Mark Blake is sweating as he shoulders a queen size mattress at the back of his store up against a wall, the same way he used to muscle out opponents for a rebound at Atwater High.
The owner and founder of The Mattress Store will soon be inducted into the high school's hall of fame for his years as a tough, high-scoring guard in the '70s.
His approach to business reflects both the finesse and the hard-nosed mind-set with which he played ball. He's needed both. The Mattress Store opened at its first location in Atwater 10 days after 9/11. "It was scary," he remembers. "Everybody was on edge, wondering whether we'd ever see anybody walk in the door."
The world may well have changed in 2001, but Blake had already committed to becoming his own boss after 20 years as a manager in such furniture stores as J.S. West in Modesto and Rock Bottom in Stockton.
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He had calculated, for example, that most people replace a traditional spring mattress every seven to 10 years. He did the math on local population, how many competitors he would face and what brands would sell best to which customers. "I did all the estimates and it came out pretty close," he recalls.
A year later, he opened a second store in the Save Mart shopping center on G Street. "We're playing with the idea of opening another one," he says.
Last year, despite the lingering local recession, "we had the best year ever."
His is a family business, with son Matthew running the Atwater store. Blake has a partner "who's like family" at the Merced store, William Enos.
Blake sells mattresses from Spring Air, Cannon, Dream, Heirloom, Simmons Beautyrest and the industry's gold standard, Tempur-Pedic. "They're driving the mattress business now," he says. "They're pushing other manufacturers to do different things."
After a fast-break start, The Mattress Store ran into the economic stall. Blake describes mattresses as "a grudge purchase," an item that people will wait and wait to replace, even though they spend a third of their lives on one.
But he believes his attention to customer service -- a two-hour delivery window guaranteed, plus hauling away the old mattress -- led to repeat business and word-of-mouth sales. "More than half our business is referrals," he says.
One of the quirks of his business is what they find when they deliver a new mattress and haul away an old one. "You'd be amazed," he says and shakes his head -- "loaded guns, bullet holes, unmentionables."
The variety and prices of his mattresses also help. "We try to cover every range so people can feel comfortable coming in if they're operating on a budget," he says.
Blake is a complex man with simple beliefs. He was offered an athletic scholarship to Oregon State but wound up attending the Air Force Academy (his dad, like his wife Brenda's, made a career of serving in the Air Force). But he left there after a year. "I didn't like to march to breakfast," he explains. "I kept asking myself, why are we doing this down on the ground?"
His store is festooned with large posters from local schoolchildren thanking him for beanbag chairs he's donated to various reading campaigns or sent to summer camps, or for sponsoring their soccer or baseball teams. When he hears of a needy person or group in the Sun-Star, he quietly hands over a check.
Although he starred at basketball, he loves Major League Baseball, and from his walls hang mementoes and memorabilia from his favorite team, the Boston Red Sox ("and any team that beats the Yankees").
Bookshelves in the store brim with classic and modern titles, part of a humanities course his son Michael studied at the University of California at San Diego. Blake bought the same books and read them along with his son.
His mom fronted him the seed money to start his first store, and he paid her back within two years. It's Brenda whom he credits with any success he's achieved. "She's my rock and biggest supporter," he says. "She's got more faith in me than I do for myself." The two have been married 34 years.
His formula for surviving the downturn? "We learned how to eat spaghetti when we needed to," he recalls. Plus, "because we do everything, we have no salesmen, corporate honchos or delivery people to pay. That results in being able to offer the best national brands at prices that corporate chain stores can't match. Add our personal service to that and it became a winning strategy."
His basketball idol as a young player was "Pistol" Pete Maravich, the charismatic scorer from Lousiana State University. Something Maravich once said applies to Mark Blake and his outlook on people and business:
"There is nothing wrong with dedication and goals, but if you focus on yourself, all the lights fade away and you become a fleeting moment in life."
Executive Editor Mike Tharp can be reached at (209) 385-2456 or firstname.lastname@example.org.