Editor’s Note: CNY CEO is a new feature appearing regularly (about every month) in The Central New York Business Journal, authored by guest writer Jeff Knauss who is president of his own digital-marketing firm. In each edition of CNY CEO, Jeff will chat with a different top executive of a Central New York business or nonprofit, with the interview transcript appearing in a conversational Q&A format.
In this edition of CNY CEO, I speak with Dave Shiroff, president, CEO, and owner of Metro Mattress, which is headquartered at 3545 John Glenn Blvd. in the town of Geddes. The company says it operates 52 stores throughout New York state and is the largest retailer of mattresses in Upstate. Shiroff lives in Manlius with his wife, 12-year old son, and 10-year old daughter.
JEFF: You’ve had quite the illustrious career. Talk about what you were doing before Metro Mattress.
DAVE: I have been in the mattress industry for 20 years. I actually started my career as an attorney. I passed the bar in 1993 and went to work for a big litigation practice in Fort Lauderdale. After a couple of years in law practice, I realized that my passion was for business.
I had a legal client that offered me a position at a mattress company. That was in 1995, so almost exactly 20 years ago. The position was with a relatively small company that allowed me to cut my teeth in the industry for a few years. Afterward, one of the largest chains in the U.S., Mattress Giant, hired me to run a 50-60 store territory in Texas. I was responsible for running stores in the Dallas–Fort Worth and Houston areas. That’s really where I think I learned about the mattress industry at a high level because they were a really good 300-store chain. I also had some mentors there that provided me with the background that I would need to own my own business one day.
After a few years at that company, I felt like I was ready to take on my own challenge. I started networking through contacts in the industry and I crossed paths with the original owners of Metro Mattress. They were in their 70s (in age) and had really gone into a semi-retirement because they were living in Florida and trying to run the business from there. They were flying into the area a couple of days a month but it wasn’t really going well. It’s hard to run a business in an industry as competitive as the mattress business from a distance. They were really looking for an exit strategy and I was looking for an entrance strategy. We were aligned in our goals at that point, which allowed for a very smooth transition for me to acquire the company. That was in 2000. We had nine stores at that time, mostly here in the Syracuse area, a store up in Oswego, one out in Utica, and three in Rochester. It seems like a long, long time ago but it was just 14 years ago. And we just opened our 51st and 52nd stores. It has been a very interesting journey.
JEFF: What would you consider the biggest risk that you’ve taken so far in your career and what motivated you to take that risk?
DAVE: I have never been afraid of taking risks. It was a risk after I graduated from Old Dominion University with a degree in accounting and offers from Arthur Andersen and Coopers & Lybrand to turn those down and go to law school. It was a risk after passing the bar and going to work for a big, prestigious law firm to walk away from my legal career after less than three years and start selling mattresses.
I’m very instinctual in my decision-making process, and I have learned to trust my gut. I don’t look back, I don’t second guess. I think you have to also be willing to fail and you have to say to yourself, “Well what are the consequences for failing?”
I try not to take risks where the consequences for failure are fatal. I try to take risks where even if there is some failure, it’s manageable failure and as long as I can have more successes with the risks that I’m taking and keep the unsuccessful ventures to a minimum, then you can continue moving forward. I think that’s probably the best way I would describe the growth of Metro Mattress over the last 14 years. Not every risk we took paid off. We have tried growing the business and went into several initiatives with the best hopes, but unfortunately, some did not bear fruit. Fortunately, there have been so many that did pay off that they vastly overshadowed the risks we took that went nowhere.
JEFF: Have you always been drawn to leadership roles growing up?
DAVE: I am not one of these people who believe that leaders are born and I think that most people I meet in business can develop into great leaders. I think it’s taught. I grew up always being involved and loving sports, and therefore, I had a strong sense of competitiveness about me. I always hated to lose even more than I loved to win.
