Sound planning leads mattress entrepreneur to success

Len Gaby.

“What would you pay for a good night’s sleep?”

This seemingly innocuous question is just one of the carefully crafted subtleties in the strategic plan that rocketed Sleep America into the largest mattress retailer in Arizona.

“We weren’t selling mattresses; we were helping customers improve their quality of life through sleep,” explains Len Gaby ’67, MBA ’71. Beginning with one location in a strip mall in Phoenix, Len and his wife, Debbie, realized their dream of dominating the mattress retail market in the state in less than nine years.

The company flourished with Len and Debbie each bringing unique talents to the table. A realtor and designer, Texas native Debbie is energetic and enthusiastic, making her a natural spokesperson for the company. Len was a seasoned retailer yearning to start his own business. Painstaking national research led them to choose the growing community of Phoenix as the place to put down their retail roots. They visited store after store in the state, observing and absorbing the good, the bad and the ugly of the mattress business.

The Gabys recognized early on that branding would be the key to their success because they wouldn’t be selling a low priced commodity. The dynamic couple vowed to change the way mattresses were sold. They chose the name “Sleep America” because it sounded bigger than a one-store company in Arizona—a crucial element to the budding entrepreneurs who planned to expand and one day sell to a larger national organization. The company logo, created by a professional graphic designer, incorporates a friendly man in the moon on one side and a solid dark blue hue on the other. Len is quick to point out that the man in the moon is smiling and facing out, creating an instant connection with the viewer. The shadowed side of the moon intimates sleep through its restful blue tone.

No stone was left unturned, no avenue unresearched in the Gaby’s quest to create the ultimate mattress shopping experience and environment. With tasteful attention to detail, they incorporated the five senses into their store. Upon entering, customers are greeted by a pristine environment, and lulled by soft playing music; scented candles and fragrant florals delight their noses and soft beds await their touch. Admiral blue, a color symbolizing trust and relaxation, adorns the walls. They even offered branded water bottles to thirsty customers seeking oasis from the arid Arizona climate.

Giving back to the community was an integral part of the Gaby’s philosophy. Over the years, the couple gave mattresses away to homeless shelters and supported numerous charitable fund drives and events. In 2004, Len co-founded Sleep America Charities, which provides resources to local organizations in need. Debbie has been honored with several awards and accolades for her volunteer work and community involvement.

Sleep America had grown to 45 stores nationwide in 2009 when the Gabys sold it to Sleep Country Canada. Debbie stayed on as president and still pitches the company in her Texan drawl to the Arizona television and radio market.

Len has retired from the mattress business, but continues to showcase his business and marketing acumen through consulting work. He also has started an automated vending machine DVD rental business with his son, James, called PressPlay Kiosks, which offers new film releases 28 days sooner than their competitor.

The fragile business climate has prompted Len to unearth some sage advice from a somewhat unlikely source, Charles Darwin. Over a century ago the naturalist declared “It is not the strongest or the smartest of the species that survive. But the one that is most adaptable to change."

“This seems to be a very good lesson for us all,” Len reflects.

Written by Beth Ranney

Update: The School of Management was saddened by Len's passing in August 2017. He was a good friend and supportive alumnus, serving as a member of the School of Management Dean’s Advisory Council and a guest speaker in classes. He and his wife, Debbie, also hosted university events at their home in Phoenix.