Listen to the full interview with Mattress Mack below:
When it comes to thinking big, Texas businessman Jim McIngvale has proven he has what it takes to kick things up a notch and get people’s attention. His passion and determination for success has turned a $5,000 investment in a start-up furniture store in 1981, into a multi-million-dollar business and one of the largest mattress store chains in the country. In addition to growing his Gallery Furniture brand into a household name, McIngvale has had mirrored dedication to his philanthropic endeavors and always seems to be there for the community when they need him the most.
In recent years, McIngvale has been placing massive bets on major sporting events to cover promotions at his stores and reduce the risk of the promotions. The promotions center around McIngvale offering customers a free mattress if a certain team, or horse, wins a major sporting event. McIngvale then offsets his risk of refund with a future bet to offset any major losses. For example, he wagered a reported $6.2 million at Scarlet Pearl Casino Resort in D’Iberville, Mississippi (Biloxi-area) for the Houston Astros to win the 2019 World Series. At the time it was the largest single bet in the state’s history, and likely still holds true today. Scarlet Pearl CEO, LuAnn Pappas commented at the time of the wager, “Once again, we have proven that Scarlet Pearl is the nation’s new home for the biggest bets,” Pappas said. “We’ll speak with any guest who wants to place a large bet, whether it’s in our sportsbook, on our tables, or at our slot machines. We don’t sweat the money. We’ll take any bet, any action, any time.” He lost the wager, but also didn’t have to refund customers for their purchases either, and made a similar wager on the Astros for this year’s World Series.
He has also tested his fate with horseracing this year when he bet an estimated $2 to $4 million on Essential Quality at 3-1 in this year’s Kentucky Derby. Unfortunately, Essential Quality finished fourth, resulting in another losing wager, and no refunds for customers again, but ratings in Houston for the Kentucky Derby were up because of the ‘buzz of the bet’.
We had the opportunity to catch up with the man now known as ‘Mattress Mack’ to learn more about his views on business, betting and giving back.
G. Douglas Dreisbach: How would you describe yourself? People mainly see a guy from Texas making big bets on sporting events, but likely don’t know all the things you do for others like when you opened your furniture stores to people that were displaced form the Texas ice storms last year, or sending forty trucks full of supplies to Louisiana to help those affected by the recent hurricanes. Do you consider yourself a businessman, a philanthropist, or a gambler? Tell us about Mack. What are you about?
Jim McIngvale: Well, I’m part entrepreneur and part social worker, so it’s kind of a strange combination. But I like business. I like promoting. I like marketing. That’s kind of how I got into the sports gambling business, to help grow our furniture store. And of course, my life is the essence of living is giving. My parents taught me that, so I try to give back whenever I can, and teach my children and grandchildren that it’s better to give than to receive. So, that’s kind of my point of view of life, and I live life every day trying to help people and hopefully trying to make the world a better place.
GDD: When you first got into the furniture business back in the eighties, you reportedly spent your last $10,000 to make a commercial, you didn’t like it, and you scrapped it and ad-libbed your way to a new commercial, it took hold and became a pretty popular commercial? Is that true?
JM: That’s exactly right. I was doing a TV commercial way back in 1983, and I was just about broke. I spent my last $10,000 on television advertising. I had to make a TV spot and I was stuttering and stammering, and I couldn’t come up with a punchline in the ad. The producer got very frustrated and said, “Mack, you have one more take. If you blow this, you’re going to lose your investment,” my $10,000 investment. So I did a little 30-second furniture spot, and in sheer frustration—I had the money in my back pocket from the day’s receipts—I pulled it out, and I said, “Gallery Furniture will save you money!” That became my tagline for 40 years.
GDD: Your big bets on major sporting events tied to promotions at your stores have garnered major attention. How did you first come up with the concept of mattress refunds associated with sporting event outcomes? And would you say you’re ahead right now on that?
JM: Well, everything is relative, but we’re trying to set ourselves apart from the competition. Furniture buying is a rather boring, mundane exercise, so by putting the sports marketing involved in it, whether it be bet on the favorite in the Kentucky Derby, if he wins you get your money back, or bet on the winner of the Super Bowl or World Series or whatever—it creates a lot of excitement and buzz with our customers, and they have a chance to get their money back. So it creates more business for us, brings out new buyers, and I think it’s a win-win for everybody.
