weather icon Windy

Who is this ‘Mattress Mack,’ and why does he do what he does?

HOUSTON — So who is Mattress Mack anyway, this guy who lost $13 million on wagers in Las Vegas and elsewhere when the Houston Astros lost the World Series? And why does he do what he does?

His name is Jim McIngvale. He’s 68, a force of nature who works seven days a week and runs 5 miles a day. He started out selling furniture under tents on the side of the freeway. From there, he built Gallery Furniture into one of the top furniture retailers in the country, with more than $200 million in annual sales revenue at its three Houston locations.

He’s also a humanitarian and philanthropist who has donated tens of millions of dollars to the community, employs a full-time social worker to help those in need and most notably acted as a first responder and turned his stores into shelters for refugees during hurricanes Harvey and Katrina and other natural disasters.

But he sees himself in far less grandiose terms.

“I’m just a huckster retailer trying to grind it out every day. Half capitalist and half social worker,” he said. “That’s all I ever wanted to be. What’s heroic about opening a damn furniture store and letting people come in? What am I going to do, let them drown? I can’t do that.

“We can always replace a piece of furniture. We can’t replace these human beings.”

Mattress Mack, who earned his nickname from wearing mattresses during wacky television commercials he credits with saving his business in the early ’80s, has furnished the homes of 30 underprivileged families for Christmas the past 36 years, feeds thousands of people on Thanksgiving and recently treated nuns, Gold Star families and kids with cancer to World Series games.

Mack said that his father inspired him to be generous and that the ultimate goal in life for him and his wife, Linda, is to make a difference.

“It’s not about me. It’s about helping make the community a better place,” he said. “That’s what I’m trying to do: to establish a legacy of my wife and I that maybe we made the community a little better.”

Hedging their bets

He’s doing that through the fortune he’s amassed through his furniture store, using promotions such as the one involving his hometown Astros. McIngvale placed more than $13 million in bets on them this year to hedge a potential $20 million loss on a promotion that offered a refund on any mattress purchase of $3,000 or more if Houston won it all.

The Astros lost to the Washington Nationals in seven games, but some customers who took part in the promotion hedged their bets as well.

“We bought a Tempur-Pedic and we loved the mattress, but we really thought the Astros were going to win,” said Houston resident Holly Matkins, 35. “We spent $5,000, but in the seventh game we bet $1,000 on the Nationals, so we got $1,500 back.”

Matkins was with her two young children at Club Westside, an expansive family fitness and tennis facility owned by McIngvale and run by his wife.

“We love Mattress Mack,” she said. “He’s great for the community. When Harvey hit, he really helped out Houston. He’s wonderful.”

With the Astros listed as the 5-1 favorites to win the 2020 World Series, Mack already has implemented a “Win It All Get It All 2020” promotion that will again refund any mattress purchase of $3,000 or more if Houston wins it all next year.

“I do it because the customers like it and they have a good time with it, and that’s what it’s all about,” Mack said.

He refunded $12 million in the same promotion in 2017, when Houston won the World Series. But he offset most of the loss through bets at Las Vegas sportsbooks.

However, Mack took a big hit in 2014, when he refunded $8 million on a similar promotion after the Seattle Seahawks upset the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl XLVIII. He didn’t hedge his bets on the Broncos or insure the promotion, much to the chagrin of Mrs. Mack.

“I was too nervous to sweat the game,” he said. “So during the game, I was on the treadmill — that’s my only form of relaxation — for three hours. Finally, my wife called and I said, ‘Who won?’ She said, ‘Seattle won, dummy. We’re out $8 million dollars.’ That was a lot.”

A humble beginning

A member of the University of Texas football teams that won back-to-back national titles in 1969 and 1970, McIngvale and his new bride moved to Houston in 1981 to open his own furniture store with $5,000 and a pickup truck.

When McIngvale told Linda that they were moving to Houston to open a furniture store, she was his girlfriend. She said she’d go only if they got married first.

“So I thought to myself, ‘This woman has put me in a difficult position.’ But then I came up with an entrepreneurial brainstorm,” he said. “Where else can I come up with an employee this cheap? So I said, ‘You’ve got a deal.’”

The newlyweds slept in their furniture store, which had been converted from an abandoned model home park, for the first couple of years to guard against theft, and the business grew quickly during an oil boom in Houston. But the boom quickly turned to bust, and the McIngvales were down to their last $10,000.

“We were just about to go out of business, and I took the last money I had and bet the entire company on television advertising,” Mack said. “I kept stuttering and stammering and couldn’t come up with a punchline. Out of sheer frustration, I had the day’s receipts in my pocket and I pulled them out and said, ‘Gallery Furniture will save you money.’

“That was my tagline and it’s stuck ever since.”

The business was further fueled by its guarantee of same-day delivery, and fast-talking Mattress Mack quickly earned his nickname from his high-energy TV spots.

Billing itself as the “most exciting furniture store on the planet,” Gallery Furniture today has an indoor playground and a “Texas-sized mattress” for kids, exotic birds and Capuchin monkeys, and free drinks and snacks, including cookies and ice cream, for customers.

“We have to keep them happy. Most furniture stores, God bless them, are as boring as going to the dentist, so we make it fun and exciting,” he said. “It’s like the Las Vegas model. If they don’t have a good experience, they’ll stay home and buy in their underwear on Amazon.

“Amazon and all of them can do high-tech very well, but they can’t do high-touch. That’s what we’re trying to do. That’s why I do those promotions.’”

Shelter from storms

The phrase “Everything is bigger in Texas” certainly applies to McIngvale’s huge heart.

A practicing Catholic with an unshakable faith, McIngvale first opened the doors of his stores to refugees from Hurricane Katrina, which caused more than 1,200 deaths in 2005, mostly in New Orleans.

“After Katrina, thousands of people from New Orleans evacuated to Houston. We put a sign on our billboard, ‘Louisiana residents sleep free here,’” Mack said. “We’d done it before, so opening it up again for Hurricane Harvey was no big deal.”

It was definitely a big deal to the 400 people who took refuge at Gallery Furniture, where they slept, bathed and ate free of charge for several days after fleeing their homes during catastrophic flooding caused by the 2017 hurricane.

Before the storm, Mack rented a bunch of heavy-duty trucks to rescue people. When the hurricane hit, he offered rescue services and shelter through the media. When some of his drivers couldn’t make it to his store, he gave his trucks to volunteers with a commercial driver’s license.

“We didn’t care about the liability. We didn’t care about nothing,” he said. “We cared about the people.”

McIngvale and his wife also have been huge advocates of mental health since their daughter, Elizabeth McIngvale, was diagnosed at age 12 with severe obsessive compulsive disorder . She eventually learned how to manage it and founded the Peace of Mind Foundation to help others deal with mental illness.

After suffering multiple mini-strokes, McIngvale funded a mobile stroke unit in Houston. In honor of his father and brother, who died of congestive heart failure, McIngvale has donated millions in recent years to fund the research and development of a total artificial heart.

“If he keeps making those Astros bets, I’m going to need the first one,” Linda quipped over dinner with Dr. Bud Frazier, a renowned Houston heart surgeon who hopes to have an artificial heart ready for human use within a year.

Mack also has enlisted the help of NASA to test the reliability of the artificial heart.

“It’s a moon-shot project,” Mack said. “I have a high tolerance for risk, as you know.”

Contact reporter Todd Dewey at tdewey@reviewjournal.com. Follow @tdewey33 on Twitter.

Don't miss the big stories. Like us on Facebook.