At 8:30 pm on May 21st, the Gallery Furniture warehouse caught on fire destroying 20 million dollars worth of inventory. Investigators have ruled it was arson. Read the news account of the fire and another about the day afterJim McIngvale and his wife Linda arrived in Houston, Texas in 1981 with $5,000 and "a dream". The plan: to open a furniture store at the site Jim's real estate agent brother had found them- an abandoned un-heated un-air conditioned model home park formerly occupied by a build-on-your-lot homebuilder.
1981 was the year of the great "oil boom" and the great bust in the auto and steel industries. Families from Michigan, Ohio and the rest of the rust belt loaded as many of their belongings in the backs of their cars and headed to Houston- the "land of opportunity". They needed beds and furniture- any kind of beds and furniture. Jim and Linda McIngvale's new enterprise- Gallery Furniture was there to sell low-end furniture to them as fast as he could get it in. They never borrowed money because no one would lend them any, so they kept plowing the profits back into buying more furniture.
Then, just as fast as the "oil boom" had started, the "oil bust" came. Gallery Furniture's customer base stopped moving to Houston. Sales came to a grinding halt.
Until that time, Gallery Furniture's advertising consisted of little more than signs tacked to telephone poles. Jim McIngvale was down to his last $10,000. He decided to roll the dice and advertise on television. He bought low cost ad time on barely watched UHF stations--moving into a commercial rotation with ads for trade schools and workmen�s compensation lawyers aired during tired old sitcoms and the Saturday Night wrestling matches. He split the money in half. Half went to one station and the other half to another.
One evening near midnight after closing the store, he went down to the television station to watch his commercial being produced.
"Mack" didn't like how the commercial was going and his studio time was running out fast. At the last minute, he took over as the pitchman and improvised for thirty seconds talking as fast as he could, extolling the virtues of Gallery Furniture. As the clock ticked down to the last seconds, he reached into his back pocket and retrieved that day�s store receipts, then held up the fistful of dollars, leapt into the air and shrieked that Gallery Furniture will "save you money!"
A star was born.
A 1987 article in the Houston Post described seeing a Gallery Furniture commercial for the first time this way:
There are some events in our life we never forget.
Our first kiss.
The day Elvis died.
The landing on the moon,
The first time we saw Jim "Mattress Mack" McIngvale jumping up and down in a Gallery Furniture television commercial, shaking a fist full of dollars and hollering something about "saving you moneeey".
"Who is this guy in Sansabelt slacks?"
Sales jumped. In a short time sales had jumped 1000%. Every kid in town began jumping up and down and yelling "saves you money". Some toddler's first complete phrase was "save you money". By 1987, sales were $25,000,000 for the year. Last year's sales were over $113,000,000. All from one store at the same location that Gallery Furniture began. He finally opened a second location in 2009.
For a time, Mattress Mack advertised so much it was nearly impossible to turn on any television or radio station for more than 15 minutes without seeing a Gallery Furniture commercial. McIngvale is always trying new angles to put into his ubiquitous commercials. He appeared in a series of ads wearing a mattress and calling himself "Mattress Mack". His young son appeared with him in a few ads, too, dressed in a mattress and calling himself Mattress James. Even though he hasn't worn a mattress in some time, the name has stuck. Everyone in town still calls him "Mattress Mack".
In the beginning, Gallery Furniture sold mostly low-end furniture to blue collar workers, but as the store became more successful, he started selling higher quality merchandise. Some people (aka yuppies) would rather not admit they bought their furniture at Gallery Furniture. One customer bought $3,000 worth of furniture and asked if it could be delivered in an un-marked truck. Rather than being insulted, Mattress Mack complied with their request, then, began advertising that he would deliver your furniture in an unmarked truck so that your neighbors wouldn't know where it came from.
He sold sleeper sofas with extra padding in the mattress and reminded viewers in his commercials about the experience everyone has had of sleeping at "Aunt Minerva's" house with "that bar in your back all night."
Knowing that the bane of all furniture buyers is waiting for weeks or months for your furniture to arrive while you hold onto a back order slip. He promised that anything you found his store could be delivered to you that night, even if you showed up at closing time (10 pm) on Christmas Eve and it would take until 3 am to get it to you.
He doesn't take special orders. If you see it on the floor of the store, you can have it in your home NOW!. A deal that is almost impossible to pass up.
As much attention as you can garner buying advertising time, nothing beats the attention generated from the free publicity of getting mentioned on the 10 'clock news or in the newspaper. Mattress Mack plunged head first into giving back to the community, which generates plenty of free publicity. It is a win-win situation. The community benefits and everyone stays aware of him and his business.
Every Christmas, he gives away households of furniture to needy families. For several years, he was high bidder for the grand champion animals raised by high school students at the Houston Livestock Show (spending close to a million dollars each year). The money went for awarding college scholarships. Jim gives several hundred speeches a year to almost any group that asks- telling his inspiring story of going from rags to riches. He built a practice facility for the Houston Rockets basketball team (which also receives visits from many NBA players who play in pick-up games during the off-season.) and is known as the Rockets number one fan.
