How Mattress Mack became Houston's hometown hero
For the 336th day this year, Mattress Mack is hunched over his wooden desk at the front of Gallery Furniture flipping through the pages of a black binder that is so full of papers it struggles to close. He calls the area the Fishbowl: the one spot where he can see and hear everything happening in the store. Mack’s wearing a crimson-checkered shirt, navy pants and brown cowboy boots. Gray circles under his eyes are matched by his groggy voice. But as he’ll later tell a customer, “I’m not tired, I’ve got a great mattress.”
Mack grabs a ripped piece of cardboard that’s covered with thick, black lettering on both sides. It’s his to-do list, and he has no problem reading the scribbled handwriting. As he flips through the pages of his binder—through his calendar and the previous day’s orders—he adds and crosses items off his lengthy list. It’s 8:21 in the morning and Mariah Carey’s “All I Want For Christmas Is You” sings softly in the background as customers browse the showroom. Others line up to claim their refund after Mack lost his latest bet: a win-it-all, get-it-all promotion that hedged on the Houston Astros winning the 2017 World Series. The Astros did just that, claiming their first title in franchise history, costing Mack an estimated $10 million in mattress refunds.
Mack has made millions selling furniture in Houston, but to Houstonians he’s known as much more than a furniture salesman. He’s the fast-talking man from TV who once suited up in a mattress, jumped enthusiastically while promising to “SAVE. YOU. MONEEEEEY!” He’s the man whose outlandish sports bets have led thousands of customers to receive refunds. He's the one who let you sleep on his showroom mattresses as water inundated the city in August.
Mack shuts his binder and grabs a cup of coffee. “Let’s take a walk,” he says.
To walk through Gallery Furniture is like taking a walk through Mack’s life. Scattered through the store are glass displays filled with awards and plaques, framed photos with presidents and celebrities and handwritten letters from thankful customers. Painted on the walls are inspirational quotes. One of Mack’s favorites is across from his desk, “The West wasn’t settled by men and women who were taking courses in ‘How To Be A Pioneer.’” It’s a defining quote for a man who started a furniture business with $5,000 and a dream of following in his father’s entrepreneurial footsteps. “Sometimes you’ve got to go for it,” Mack says. “I like to dive into it and figure it out.”
Hanging in the showroom is a collage of Mack’s time at the University of Texas, where he played for the 1969 and 1970 national championship teams. The roster lists him as a linebacker, though he’ll tell you he strictly played the bench. Two proclamations hanging in the front of the store honor Mack: one declaring Nov. 19, 2008 “Jim ‘Mattress Mack’ McIngvale Day” for his “strong work ethic” that is “matched by his philanthropy and exceeded only by the commitment he has to his family.” Another declares the month of February “Jim ‘Mattress Mac’ McIngvale Month” in Harris County for his “commitment to our community.”
Mack walks through two double doors that lead into the warehouse, a 60,000-square-foot structure with racks that nearly reach the 40-foot ceiling. Each rack is filled with furniture that’s wrapped in boxes or thick plastic. The warehouse runs like an assembly line: workers move couches and love seats and mattresses from the racks to loading bays and into delivery trucks, which ship them to customers’ homes. The process is repeated hundreds of times a day, open to close.
Mack weaves through the crowd of workers and furniture and squeezes through a narrow walkway between a mattress and couch. Furniture fills the few empty spaces these days. Mack promised to store furniture for customers whose homes were flooded by Hurricane Harvey until they are ready to move back in. It’s a little inconvenience, he says, to keep his customers happy.
There’s no task too menial for the owner and CEO of Harris County’s largest furniture store. When he sees an empty water bottle on the floor in the warehouse along his walk, he stops to pick it up. When he notices a piece of plastic stuck to a chair leg in the showroom, he bends down and rips it off. Since Hurricane Harvey made landfall, Mack says he’s worked more hours than ever in his career. Fitting because, by his own estimation, he’s put more hours in a furniture store than anyone in retail history.
“I lead a pretty boring life,” he says.
Mattress Mack’s life is anything but boring.
He once boxed Muhammad Ali—and won. He funded a Chuck Norris movie, “Sidekicks,” and sent his wife and Norris on a cross-country tour to promote the movie after the studio pulled out. He’s transitioned from a depressed 28-year-old living with his parents to a 66-year-old multi-millionaire.
Mack arrived in Houston in April 1981 as Jim McIngvale, a 30-year-old dead broke, newlywed furniture salesman. He and his wife, Linda, started Gallery Model Homes and Furniture in a lot filled with overgrown weeds and abandoned model homes. Linda, then Mack’s girlfriend, thought Mack was crazy when he proposed the two move to Houston to start a furniture store. All their family and friends were in Dallas, she reasoned. She had a good job as a bank teller and the two had their lives in North Texas. As a salesman for the past year, Mack learned the success to business and life was persistency. After his 40th proposition, Linda slammed her hand on the dashboard and agreed under one condition: only if they were married. “I got to thinking to myself, ‘This woman has put me in a difficult position,’” Mack says. “But then I came up with what I decided to be a great entrepreneurial decision: Where else can I get an employee this cheap? I said, ‘You’ve got a deal.’”
They’ve been married 36 years.
In the beginning, they renovated the model homes and set up showrooms where they sold furniture all day with the promise of same-day delivery. At night, they slept inside those same showrooms to prevent burglars from breaking in and stealing their furniture. Most Saturdays after work, Mack drove to Dallas with that week’s profits and bought the next week’s worth of furniture. Business was good. The oil-and-gas industry was flourishing in Houston. Companies were hiring. People were migrating to town. Furniture was in high demand. Gallery Furniture was making upwards of $40,000 a week.
