Did Mattress Firm expand too quickly?
Mattress Firm has three stores in Austin, Texas, within half a mile of one another. In Winston-Salem, North Carolina, it has two stores with identical hours at about the same distance. Schererville, Indiana (population 28,701), once had five shops less than a block apart.
While retailers across the U.S. were shuttering outlets and more commerce was moving online, the mattress company was bucking the trend, going from about 700 locations to 3,500 in five years before filing for protection from creditors last month.
Was it the breakneck growth alone that landed Mattress Firm Inc. in bankruptcy court? Or, as the company claims in a lawsuit filed last year, did a pair of greedy executives – taking advantage of the strategy to skim money off its real estate deals and enrich an outside accomplice – help it get there?
The answer may hold lessons for America’s biggest mattress seller now that it has emerged from bankruptcy court after a fast-track restructuring.
The company blamed overexpansion and abovemarket rents in its bankruptcy filing and jettisoned about a fifth of its stores in the restructuring. But it faces a small army of online retailers like the fast-growing Casper. And it is returning to the market as its owner, Steinhoff International Holdings NV, works its way through an accounting scandal that pre-dated its purchase of Mattress Firm and has wiped out some $13.7 billion of the global retailing giant’s market value.
Mattress Firm was clear from the start about its growth strategy, saying in its 2011 regulatory filings, “We intend to aggressive- ly open additional stores in our existing markets, which may diminish sales by existing stores in those markets.”
But the company says in its suit it isn’t entirely to blame: Two executives allegedly conspired with a real estate broker in a “bribery, kickback and fraud scheme” to push the Houston-based retailer into expensive locations – it declined to say how many – based on phony sales forecasts.
According to the suit, Bruce Levy, the former head of real estate, and Ryan Vinson, a former vice president, let the broker, Alexander Deitch, oversee deals in a halfdozen states and “frontrun” some of them, tipping him off to the next outlet’s location so he could secretly buy it himself while reaping millions in fees.
In return, Mattress Firm claims, Levy and Vinson got diamonds, a Roger Dubuis watch, European vacations and stakes in other real estate deals. One Florida property allegedly came complete with a yacht.
The three men deny the allegations in court papers and say they’re being scapegoated by Mattress Firm. Levy used to scout out properties for the defunct video chain Blockbuster LLC and was hired in 2008 to quarterback Mattress Firm’s explosive growth plan, he said.
“The company was hellbent on owning most of the mattress stores in the country” to exact deep discounts from suppliers, Levy said in an interview. To him it’s simple. “We went from being the executors of the company’s strategy” to being its fall guys, he said. “And we’re calling BS.”
The lawsuit also names Colliers International, where Deitch was a broker. Colliers denies the allegations and is “vigorously defending” itself against the suit, spokesman Matthew Hawkins said.
Vinson declined to be interviewed.
Mattress Firm said in court filings that Levy “was the entrusted leader of Mattress Firm’s real estate committee meetings, where the company decided what markets to enter into, what developers to use, what locations to lease and what lease terms to accept,” and that he “repeatedly breached that trust” through conflicts of interest.
Spokeswoman Sunni Goodman said in an email that “nothing in Mattress Firm’s corporate culture, policies or business goals contemplated or allowed trusted executives” to engage in the misconduct alleged in the suit. She declined to comment on whether the retailer had turned over its bribery allegations to law enforcement.
Mattress Firm blamed overexpansion and above-market rents in its bankruptcy filing, though online competition may have had a role also. It closed about a fifth of its stores.