When Chuck Norris moved to Texas to start his KICK DRUGS OUT OF AMERICA program for high school students, Mattress Mack helped him. He even financed the Norris brother's movie Sidekicks, which was filmed in Houston.
"Mack" went to the 1996 Atlanta Olympics and spent his own money to campaign for the 2008 Olympics to come to Houston.
In June of 2001, when half of Houston was flooded, he bought all of the production overrun of the Simmons Mattress company, then sold the mattresses at half-price. He donated the money from Red Cross vouchers back to the Red Cross.
He is an unabashed booster for the City of Houston. He says, "This town took Linda and me from crayons to perfume. I love this city. We owe it a lot for giving us the chance."
He gives several hundred speeches a year to community and school groups.
Originally from Dallas, Jim McIngvale went to college at the University of Texas where he played football, though he mostly rode the bench. He was a member of the 1969 Longhorn's national championship team.
After college, he was involved in various unsuccessful endeavors and ended up almost 30 years old, broke, without a car and working in a convenience store.
McIngvale says that he had a pretty bad attitude and spent most of his time in the store thumbing through the magazines and acting surly to the customers. Then, his boss did Jim a favor.
He fired him.
Jim decided it was time for an attitude change. He got a job working for a furniture store on the other side of Dallas from where he lived. Not having a car, he had to spend hours taking several buses to get there and back.
During this period, he learned the furniture business and developed better work habits. Inspired by the book Think and Grow Rich by Napoleon Hill, he decided to go into the furniture business for himself. This was when his brother living in Houston found the "perfect location for him"- the abandoned model home park.
Jim asked Linda, his girlfriend at the time, to move to Houston with him. She said that she would only if he married her. He did and they did.
Jim says the secret of his success is "Late to bed and early to rise, work like hell and advertise."
He admits he can be a tyrant to work for. "I do have a volatile temper and I tend to be too harsh," he says.
But, he doesn't tell anyone to do anything he is not willing to do himself. You might see him holding up one end of a couch with a high school kid on the other end moving the couch to another part of the store. He still spends a great deal of his time at the store, because the customers expect to see him there. He has a desk near the front door where he can greet customers and a bank of television monitors so he can watch what is going on all over the store.
Employees are required to work from opening to closing a certain number of days a week, but they can work as many extra hours as they want. They can come in at 7 am and unload the 18 wheelers bringing in new furniture. Near closing time, he asks for volunteers to do the late night delivery runs to all hours of the night.
He supplies free meals for everyone (breakfast, lunch and dinner) but doesn't allow sitting down to eat it. Employees must eat on the run while they are working.
When asked why he never expanded to more than one store he says, "Because they can only steal so much while you're watching."
Gallery Furniture has been rebuilding over the last few years. They finally moved out of the un-climate controlled model homes after nineteen years and into a new building built on land behind the old store.
The new store is kind of like a shopper's "Fantasyland" with theme-park like attractions. A four-lane bowling alley, coffee shop, free range parrots, an Elvis exhibit with the King's 1956 Lincoln Continental, Lady Diana's jewelry, and Houston Rockets memorabilia including Hakeem Olajuwon�s shoe.
For a couple of years at Christmas, he spent over $100,000 on the world's tallest Christmas tree (taller than the Rockefeller Center tree), which he set up on the store's parking lot bordering the freeway.
At one time, Mack worked 16 hours a day, 7 days a week at the store, allowing few hobbies. One time he was asked if he played golf, he replied that he "played furniture".
He still works about as much, but takes a little more advantage of his immense wealth, now. He has a five-car garage for his Ferrari collection. He is one of the largest owner's of thoroughbred racehorses in Kentucky. His goal is to win the Kentucky Derby. He got into horseracing because his daughter and sister-in-law both liked horses.
His wife runs a Tennis Club that he rescued, that brings in the top names in Tennis for tournaments.
They recently tore down the old model homes that were the home to Gallery Furniture for its first nineteen years.
Marilyn Murphy, a Gallery Furniture manager for 13 years, was asked if the original homestead had been in decent shape before the demolition. She rolled her eyes.
"We were always putting the building back together."
Mattress Mack remembers putting the building back together. "I'll never forget, the second year I was there, that was before they had all those guardrails on the freeway. I'll never forget it. About 11 o'clock one Sunday morning, we were out there trying to sell, and this guy ran off the side of the road, went into the ditch, came up and hit the side of one of those model homes going about 70 miles an hour. Knocked those bricks everywhere."
Just before they hauled off the debris, Jim McIngvale walked out into the rubble and picked up a brick from that house. He said he was going to add the brick to his memorabilia collection near the front entrance of the new store.
"Kind of a memorial," he says, "to those 20 years of my life."