Henson’s mission? Helping customers get a good night’s sleep

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Published: April 14,2008

David Henson wants people to get a good night’s sleep. A step in that direction is for them to purchase a mattress pad or pillow from his Tupelo-based Henson Sleep Relief Inc. (HSR)

Sure, the foam products won’t guarantee more restful slumber, but they almost certainly won’t hurt.

Posting $10 million in sales last year, Henson’s 23-year-old manufacturing firm has evidently found a niche that needed filling.

Standing among high stacks of huge foam blocks called “buns,” the 50-year-old Henson explains the process of changing buns to pads. They are moved through huge slicers, bandsaws with smooth, sharp vertical blades that cut the blocks to proper dimensions to fit bed sizes ranging from twin to king.

“Every customer primarily has their own specs,” Henson says. “We make what the customer wants.” Those customers range from “dollar” discount stores to other retailers including, indirectly, Wal-Mart and other high-end stores.

The customers’ specifications come into play in the next step of the process, where the blocks are loaded onto a turntable. They revolve around and are sliced by a horizontal blade to thicknesses specified by the customer. The blade drops a predetermined notch with every revolution of the turntable, which is loaded with several buns.

Henson points out that higher-end retailers like Belk usually sell a thicker mattress pad than most of the dollar stores, hence the usually higher price at the upscale stores.

The sliced pads, which are actually twice as thick as they will be when finished, move to a dimpling machine that simultaneously slices the pads in half once again. Workers like Tracy Jones feed the pads into one side of the machine, where the dimples are pressed into it, while Nora Fair pulls the dimpled pair off the other side.

Linda Bean and Frances Brown team up to fold the pads, place them on racks and send them to be packaged.

“You put them under the sheets to add thickness,” Henson explains of the pads. Expensive mattresses usually have the pad — called “pillow top” — built in.

Henson Sleep Relief’s general manager, Dale Helms, says the firm employs 32 most of the time, but swell to as many as 80 during busy times — November and December to meet demand for January white sales and June and July for back-to-school sales in August.

Helms says the workers earn $8 to $12 per hour. “We’ve been very lucky to find good, dependable people.”

Of the 100,000 square feet of space HSR occupies, Helms says one-third is dedicated to manufacturing and materials storage. The remaining two-thirds is used for finished-product storage and shipping.

With the exception of pillow covers for its line of foam pillows, Henson reports that all materials, including boxes and bags for packaging, are procured domestically. Most of the foam comes from a half-dozen or so “foamers” located in the furniture-intensive region of Northeast Mississippi.

“We can definitely stay within margins using domestic vendors,” he states.

Henson’s products are sold in the world’s largest retailer, Wal-Mart, but they’re there by contract to Springs Global, a worldwide maker of towels and other household fabric goods (Wamsutta is one of Springs’ brands) so don’t bear any of the HSR brand names.

“We had a relationship with Wal-Mart, but we lost ‘em,” Henson relates. It was a loss that, while not a good thing, wasn’t all bad, either. Henson says that the scare stories of Wal-Mart virtually taking over and running their vendors’ businesses, however vicariously, are certainly true in many cases.

“We never put our business in jeopardy by being in Wal-Mart,” Henson recalls, explaining he didn’t purchase any additional equipment or hire anymore workers to accommodate the retailing giant. “We didn’t put Wal-Mart in a position to let them run our business.”

Forming the corporate partnership with Springs offered the best of both worlds. HSR sells its products in the hundreds of Wal-Mart stores but has been able to use Springs as a buffer.

“When we met with Springs,” Henson says, “we told them we wanted our autonomy.”

Henson estimates his cost of equipment at approximately $1 million. “We have one machine that, alone, costs $350,000.”

At present, Henson calls HSR’s business “fair, not great but fair.” He has no concrete plans to make any major changes in the manufacturing or marketing processes.

“We do need to have an offsite distribution center and office in the Chicago area since we’re up there all the time,” Henson says of HSR’s dealings in that region. “We have almost done it two or three times but backed off.”

Contact MBJ contributing writer C. Richard Cotton at rcotton4@earthlink.com .

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