AN AC­CI­DEN­TAL EN­TRE­PRE­NEUR

NZ Business - - NEWS - BY A NNIE G R AY AN­NIE GRAY IS ED­I­TOR OF MAN­AGE­MENT.

Ralph Behrens could be de­scribed as an ac­ci­den­tal en­tre­pre­neur who has some­what re­luc­tantly ac­cepted his Nat­u­ral Beds busi­ness needs to grow.

RALPH BEHRENS COULD BE DE­SCRIBED AS AN AC­CI­DEN­TAL EN­TRE­PRE­NEUR WHO HAS SOME­WHAT RE­LUC­TANTLY AC­CEPTED HIS NAT­U­RAL BEDS BUSI­NESS NEEDS TO GROW. BUT, HE MAIN­TAINS, HE RUNS THE BUSI­NESS; IT DOESN’T RUN HIM.

Ralph Behrens has led an in­ter­est­ing and some­what al­ter­na­tive life, ini­tially learn­ing his trade in an Amer­i­can Ashram. To­day he owns Nat­u­ral Beds which, from a work­shop in Ora­tia, West Auck­land, pro­duces hand-made la­tex mat­tresses, fu­ton mat­tresses and slat beds, and it’s in growth-mode.

Ralph came to New Zealand 30 years ago, with his [now for­mer] Kiwi wife.

Ger­man-born, he had been liv­ing in Aus­tralia and in the early 1980s was part of In­dian guru Ra­jneesh’s or­gan­i­sa­tion. Dur­ing this pe­riod, he took on the job of help­ing es­tab­lish an Ashram in Ore­gon in the United States.

When the cou­ple re­turned to Aus­tralia they took on “a bit of fu­ton mak­ing” which they had learnt at the Ashram, start­ing from their back yard in Syd­ney and later mov­ing the busi­ness to New Zealand.

He’s not in­volved with the Ashram move­ment now, but has fond mem­o­ries and no re­grets. He sees it to­day more as a com­mu­nity or­gan­i­sa­tion, which is about self­aware­ness and know­ing your­self.

And that does trans­late, in many ways, into busi­ness. Ralph has done a lot of work in the area of self-improvement and it car­ries over to the way he deals with peo­ple and with the busi­ness it­self.

“I don’t like the busi­ness run­ning me; I don’t like to be taken over by some­thing like a busi­ness. It needs to serve me, not me serv­ing the busi­ness.”

With the first bed busi­ness, the cou­ple felt it was in­deed run­ning their lives and so sold it and took time to travel over­seas with their, then, nine-year-old son, in­clud­ing a stint trav­el­ling in Mon­go­lia hitch-hik­ing around the coun­try in old Rus­sian trucks.

On their re­turn to New Zealand they started Fu­tonNZ (now called Nat­u­ral Beds) in 2000, which makes la­tex mat­tresses us­ing la­tex from Sri Lanka, wrapped in wool from New Zealand and cov­ered in or­ganic cot­ton from Aus­tralia.

La­tex mat­tresses are or­ganic and sus­tain­able, made from the sap of the rub­ber tree. La­tex is odour free, fire re­sis­tant and non-toxic. It’s nat­u­rally dust re­sis­tant and is anti-bac­te­rial, anti-mi­cro­bial and anti-fun­gal. It’s also good for those with back prob­lems be­cause the den­sity of the la­tex makes it ther­a­peu­ti­cally sup­port­ive.

Ralph says la­tex mat­tresses have a huge range of den­sity from very soft to very firm. “It’s the thing that makes us unique.” The com­pany was the first in New Zealand to be able to change the lay­ers in the mat­tress at any time and fine-tune it to suit the cus­tomer’s needs. This is a free ser­vice for up to three months af­ter the sale and it’s a big sell­ing point.

The com­pany sells mainly di­rectly to cus­tomers, not other com­pa­nies “be­cause other re­tail­ers are the worst cus­tomers you can imag­ine,” as they don’t al­ways pay promptly.

With di­rect sup­ply he knows they are of­fer­ing very good ser­vice. “You can’t do that through a third party.”

TO GROW OR NOT TO GROW

I don’t like the busi­ness run­ning me; I don’t like to be taken over by some­thing like a busi­ness.”

Ralph says he has been learn­ing re­cently that you can’t pull the reins back on a busi­ness, He has been tempted to do so to try and con­sol­i­date and keep things as they are – but re­alises you can’t get away with that. “You have to keep grow­ing and that calls for some hard de­ci­sions. The busi­ness would just die if I hadn’t recog­nised over the last cou­ple of years that un­less you al­low for growth and pro­mote growth you will be in dan­ger. You have to look for­ward and look at ways of grow­ing the busi­ness.”

He ad­mits these are good prob­lems to have. The busi­ness is grow­ing strongly and pro­duc­tion is up, so much so that his ar­eas of con­cern are around the size of the show­room, staffing and stor­age.

One of his busi­ness tenets is loy­alty to sup­pli­ers and Ralph says he is hard to budge once he has found a good sup­plier.

Over the years he has found that busi­ness is all about peo­ple and that drives a lot of what his com­pany does, whether it be cus­tomers or staff – “what they need and what they want and how to ac­com­mo­date all that with­out giv­ing too much of your­self away”.

Per­son­ally he finds mar­ket­ing is the trick­i­est part of a busi­ness and know­ing how to get it right. He has burnt him­self a num­ber of times with dif­fer­ent mar­ket­ing av­enues and says be­ing able to say no to peo­ple is im­por­tant.

When they started their first busi­ness 28 years ago a friend was work­ing for a ra­dio sta­tion and Ralph spent $3000 on ra­dio advertising, which was a huge amount of money at the time.

Mar­ket­ing these days is through Google and some Yel­low Pages advertising but he be­lieves that on­line advertising is the way of the fu­ture.

Ralph’s mes­sage to as­pir­ing en­trepreneurs is that you must pri­mar­ily en­joy what you are do­ing and feel good about what you are do­ing.

“If you are not there you are not go­ing to suc­ceed. Don’t al­low your­self to be pushed into buy­ing things and tak­ing up all sorts of pro­pos­als. A lot of peo­ple will come to you with of­fers but you need to be very care­ful about spend­ing money on advertising and mar­ket­ing.” And his fi­nal word? “Most of all you need to be able to re­lax, and not be run by the busi­ness and get stressed by it. You need to have a life.”

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