having his afternoon nap.

Uh, and that, so when, when you look at, at the time selling Carson Perry, Scott was, uh, Stearns and Foster, Sealy, Serta, and Columbia bedding. Um, everyone else met with Pat in the morning. My dad always made a point of meeting with Henry in the afternoon, and we wrote more orders than anyone else. It was just classic.

Mark Kinsley: Good old days. Pat in the morning, Henry in the afternoon. That’s the, that’s the sequence of events. Absolutely.

Robert Hellyer: Absolutely. But no, what, what word is, go ahead, Bob. No, I was gonna say, you know, really the, the driver behind, uh, Columbia betting and my dad’s approach to the business, and it really goes back to his Zola Green, and it was always luxury.

Private label bedding. Um, if you, if you look back to the early 19 hundreds, the tagline for Columbia bedding was invest and rest. Um, they were selling better sleep through science in the early 19 hundreds. Um, and it it part same today. So when dad’s tenure working in different committees in ISPA than the N A B M and eventually becoming chairman and um, was getting in on the ground floor of the development of the Better Sleep Council, I think he would say that his contributions there was something that he was most proud of in the industry.

Um, and. Uh, just the overall approach to the business that, you know, if you, if you deal in commodity, it’s a race to the bottom, but if you build the best bed, you know how to make you can survive in this industry. And that was always the approach.

Mark Quinn: Is that where you got your passion for product? Bob

Robert Hellyer: was quirky.

Oh, no question about it. Yeah, absolutely. We, uh, um, Tried a lot of things. It was great cuz in Chicago we had John M. Smith, um, Carson Perry, Scott Marshall Fields at the time, Wilson Jump, Colby’s and uh, great partners to try different things with. Um, and we did, I mean, when you look at late sixties, early seventies, 15% of the bedding industry was polyurethane.

I mean, mostly because Sears owned Lifetime foam. Um, and Sears was doing a tremendous amount of their business in foam, and they were the biggest retailers in the country. Ernie ultimately bought lifetime foam. Um, but, you know, trying all those different things. So we, I mean, we were inter tufting, eight way hand ting.

Uh, we got into foam. I’ll never forget Ike Fogel started classic out in Maryland. Um, right at the beginning of the waterbed boom and, uh, Soma was the hottest waterbed out there, the water tubes. Um, so we felt like we needed representation in the watered business, and we put showcase one on the eighth floor Marshall Fields right above the Walnut Room, and, um, the president of Marshall Fields at the.

Andy, uh, his name escapes me anyways, comes in, sees the waterbed, lays down on it, and it had leaked and he was soaked from his backside to the back of his neck. Had to go change his clothes and everything else. So we didn’t, we weren’t in the waterbed business along, um, , but, you know, stuff like that. I mean, we’re always pushing the envelope and trying different things.

I think the most intriguing inner springing unit that was ever developed, uh, was the car unit, k a r r later, uh, replicated by Holland Wire, which was a counter winding coil. Um, so left turn, right turn, left turn, right turn, which took away. Leann, uh, it was an open-ended coil, so it was in a helical, but there was no knot which gave that surface.

Conformability. Previous to that, the only one talking. Conformability was, uh, the pocketed coil by Beautyrest. Um, and they, with the car innerspring, they developed a, um, spring buying co-op and a bunch of the different regional players, um, started buying this coil and ultimately it became Spring Air. Um, but I had pictures back in the day where Earl’s Uncle Stanley and my great-grandfather Zola were buying coils together.

Uh, which is, that’s getting back there a little bit here. I I, I even got a little picture here. Here was the, the original introduction of the car innerspring, if you can see that, but phenomenal. And back then you painted the units. I mean, the only thing that worked against you was noise. Every raw piece of wire in the industry eventually gets rust on it because there’s moisture in the air.