Then, in the mid-1980s, the market burst. Oil prices plunged below $20 a barrel. Companies halted hiring. The influx of people into town plummeted. And with it, the demand for furniture. Mack’s business sales tanked to $5,000 a week.
With his last $10,000, he turned to TV.
Mack jumped in front of the camera with a handful of cash and promised to “SAVE. YOU. MONEEEEEY!” The ad was such a success, he continued with new eccentric ads to “cut through the clutter.” He put on a mattress and dubbed himself Mattress Mack. He once brought a bull named Lone Star into the showroom with the shtick that the only bull you’ll find at Gallery Furniture is “Lone Star.” He’s hopped around in a pink bunny costume to introduce his “revolutionary” way to buy a mattress. He’s used a Ferrari to showcase the company's fast delivery. Word spread of the outlandish man on TV. Sales increased. Mack saved his business.
Mattress Mack is in a hurry. It’s 1:57, a cloudy afternoon in Houston, and he’s running late to give a speech downtown. The feeder road outside the store is filled with stopped cars and brake lights. Mack doesn’t have time to wait—he doesn’t like being late—so he hops a curb, his black SUV bounces through a grassy median. He detours through a series of turns through neighborhood streets that send him past cars and stoplights to a highway entrance ramp.
He parks his SUV at a busy hotel valet, turning what was sure to be a 40-minute stop-and-go drive into a 20-minute affair. Mack is quick to exit, searching for someone to take his vehicle that’s still running. A valet recognizes him, “You don’t need a ticket, sir."
Inside, warm lighting fills the quiet lobby, the plush carpet silencing Mack’s urgent steps through the hallways. Mack walks up the escalators and is ushered into a ballroom. Two large screens project a picture of Mack flashing a handful of cash, his signature pose. The tables are covered with neatly pressed tablecloths and candles that sit under glass chandeliers. Mack sits in the back and grabs a table tent that he pulls apart and scribbles notes on for his speech, though he’ll hardly need them. After averaging around 100 speeches a year, he’s well-versed in audiences that range from high school classes to business leaders. Today’s group is the latter. Chief financial officers who manage Houston’s billion-dollar businesses are here to learn from a self-made millionaire whose care for his community helped build his furniture empire.
The audience applauds as Mack takes the stage. As he adjusts the microphones at the podium, it’s as if a switch flips and the once-quiet man at the back of the room is now booming with energy. The words fly from his mouth so quickly at times it’s difficult to understand what he’s saying. Then he addresses the storm that made history. His voice drops. His delivery slows.
Mack stepped through the pouring rain and into Gallery Furniture around noon the Sunday after Harvey made landfall. As the streets filled with water, people called him pleading for help. Houston was drowning, and its people needed rescue from the rising water.
“It wasn’t that the policemen, the firemen, the first responders had done a bad job—they had done a magnificent job—it’s that this was a flood of biblical proportions never seen before,” Mack tells the audience.
He announced on a Facebook Live that Gallery Furniture was open for shelter. He also called for anyone with a commercial driver’s license to take his fleet of delivery trucks to help with high-water rescues. For seven hours, those volunteers navigated a city underwater, rescuing some 200 people from their flooded homes, outside convenience stores and under freeways. A mother so desperate for help held her baby above her head as she waded through the chest-high water to get to the store. At 2 a.m. Monday, a young girl who spoke little English walked in shivering and asked Mack if she and her parents could stay.
His furniture store had become a safe harbor for the community.
Mack provided the mattresses and blankets, the safety and security needed to get through the worst of the storm. He dispatched crews to nearby convenience stores to buy out all their food so people could eat. And when the storm passed and the floodwaters receded, he bought cleaning supplies by the truckload as Gallery Furniture transformed once again, this time into a donation center. Come Thanksgiving, the first major holiday after the storm, Mack welcomed 6,000 people to the store for a complimentary Thanksgiving feast. Even today, nearly four months after the storm, he is donating housefuls of furniture to Houstonians who lost everything. He’s been christened a hero of Hurricane Harvey, a claim he finds disheartening.
“I didn’t do anything heroic,” Mack tells the audience. “I did what I was supposed to do. I did what my parents taught me to do, what my beloved brother, who died 10 years ago, would have wanted me to do.
“I helped the people.”
Being able to help people comes at a price. So Mack spends 14-hour days in the store—greeting customers, answering phones, pushing his salespeople. After 36 years since opening Gallery Furniture, he has no plans to retire. “What would I do, stay home and watch TV?” he says. When that inevitable day comes, when he does step away, he hopes to leave a legacy as a capitalist and social worker, someone who tried to make a difference, a man who left Houston as a better place.
It’s 4:57 now, and as office buildings empty and commuters clog Houston’s highways, Mack stands behind his desk frustrated at the lack of salespeople greeting the customers walking into the store. “All salespeople check in,” he calls over the employee radio. Less than an hour ago, he reminded everyone “in order to do all this charity we’ve got to make money.”
Amongst the crowd is a father carrying his daughter, her head resting on his shoulder. She notices something—rather, someone. She lifts her head and points to the Fishbowl.
“Look, Daddy,” she whispers, “it’s Mattress Mack.”
Mack, leaning against his desk, is lost in paperwork. The toll of the last few months is visible on the businessman’s face. For now, there’s more work to do. And later…well, he has a great mattress for that.