I went to law school with many smart people. I really don’t regard myself as an intellectual champion of any sort, but the one skill that I do think that I was blessed with is that I’m a great team builder. I’m a great recruiter of people and I have the ability to share a vision of what I think an organization can become and then attract top-flight talent that will share that vision and just ultimately take a leap of faith with me and the company. What we’ve built at Metro Mattress is actually one of the most incredible and most talented teams, not only in our industry but I would suggest of any company our size in the United States.
We have so much talent at Metro Mattress, and ultimately, that’s what matters. Championship-winning teams in sports have a common thread — most of them have great coaching and great talent. I think you need both.
I have been able to attract great coaches to the company, and I think along with those coaches, we’ve been able to attract great talent at every level. I think that’s what has enabled Metro Mattress to win a lot of championships.
JEFF: If I were to go out on the floor and ask one of your most talented team members, “What’s Dave’s leadership style like?” how do you think he/she would respond?
DAVE: I would expect that most of them would say, “He leads by example. He talks the talk but he walks the walk. He’s not afraid to get right in the trenches with us but he’s also somebody that is never going to ask any member of the team to work any harder or do any more than he does himself.” I think they know that I’m not a guy that’s out there taking a million vacations a year, or playing golf a lot. I love to work. I’m a builder. My passion is building things, and I have loved building this business.
JEFF: Talk a little bit about the culture you have built at Metro Mattress and what steps have you taken to make that happen?
DAVE: I would say that the two consistent themes of our culture in the last 15 years, are: one, a culture of accountability, where results are ultimately what’s going to dictate advancement; and two, a “pay it forward” mentality within the communities that we serve.
We are a company that has been in business for 40 years. The only way a company can survive, let alone thrive, for 40 years is if the community supports the business. We really feel that we have a duty within the communities that we serve to support them and to give back. So we’ve become one of the more philanthropic and community centric organizations in upstate New York. It is this “pay it forward” mentality that we have that gives back to the very communities that have enabled us to achieve so much.
JEFF: What is the one example of giving back that you’re most proud of and can say, “This is what Metro Mattress is all about”?
DAVE: Well, it’s impossible to choose just one. I’m extremely proud of the work that we’ve done with our 50 Beds in 50 Days Program. By the end of this year, we will have donated 1,000 mattresses to people in upstate New York, many of whom have never even had a mattress, who have been either sleeping on a sofa, on the floor, or in a sleeping bag. We have focused that program on helping women and children who have been the victims of abuse, helping veterans who have defended our country, and supporting the homeless.
My wife and I sit on the board of the Jim and Juli Boeheim Foundation. We are huge advocates of that organization and dedicate a lot of time and resources to an organization that has now given back over $1 million to not-for-profits in just the first three years in Central New York. These dollars will go to provide for at-risk and needy children in this community and also toward the fight against cancer, focusing on research and advocacy. It makes me feel pretty good that we just finished our seventh year at the Jim Boeheim Golf Classic, for which Metro Mattress is the presenting sponsor. Next year, we’ll go over $1 million raised at this event, which is pretty good for a golf tournament.
JEFF: What does Metro Mattress look like for 2015? It seems like you’ve got a lot of momentum moving into the New Year.
DAVE: I think 2015 shapes up to be a very good year for our company. Between now and the end of 2014, we’re going to open up at least another three or four stores. We already have several more planned for next year, so we’ve kind of now reached that point in our evolution and in our growth where we’re operating in the realm of critical mass. That allows you to take on some bigger initiatives and bigger challenges, which can potentially yield bigger rewards. I would say that 2015 will be a really interesting year for us as we kind of segue from being a smaller company into maybe a medium-sized company. I’m more excited about Metro Mattress than I’ve ever been in my 15 years here.
About the author: Jeff Knauss is president and partner of a digital-marketing firm called CNY Marketer (www.cnymarketer.com). He lives in Camillus with his wife Heta and son Max. For more, check out his blog at www.CnyCeo.org