Um, so the car innerspring was. Painted and, uh, baked. So it was oven tempered with paint. Never made a sound. It was phenomenal. What happened to that unit? It was still using it. So when my dad took over Columbia bedding in 1968, his cousin, gene Detmer, uh, moved out to California. And took that unit with them and went to work for King Carpent.

Uh, Jean was president of heirloom bedding, uh, for King Car and basically took the Columbia bedding specs out to heirloom and started making the beds out there and they still use it today. Um, I got a big kick a couple years ago. Uh, cleft Heom came out with the heirloom founders King car’s. King, king car’s designer.

Um, anyone who knew King Carpent knew that he was blind, so kind of funny that he would have a designer collection as a blind person. But, uh, gene Der was actually the one building all the beds.

Mark Quinn: Hey, hey Bob. You know, quirky lived a great long life. He was 89. When he passed and, and I know you were close to your father, what were some of the conversations you had with him about the industry today?

How did he view the, the evolution of where we are now? Yeah. What was, what was his view of, of the industry and current

Robert Hellyer: state? He, uh, you know, it was, it was interesting when he gave his keynote address in New Orleans at the 1981 N A B M Convention, now ispa, um, He predicted, uh, incredible consolidation within the industry.

Um, they, as, as an independent manufacturer, through the Sealy wars, they were already feeling the pinch of large retailers having leverage for more co-op, for more selling subsidies for boom, boom, boom. And, um, he at that point said, the, the future is, Um, and that wasn’t his keynote address in 1981 in New Orleans.

And who knows? I mean, the next couple months we might see if that isn’t the truth. Wink, wink, right. , right, exactly right. But no, it’s all about that. Um, it. He was always adamant, unwavering when it came to quality. I mean, it, it was incredible, the synergy between the message that, um, my dad had every day. And what I learned from Tony Solitary who passed in December, uh, who was the leader of Simmons Janesville, and that was, if you want job security, you produce a first quality product and deliver it on time and complete each and every.

It’s, it’s, it’s such a simple formula, but it holds true today. I mean, when you look at significant shifts in market share in this industry, it is driven by quality and service. Um, it’s always been a product driven industry, so you have to assume the products there. It’s how you support that product. Um, and, and Tony and my dad, Delivered the same message and the other one that I thought was great, he, and what the industry’s missing today is that connection with the plant and the hourly workers in the plant because it was instilled in me and so many people of my generation.

That the people in the plant have bills, they have families to feed at a minimum, they need 40 hours. The reality is they want 45 to 50 with a little overtime. Um, so when you’re out on the road selling beds, the importance of making that last call or hanging around for that fire who didn’t have time for you that day, but you just wait ’em out to get in front of them to write that extra 10, 20, 30 pieces.

Is helping that person in the plant. And I, I think one of the big, big travesties in the world today is the loss of connection between the plants. I mean, I, I look back at, um, starting with Stearns and Foster, our best salesperson without question was the Lockland plant. Nobody made a bed like Stearns and Foster.

And you look at Sealy, their best salespeople were b Brenham in Watertown. No question about it. And Simmons Janesville. Um, so gotta get that back. That connection between the plant, the customer, and leveraging quality and service is, is gotta be regained. It’s a lost art. How do you do

Mark Kinsley: that, Bob? How do you get that connection

Robert Hellyer: rebuilt?

We put people back in the plants. I mean, I, I used to love it. We, um, Ray rode. Mark knows who ran the, um, the Brennan plant after his father-in-law. Um, if he had a complaint on service, somebody called up and said, you missed two pieces or this cane damaged, or boom, boom, boom. Roddy would, Roddy would call that customer every day for a hundred days to check on that day’s delivery.

I just wanna make sure you got everything on time and complete today, and it was at to your. Every day he’d make that phone call to that customer and then sporadically. I mean, he had a relationship with every customer we sold. He would touch ’em all throughout the week. Um, but it, it’s really simple stuff.

It’s fundamentals, basic blocking and tackling. They think it kills, kills me today I do a lot of shopping, um, mattress shopping just because I love to. There are brands out there today where the RSAs don’t know how to sew that it, it blows my mind. I mean, that’s the battleground you win and lose at retail at the point of contact.

