Written by: 
Monique Bird

Fifteen minutes nearly ruined a lifetime of work for Jim McIngvale.

Better known as "Mattress Mack" for his Houston-based furniture and mattress chain, Gallery Furniture, McIngvale had worked tirelessly for two decades to build a flourishing business. His 100,000-square-foot facility on the North Freeway contained some $20 million in inventory.

But that all changed when Gallery Furniture went up in flames May 21, 2009 -- just days before Memorial Day, one of the busiest and most profitable weekends for furniture retailers.

The massive four-alarm fire brought 150 firefighters to the scene, and flames shot 40 feet into the air. The Houston Astros stopped their Major League Baseball game to broadcast the blaze on the Jumbotron.

Everyone got out safely; however, Gallery Furniture was essentially out of business, with its warehouse destroyed and showroom damaged. McIngvale owned a second location on Post Oak Boulevard, but it was much smaller and relatively new.

"The question was whether we go on or whether we take the insurance payout and quit," says McIngvale. "All of our employees were concerned about their jobs, and I was too. So, we joined hands and we prayed that night."

From there, McIngvale and his team achieved the seemingly impossible. They had no physical place to store or sell their items, but suppliers committed to delivering new furniture the very next day. Within hours, a local bank phoned in. The representative on the line offered a fully operational, move-in-ready furniture warehouse in Sugar Land.

"You can move in here today. No paperwork. Just move in because we trust you," the banker said, referring to years of goodwill earned by McIngvale because of his generosity.

Gallery Furniture sold $300,000 in product the day after it burned to the ground, and the North Freeway location was re-opened in phases over the next several months.

"Nine out of 10 customers who come to Gallery Furniture now tell me one thing," says McIngvale. "We're here because of what you do. Price doesn't matter."

The beginning of a legacy

McIngvale and his wife, Linda, both UNT alumni, started Gallery Furniture in 1981 with $5,000 and a pickup truck. They slept at the site -- an abandoned model home park -- because they didn't have insurance and couldn't afford to have anything stolen. Every Saturday, the couple drove to Dallas to pick up the next week's furniture load.

After modest success, the economic decline in the 1980s hit Gallery Furniture hard. McIngvale revisited his advertising strategy, which consisted mostly of printed flyers, and decided to spend his last $10,000 on local television commercials. Frustrated with the production, McIngvale stepped in front of the camera, fast-talked his way through a sales pitch and, on a whim, threw that day's sales dollars into the air as he yelled, "Gallery Furniture saves … you … money!" It was an instant success and sales ticked upward.

"Mattress Mack" was born.

And so was McIngvale's desire to help his community. In the years since Gallery Furniture's financial rebirth, he has given millions to organizations, from the Texas Heart Institute to the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo, where his record $600,000 bid for the grand champion steer in 2001 helped raise money for scholarships. At UNT, McIngvale's support was instrumental in the construction of the Athletic Center and the adjacent football practice facility in 2005.

The McIngvales have assisted with numerous causes. Gallery Furniture's annual Christmas Giveaway has provided furniture to more than 500 households. The store has hosted free Thanksgiving dinners and a sensory-sensitive prom for children with autism spectrum disorder. It also has helped furnish more than 130 centers for military groups through the United Service Organizations. And in 2007, McIngvale's fundraiser for The Salvation Army brought in President George H.W. Bush and First Lady Barbara Bush as bell ringers.

Most recently, McIngvale decided to convert one-third of his two largest stores into opportunity centers.

"Within a five-mile radius of Gallery Furniture, the average annual income is $29,000," he says. "I am part capitalist and part social worker. And I believe capitalists like myself have an obligation to give back and make our communities a better place."

The centers will offer vocational training in construction, welding, robotics and other in-demand jobs with big pay potential, as well as classes on financial literacy and other life skills. Participants also will be provided with a mentor and take courses four days per week. To pay for their training, they will be required to work at Gallery Furniture one day a week.

"They have to have some skin in the game," says McIngvale, whose business consistently has been ranked in Furniture Today's Top 100 Furniture Retailers and is ranked as the sales-per-square-foot leader for independent retailers in the U.S.

Spurred by McIngvale's inventive marketing and TV advertisements, the chain has grown to three locations (the third is in Richmond), complete with a play area, fresh-baked cookies, exotic animals and a "deliver it today" promise that's built around the patron, not the profit.

