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How I Made It: Larry Miller, Sit 'n Sleep mattress chain's CEO

Miller is known for starring in numerous TV and radio ads over the years and for his catchphrase, 'Or your mattress is freeee!'

March 25, 2012|By Shan Li, Los Angeles Times
  • Larry Miller, CEO of the Sit 'n' Sleep mattress chain, at the company's Culver CIty store.
Larry Miller, CEO of the Sit 'n' Sleep mattress chain, at the… (Gary Friedman, Los Angeles…)

The gig: Larry "Or your mattress is freeee!" Miller is the self-styled mattress impresario of Southern California. As chief executive of the Sit 'n Sleep mattress chain, Miller oversees a company with 240 employees, 28 stores and annual sales of $100 million.

Miller, 62, is best known for starring in numerous TV and radio ads over the years, some of which feature his imaginary accountant Irwin, a thrifty fellow who bemoans low-price promotions and shouts, "You're killing me, Larry!"

Early start: Growing up in Southern California, Miller always had a job. He worked at a gas station, had a paper route, sold newspapers and bought and sold rare coins. He also pitched in at his dad's convertible beds store in Culver City as a delivery boy and janitor. As a teenager, Miller aspired to be a professional basketball player. "But I was a chunky Jewish boy from the Westside, so that didn't happen," he said.

Eastern inspiration: On a trip to Tokyo in 1971, Miller saw something that inspired him: a futon.

"At that point sushi restaurants just started being popular, and 'Shogun' was on TV, and at that time Japanese things started to be cool," Miller said. "I sat on a futon and something percolates in your brain. I thought, 'These are really comfortable. Maybe I can find someone in California to manufacture them.'"

His dad was not impressed. "He said, 'You're out of your mind,'" Miller said. "But you got to try everything. At that point we were not making a living at all."

Futons turned out to be a big hit and saved the business. In 1980 father and son opened their first Sit 'n Sleep store in Culver City.

Radio: The futon fad didn't last and the Sit 'n Sleep store struggled in its early years. Then in 1982 one of his dad's friends, a local radio manager, suggested that they buy an ad on one of the station's shows for $25 a spot. It worked, and business slowly started picking up. "It was just a lucky stroke," Miller said. "We found the exact station at exactly the right price."

But Miller wasn't too impressed with the way that radio announcers performed their ads and decided that he could probably do better. "That first day, I was sitting in the studio and literally shaking like a leaf," he said. "The engineer said, 'This kid stinks, get him out of here.'" But Miller practiced and soon became the company's voice.

The company's favorite catchphrase and accountant were created by accident. In the early 1980s, a customer demanded a guarantee she was getting the best price for her mattress. Miller replied, "Ma'am, I will beat anyone else's advertised prices or your mattress is free," and a slogan was born.

Then in the early 1990s Miller was recording an ad and trading jokes at a radio station. One joke set off Miller's advertising man, who laughed and said, "You're killing me, Larry!" They combined that phrase with the nervous temperament of the company's actual accountant, a fellow named Irwin.

Howard Stern and TV: Two ad spots really made the company a success. In 1991 Sit 'n Sleep began advertising on Howard Stern's radio show, and in 1993 it jumped to television. Business doubled over two years.

"Howard Stern was pretty in-your-face radio. I was a little embarrassed by it," Miller said. "But at that point it was 13 years after we opened the business, and I thought for the first time, 'Wow, I may be a success.'"

Company family: Miller tries to meet every employee at his company, from top-level executives to the cleaning staff. His executives are required to do the same. It's vitally important, he said, to create an environment where workers like and trust one another.

"We spend more time with the fellows at work than with wives, boyfriends or girlfriends, or children," he said. "I ask them to have a good time, laugh, but also be good teammates and care about each other."

Miller says his first marriage failed because he put in so many hours at the office. "It's hard for a wife to understand why you're working seven days a week."

Home family: In his free time, Miller likes to fish, scuba dive and travel the world. While traveling in Bangkok for business, he met a Thai woman who is also an entrepreneur. They fell in love and got married last year.

"She got me a discount on purses for my daughter in Bangkok," Miller said. "We ended up going out. I never thought I would get married again."

shan.li@latimes.com

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