And the people that are out there, out servicing the retail locations and out teaching the retail sales associates and giving them the ammunition they need are the ones that are gonna win. I mean, and it’s, you know, it’s just so paramount in anyone’s approach to the game today. One of the thing, it’s, it’s always great to bring new blood into the industry.

New perspective. I love outsiders. Um, I love outsiders who wanna learn the industry before they start teaching the industry. Um, because there’s so much time and energy spent on stuff today that isn’t sold at retail. I did my consumer research and consumers. Bubble wrapped memory foam. Well, you go to retail, every piece of foam is sold the same way.

It doesn’t matter how unique yours is, you know, um, it’s, it’s simple. It’s simple stuff. We’ve just lost the art, if that makes sense. Time to get it

Mark Kinsley: back.

Robert Hellyer: Time to get it back. Opportunity. Opportunity. Opportunity.

Mark Kinsley: Yeah, sometimes I think people get so overwhelmed with bells and whistles and new technology and this, that and the other.

They forget, like you said, the fundamentals of the business, which is it’s still a relationship driven business. And there have been plenty of people come into this industry and say, I’m sick of the backslapping and I’m sick of the good old boys, this and that and the other. And I’m like, well, things are changing.

There’s no doubt about it. But something that’s not changing is what you started out talking about. Yeah. Deep roots in the industry and relationships matter and making sure you’re showing up for people and doing those fundamentals. And I don’t think anybody has done ’em as good as you. And, and clearly there’s a legacy there and a history and we need to absorb more of that.

And, and in, in terms of absorbing it, I think we gotta do a part two. What do you think? Oh yeah, that’d be.

Robert Hellyer: That’d

Mark Kinsley: be great. Nick, what are we, what are we gonna talk about on part two? I, I have, there, there’s some ideas floating around.

Mark Quinn: I have some thoughts. You know, I was talking to Bob and um, you know, a lot of people don’t know the stories Kinsley of the Sealy wars.

Yeah. Like back in the day that was vicious. Like it was like, uh, mattress Mafia running all over the country. And so that. Kind of percolated up. And then there was a, a a an A flashpoint where things blew up and early. What Ernie Wilger came in and like, uh, it, it’s a great story and a lot of people don’t know it cuz there’s a lot of new people in the industry.

So I thought we would go down memory lane in a second episode here. And talk about those good old days and what happened with the Sealy wars and how did sir get consolidated into what it is today? And there’s just a lot of really cool stuff that I think that people who value origin stories or history are gonna love that too.

Hey, we’ll get you staring at one.

Mark Kinsley: You’re looking at one right now. I, I do not know the full story behind the Sealy wars. I’ve heard it mentioned throughout the years, but it sounds like there were maloff cocktails being. Maybe. Oh yeah. Literally and figuratively. So Bob, you, you’re coming

Robert Hellyer: back for part, here I am, and I, I, I’ll preface it by saying no individual had more influence or impact on the betting industry than Ernie Willer.

Agreed.

Mark Quinn: Totally agree. And I, and I, I came after him. I, I hated that I didn’t get to meet him. But anyway, Bob, I just wanna say thanks for always being such a good friend to me and to Mark and, uh, for being a, you know, a, a guy in this industry who doesn’t just perform inside of it, but has so much passion for the mattress category.

There’s very few people I know that, uh, goes. Fourth generation who really care about what we do and the job we have, which is to help people sleep better. So thank you for that. And I just wanna say thank you to Corky. Um, I didn’t get to meet him, but boy, uh, born in on September 6th in 1933. Uh, lived until Friday the 13th of, um, January 13th, uh, 89 years old.

Legend in the industry. We’re so grateful that we had him and that he had the kind of influence on you that he did, and that we all get to benefit from that. So thanks for coming on and sharing his

Robert Hellyer: story. My pleasure, and thanks for having me.

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