CLEVELAND, Tenn.-Most people spend about one-third of their lives on a mattress, but Roger Pickett has devoted more than 20 years of his life to manufacturing them.
His stepfather, Elmer Murray, started MurMaid Mattress Factory & Showroom on Lee Highway in 1979. For a brief time in the 1960s, Murray ran an upholstery shop, later reopening as a mattress manufacturer specializing in mattresses for the hotel industry.
By the mid-80s, there were enough people buying mattresses from the factory that Murray began thinking about how to change the business model so he also could sell to the public.
"We didn't know that we were a factory-direct manufacturer - we didn't know there was such a thing," Pickett said. "Our first real look to see how to run a factory-direct operation was when we went to Knoxville and we looked at a factory-direct operation called Brothers Bedding."
Learning from the owners in Knoxville, Pickett and Murray started coming up with ways to advertise their lines of mattresses to the public.
It was after that trip that Pickett began to toy around with the idea of joining his stepfather in the mattress business. He later left his job at a furniture shop to help out at MurMaid when Murray became ill, and "just never went back," Pickett said.
He later took over the business before his step-father passed away.
In 1990, the company moved its manufacturing operation from Lee Highway to Georgetown Road in Cleveland. Here, 10 employees work five days a week to assemble the MurMaid mattresses that are sold in Pickett's eight MurMaid Mattress stores. He also runs six Mattress Outlet locations in the area.
Beginning as a one-stop shop that specialized in bedding for hotels or guest rooms, the company eventually moved into making higher quality bedding. Pickett said his goal as president of the company is to provide "a better mattress at a better price."
Billy Knight, who has served as MurMaid's factory manager for the past decade, said higher quality materials that go into making the mattresses enhance the end result, providing an end product that not only is cheaper than most national brands but also lasts longer.
He said customer service plays a large part in the company's ability to maintain repeat business. Stock levels are kept high so orders can be filled with just a one- or two-day wait, he said.
All in the family
In the early '90s after having two children, Lindsey and Kristen - for whom two of the MurMaid lines are named - Cindy Pickett decided to join her husband in the family mattress business. Working as the office manager, Cindy Pickett handles much of the day-to-day tasks of keeping the books in order.
Being in business with her husband hasn't always been easy, she said, "but we manage it well."
"It's a 24/7 job," she said. "It goes home with you. There's the waking up at 3 a.m. just worrying."
The economic downturn hasn't helped.
"We were riding high in '05 and '06," Cindy Pickett said.
By the time 2008 rolled around, the business had hit "the bottom of the barrel," Roger Pickett said. Instead of making beds five days a week, factory workers only had about three days a week of work to do.
"We painted some stores - just to give people hours, we let them paint, we let them address envelopes, send out mailers, stuff like that," he said. "We just tried to do anything we could to give them hours for them to survive."
It was toughest on the factory workers, since the regular stores stayed open but just weren't getting as many orders, Knight said.
But things are beginning to pick up, Cindy Pickett said.
"We're not nearly as worried now," she said. "We're not back to where we were, but I don't think anybody will ever be back to where they were."
The economy hasn't been the only hurdle in the mattress manufacturer's path.
When MurMaid first started, there weren't many competitors. Now, consumers can find mattresses at hundreds of stores in the Picketts' coverage area from North Georgia to Cleveland, and keeping up with competitive pricing is difficult, they said.
"Now a lot of people have the same products, so you've got to make yourself different," Cindy Pickett said. "What we've got going for us is we're local and we have this factory, so we can specialize."
KEEPING COMPANY WITHIN "FAMILY"
Whereas at one time, plans were to "open as many stores as we can, have big trucks on the road and all that," Cindy Pickett said time and money concerns have scaled back those dreams.
"We've expanded from one to 14 stores," Roger Pickett said. "I just don't see us getting out of the home market."
As he looks ahead, Pickett is unsure if the 32-year-old business will stay within his immediate family but is confident it will at least stay within the "company family."
His goal is to continue to make the best product possible and stay competitive with national brands despite rising material costs.