'Mattress Mack' swiftly turned furniture stores into shelters from storm
HOUSTON -- Jim "Mattress Mack" McIngvale tears open a sack of mixed candy and spills the little chocolate bars, lollipops and other treats onto a table at the front of his sprawling furniture store.
Free candy is just one of the many things McIngvale, 66, has offered for nearly 40 years to entice customers into his Gallery Furniture stores. And it's one small sign that something resembling normalcy is returning to parts of this city even as hundreds of flood victims still stand in line in his parking lot to pick up water bottles, cleaning supplies and donated shoes.
McIngvale grew up in Dallas and attended Bishop Lynch High School. But he has become an icon in Houston for his brash but endearing style. His TV commercials have featured him jumping up and down, waving wads of cash and promising to SAVE YOU MONEY! In some ads, he's wearing a mattress suit. There's proof on YouTube.
But in the last two weeks, Mattress Mack, the canny businessman, has become Shelter Mack, the beloved philanthropist. Not only did he open his doors to hundreds left homeless by the storm, he sent out his furniture trucks to rescue them. Children, parents, grandparents. Entire families, including pets. Then he fed them and let them sleep on mattresses worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. They slept on king beds, they slept on sofas, they slept on recliners, wherever they could get comfortable.
"Think a slumber party on steroids," he said.
After the storm made landfall Friday evening, Aug. 25, McIngvale stayed overnight at his flagship store on Interstate 45, about 10 miles north of downtown. He went home that Saturday night and woke up Sunday morning to attend Mass, like he does every Sunday, at Assumption Catholic Church. He never made it. The streets were flooded. By the time he got to his I-45 store that afternoon, people were calling and emailing him for help.
He posted a video that night on his Facebook page telling people they could find shelter at two of his three furniture stores. He even gave out his personal cellphone number.
He sent his furniture trucks out into the night to rescue people stranded on street corners, 7-Elevens and fire stations. One truck, with about a half-dozen people inside, stalled out in deep water.
One of his managers, Anthony Lebedzinski, went out in another truck to retrieve the evacuees and almost drowned. As Lebedzinski waded through the oily water, feeling with his feet for a path, he suddenly fell into an open manhole. As he was being sucked down, his hands and arms caught his fall on the edge of the hole, and he managed to pull himself free. He thinks he could have been pulled all the way into the San Jacinto River.
"It wasn't my time," said the 36-year-old Lebedzinski, who like nearly everyone at the furniture store hasn't taken a day off since the storm hit. Mack the Motivator told him: "It was a one in a million shot and you came out on top."
For about a week after the storm, McIngvale's stores were filled with hundreds of people whose homes were flooded, along with some National Guard troops. He wasn't worried about people sleeping on the plastic-covered mattresses, telling folks "that's what they're made for."
Before long, he was also getting the word out that people needed cleaning supplies, diapers and other practical goods. Donations have arrived by the truckload.
On Monday evening, one truck pulled up from California. "It's not just Texans helping Texans, the whole country is helping us out," Lebedzinski said.
McIngvale rarely stands still. Though now stoop-shouldered, gray-haired and at an age when many people retire, he's been working 18-hour days. A self-described control freak, he's out in the parking lot every day, in his white ballcap, purple polo shirt, black pants and sneakers. One minute, he's directing traffic. The next, he's posing for a picture with a woman whose parents bought their furniture from him. Now, she said she needs help with cleaning supplies. "Thank you, Mr. McIngvale," she said, shaking his hand.
He walks past a long line of people waiting for cleaning supplies and points out the volunteers sorting the donations in his 100,000-square-foot warehouse. One is Bobbie White, who slows McIngvale down long enough to tell him that her parents won a bedroom suite in 1988 in one of his raffles. "It was worth $3,800 back then," she said. "Imagine how much it would cost today."
A minute later, he runs into a young man who came to volunteer and ended up a full-time hire. Ariel Rodriguez, 25, said his parents had bought McIngvale's furniture over the years, so he decided to lend a hand. McIngvale took an instant liking to Rodriguez. "He's great with people, really good."
Then McIngvale is back at the front entrance, putting out the candy, checking his phone for messages, barking orders to his employees, shaking another hand.
He seems to know nearly everyone who comes through the door. He yells goodbye to a man leaving. "See him? He's crying," McIngvale says. "He's lost everything."
It's that attention to detail and customers' needs that has helped make him successful enough that when the Houston Rockets were for sale, his name surfaced as a potential buyer. Last week, the Rockets announced that Tilman Fertitta, a billionaire businessman, had bought the club, pending approval by the NBA's Board of Governors.
"I was a long shot," McIngvale said.
From Dallas to Houston
From the outset, McIngvale was a bit of a long shot. Born in Mississippi, his family moved to Dallas near Mesquite. "I'm an old East Dallas boy and proud of it, too," he said.
After graduating from Bishop Lynch, he played football for two years at University of Texas in Austin. He rode the bench when Darrell Royal's teams won a national championship and competed for another. "I was a great football player with only two problems," he said, deadpanning: "I was too small and too slow."
McIngvale lettered for North Texas as a linebacker in 1972 and 1973 under Rod Rust and Hayden Fry, and although he left before graduating, he later became a key booster for the school's athletic program. McIngvale donated $1 million toward the construction of the Mean Green Athletic Center, which opened in 2005 and was a key early step toward the building of Apogee Stadium.
McIngvale says he got into the furniture business "because I needed a job." He worked for two years at Century Furniture in Dallas and then decided to move to Houston where his brother lived.
He invested $5,000 of his own money and that of his girlfriend, Linda, who told him she would move to Houston only if they got married. He agreed, and they were married in 1981, the year he opened up his store. They have three children and adopted another.
His famous catchphrase originated about two years later when he decided to make his first commercial. After many takes, McIngvale grew frustrated. He finally pulled some cash out of his pocket, waved it in front of the camera and yelled: "Gallery Furniture saves you money."
The phrase caught on and business has been good ever since.
He's done charity work over the years. When Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in 2005, he put a sign outside his store that said, "Louisiana residents sleep here free." Several hundred stayed for a few days.
He thinks it's important as a parent to leave a legacy of service and volunteerism for his children and grandchildren.
"I want them to see their mother and father doing this," he said. "This is what my parents taught me."
His son, James, works for his father at the store. One of his daughters lives in Austin. His other daughter, Elizabeth, has dealt with severe obsessive-compulsive disorder for much of her life but still managed to earn a Ph.D. in social work. She's now an assistant professor at Baylor University.
"If she can handle something like that, I can handle this," McIngvale said.
Strength in struggle
That night when the floodwaters swamped Houston and people were pleading for his help, and he made his Facebook video urging Houstonians to pull together in their time of need, he remembered to end with daughter Elizabeth's favorite saying. It seemed to make perfect sense at a time like this: "If not for our struggles, we would not know our strengths."
That's what he thinks about now. How he gains strength in the struggle.
A woman who's been shopping for a new mattress stops on her way out to tell him she'll be back tomorrow to volunteer. "What time y'all need me?" she asks him.
"As early as possible, we start at 5 a.m," he says.
He heads back into the store. He's got furniture to sell. And storm victims to help.
"All hands on deck," he shouts.