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Innerviews: Mattress queen lives American dream

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- She's the poster lady for Mattress Warehouse, the elegant blonde featured on billboards and in other company ads. A bigger-than-life portrait covers the windows at the newest location at Riverwalk Plaza.

That's Kim Knopf, the 54-year-old entrepreneurial wunderkind.

In sixth grade, when assigned to write about the American dream, she had to look up the meaning. Today, she defines the American dream herself, a classic bootstrap success story.

She grew up in modest circumstances and worked even as a youngster to pay her tuition to an elite Catholic school in Louisville. She worked to earn money for college.

She wanted to be a diplomat and travel. Instead, fate landed her in the mattress business. At age 23, starting with a single franchise, she built an ever growing empire of 150 mattress stores in six states.

This bedtime business story has happily ever after written all over it.

• • •

"I grew up in Louisville, Ky., the oldest of five children. My dad was a salesman and then started his own business, so he was somewhat entrepreneurial, and he was into athletics, very competitive. When my dad started the business, my mother began bookkeeping.

"With five kids, my parents worked very hard to put us through Catholic schools, although most of the siblings paid a very large portion of the tuition. So we learned at a very early age about the importance of a work ethic.

"Early on, say third grade, I started playing basketball at the church and school. That was an early influence.

"Probably one of the best things my parents did was moving to the best Catholic high school, Sacred Heart Academy, when I was in eighth grade. I'm still friends with those girls who go all the way back to eighth grade.

"They had a lot of great sports. We were state basketball champs in 1977. I was class officer my senior year and president of student council, but neither of my parents went to college, so I didn't know how to get into college.

"So when everybody went off that summer to have their last big fling, I worked at a grocery store from midnight until 7 or 8. Then I got a retail job in a bed and bath store. I got a chance to help them put the store together. Trucks would come in and we would off load them and stock the shelves.

"They gave me the opportunity to be a sales person. I was not yet 18. I learned to enjoy that interaction with customers and learned a lot about different styles and designs.

"I finally made enough to go to UK [the University of Kentucky]. I was in and out of different programs. I joined a sorority and was on the student center board for several years.

"I was a junior and still didn't have a declared major. I liked the idea of international relations and being a diplomat and seeing the world. I loved the idea of leadership and conflict management and group dynamics.

"UK had an interdisciplinary major before international business was a discipline. So I put that together. I studied Third World countries. I did an undergraduate thesis and graduated in four and a half years. When I got out, I wasn't sure what to do.

"I met Ken when we were both on the student board at UK. He was going to law school. We eventually got married.

"I ended up going back to study business. I took an international law class and accounting. This was 1982 when the recession was starting. I didn't know anyone in Washington D.C., so I didn't know how I was going to get to Washington and be a diplomat or get into the political field. I didn't have any savings, and I had student loans.

"I started looking in Lexington and talking with the Small Business Development Authority. I was working with Northwestern Mutual and learned a lot about sales and people.

"That was my first professional job, and I took it seriously. I was a 23-year-old kid. I dressed up every day and did everything they told me to do, but I missed retail. I was driving around town in an un-air-conditioned car and always waiting in someone's office. I wanted a job where customers would come to me. That's one of the things I began to know about myself.

"I saw an ad in the paper for a manager in a mattress store. So I went there and met this guy, Bill Brown, and he was like a father figure to me. I told him we were probably going to move to West Virginia because my husband was from there and had a job there. He said they hadn't opened any locations there and I should talk to the guy who started this company, Mattress Warehouse.

"We started with a franchise, but the franchise did not do all they said they were going to do. We went through some litigation and we ended up owning those intellectual property rights. He sold to another guy who went into bankruptcy and died, so we bought those assets in Cleveland, which is how, 10 years ago, we started moving outside of West Virginia.

"For the first 20 years, we were in West Virginia. Our first store was on Seventh Avenue across from Rose City in South Charleston, not far from here.

"I had to learn about everything. My father-in-law worked at Union Carbide, and he would come down on his lunch hour and weekends and spell me, and my husband would come down on in evenings and weekends. I had to learn bookkeeping, accounting, taxes, financial statements, merchandising, recruiting, interviewing, advertising.

"I was one of the first females in our industry. It's still totally male-dominated.

"I was 23 and breaking into this new world. I was trying to get vendors to give me credit.

"I would go to the market, and they would ignore me. I would sit there until they finished talking to all their other clients, and then they would talk to me. At some point, they finally started taking me seriously.

"We were opening one store at a time. We put as many stores into West Virginia as we thought we could. It wasn't until 10 years ago that we thought about some real expansion. We did 20 stores in our first 20 years and did 130 in the next 10 years. It stretched every part of the organization.

"After the first 20 years, most of the team felt like we could do this in our sleep. We needed a challenge. When our anniversary came in 2003, we closed the stores, and I took everybody to The Greenbrier, including our warehouse staff. We needed to pause. We needed to celebrate.

"Everybody wants to be challenged and work for a company that's growing. People get energized by growth. They don't want status quo. Most people are driven to excel and to learn.

"In 2008, things started to slow down. In 2009, we only opened one store. Then the real estate market became so good that we started opening up. There were a lot of landlords making special deals and concessions.

"We had double-digit growth through the recession and didn't lay anybody off. It was scary. Chains were going out of business. There were massive layoffs and financial markets were crashing. I think we had a lot of focus and were able to execute and we continued to advertise when most people pulled back.

"There's so much to do all the time. That's part of what I love about retail. It's fast-paced, high energy, always a challenge. You are always having to think.

"I'm really hands-on. I've been gone nine days, got home Sunday and I'm leaving today until Sunday, so it's constant. But I want to be tied into the community, know the advertisers, the people in the chamber, our employees.

"We have over 500 employees. Last year, we had four Christmas parties, so that was a lot of travel. But I like that personal touch. That family environment is very much a part of our culture.

"I'm pretty plugged into the industry. I stay on top of what's going on with components, organic foams, the adjustable bases. I think we'll start to hear a lot more about organic foams.

"People are into their health, what they're eating and how much exercise they get. The third component is sleep. You need a solid eight hours, and most people don't get that. A good mattress will help them go into REM faster.

"At 26, I had the first child, at 30, the second child. Working through all that, trying to balance it, was challenging.

"If I had to go to a market or a conference, my mother or Ken's mother and stepmother would take the girls for a week. I want to be able to do that when my kids have children.

"About 10 years ago, my husband left his law firm to stay home with the kids. He's been a great help. Then he became a pilot. Last year, we did acquisitions in Alabama and Nashville. He flies me all over the place. We have over 150 stores in six states. It's a lot to keep up with.

"I'd like to get an MBA or some advance degree. I love to learn. I mentor for a women's program at UK. I am so excited to be around these young minds. I want to do something to do with college. I've been asked to do a couple of classes.

"In the sixth grade, I was asked to write about the American dream. I had to look it up in the encyclopedia. I'd have to say I have lived that American dream. But it's not over.

 "I still want to do something on the international level, maybe a temporary assignment. I would love to figure out that piece. Everybody wants to do a book. I'd like to figure out the topic. Another thing is to help other women entrepreneurs figure out how they can have their dream."

Reach Sandy Wells at sandyw@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5173.


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