Receiving national recognition

Despite all of this, Mattress Mack is most known for the work he did in the wake of Hurricane Harvey, which made landfall on the Texas coast Friday, Aug. 25, 2017, as a Category 4 hurricane with winds of 130 mph and a diameter of 280 miles. It moved into the Houston area by the next day.

"Hurricane Harvey was the worst of times for southeast Texas. It dropped 50 to 70 inches of rain -- enough to fuel Niagara Falls for 21 days straight," McIngvale says.

It took him four hours that Sunday to get across town to the store, where he found "all hell had broken loose."

"The phone was ringing off the wall. The emails were exploding and my text messages were going ding, ding, ding, nonstop for two and a half hours. The message was, "Come get us, we're going to drown," says McIngvale, who had given out his personal cell number on television and online for years.

In the midst of everything, he made two decisions. One: Send out large delivery trucks that could drive through the high waters to assist with rescues. And two: Open two Gallery Furniture stores as temporary shelters. He turned to Facebook live -- his first time ever -- to get the word out via social media.

"Within an hour and a half, the video had 3 million views," says McIngvale. "They waded through the dark and dirty water and walked into the furniture store carrying their entire life's belongings in black plastic trash bags. Entire families -- parents, children, infants, pets. We took them all in. We fed them breakfast, lunch and dinner. It's what you do. We have a sign out front of our stores: 'The American West was not settled by people who had taken a course on how to be a pioneer.'"

Outside the stores, the flood waters kept rising. With temperatures in the 90s, things were hot and humid. Nationally, news media heard about his efforts, and soon all the major outlets -- Time, NPR, People, the BBC, CBS, ABC and others -- were calling.

"They all wanted to know the same thing: How could you possibly let these total strangers come in and sleep on your fancy mattresses, sit on your sofas and eat at your dining tables?" he remembers. "My answer was, 'How could I not?' My beloved parents and my brother are deceased, and I believe they're in Heaven saying, 'Do what you were taught.' We're all in this together. We can always buy another sofa or another mattress, but you can never replace another human being."

McIngvale is quick to credit others.

"The heroes were the first responders, the firemen, the policemen, the EMTs, the National Guard who stayed awake for four or five days in a row, risking their lives to save our fellow citizens," he says. "The heroes were the people who got all that dirty water in their house and now more than a year later, they've rewritten their narrative and they're back in the house because they're resilient, which is a trait all Texans share. The heroes were those unsinkable Texans who didn't worry about their own creature comforts; they worried about their neighbors."

Over the years, Mattress Mack has received numerous accolades -- including a World Championship ring from the Houston Astros. And now, he's added a UNT honorary degree to the list.

McIngvale came to UNT as a student his junior season in 1972 to play for the Mean Green football team -- first under Rod Rust, who also coached "Mean" Joe Greene and other legendary players before heading to the NFL, and later under the famous Hayden Fry, who was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 2003.

McIngvale played until 1974 but never completed his degree. In October, during his visit to campus to speak at the G. Brint Ryan College of Business Distinguished Speaker Series, he was awarded an honorary degree by President Neal Smatresk. He also received a 2018 Distinguished Alumni Award at the annual event hosted by the UNT Alumni Association.  

As for all of that second-hand furniture left after the storm, McIngvale, in his entrepreneurial fashion, found a very economical use for the product.

"We had a sale," he says. And in true Mattress Mack spirit, he says every customer offered to pay full price.


Handling setbacks:
Get back up – best lesson I ever learned. Fall seven, rise eight. Nobody said this stuff was going to be fun, easy or fair. Out there in the free enterprise, the competition is trying to take your customers away from you, and you're trying to take theirs from them. That's the way the game is played.

Advice for aspiring entrepreneurs:
Find many ideas, and if you fail at a couple, it's not a big deal. If you fail forward fast, I think that's great. If you start your own business, keep your overhead very low so you can make money, and your family and friends have to be on your side.

Hurricane Harvey heroes:
The heroes were the first responders, the firemen, the policemen, the EMTs, the National Guard who stayed awake for four or five days in a row, risking their lives to save our fellow citizens, the unsinkable Texans who put their own creature comforts aside and worried about their neighbors. The heroes were the people who got all that dirty water in their house and now a year later, they've rewritten their narrative and they're back in the house because they're resilient, which is a trait all Texans share.

Continue Reading