I started doing this 10 or 15 years ago, when the Texans played the Cowboys in the first regular season game. The Texans were a huge underdog, and I think we sold $1.5 million worth of furniture in just two days for that promotion, which was a huge amount 20 years ago. I took the Texans so the customers would get their money back if Texans won in Houston. The Texans were up by like 10 points in the first half, but eventually they lost. So, that was my first venture into sports wagering type of a purchase promotion.
GDD: How do you determine the amount of the bet for the promotion so far in advance? Your current one is for the Astros to win the World Series right?
JM: You don’t really know how it’s going to work out. On this one, I bought a bunch of futures tickets, way back when the Astros were as high as I think 20:1 and 10:1, so I did buy a bunch of future tickets. So, you never know how it’s going to come out. But obviously I try to hedge enough where if the customers win, there’s enough money on the hedge bet to pay off the loss and make the customers happy.
I’m always pulling for the customers on these deals, because when they win, the word-of-mouth advertising is absolutely remarkable. They talk about it with all their friends, neighbors, and relatives about what a good deal they got on their free mattress or free furniture.
For the promotion this year with the Kentucky Derby, I think the viewership of the race in Houston was way up. So, if the favorite won, which was Essential Quality, you got your money back. I’ve been involved in the horse-racing business for many years, so that was a fun one. I also made the biggest bets ever on the Super Bowl this past year with $3.6 million on Tampa Bay, so that worked out, as well.
GDD: For the Kentucky Derby wager, Essential Quality was at 4:1 odds and ended up coming in fourth, so that didn’t work out for that side. But in an interview, you mentioned the two-minute sweat for a horse race was much better than a three-hour sweat for a baseball game. Tell us more about what you mean by ‘the sweat’. And what was your two-minute sweat for the Derby this year like?
JM: “The most exciting two minutes in sports” is the moniker for the Kentucky Derby. Watching one of these football games or baseball games that last 3 ½ to 4 hours, when you have millions of dollars bet on it, can be very anxiety-producing. I remember way back when, when Seattle played Denver in the Super Bowl in New York. We had a promotion that if Seattle won, you would get your money back. Well, that promotion went bonkers, and we sold $9 million worth of furniture on that, and I had no hedge bet, no insurance. All these guys that worked with me said, “Don’t worry about it. Denver’s a cinch.” And the first snap went over Peyton Manning’s head, and it went downhill from there, so I was sweating it out by running on a treadmill in our store. The store was closed. We sold every piece of furniture we had the day before, on Saturday. But we were still making deliveries, getting people’s furniture in their home before the game. So, we delivered a ton of furniture. I was on a treadmill for four hours. Finally, the phone rang. It was my wife, and I said, “Who won?” She said, “Seattle won, dummy. We’re out $9 million.” So, that was a long sweat, and that was very anxiety-producing.
GDD: Do you get outside advice on the bets before you make them? Or is it all coming from you and your sports background?
JM: It’s coming from me, and some of our team members give me some ideas. I came up with the idea on the Kentucky Derby favorite after I saw the favorite had won like six out of the last eight Kentucky Derbies, so it gave the favorite a big shot. With the
Kentucky Derby being pari-mutual—a lot of these times, with a sports bet, you have to hedge it off, and the best you’re going to get is two, maybe two and a half to one. Well, I get four to one with the Kentucky Derby, so it was a very good bet or a hedge for me, and I wish he would have won. He’s won every race since then. But that Saturday in May wasn’t his day.
DD: Well, you made that wager at Churchill Downs instead of off-track, which is a big bonus for the track, the horse industry in Kentucky and many other ways, and that was great. I think you spent some time at the Derby with my friend Gary P at Churchill Downs, so I am sure he took care of you, and you had a great experience. Was that your first Kentucky Derby, or had you been before? And what was your experience like?
JM: Gary was terrific, by the way, and still is. I talk to him quite often. I went to the Kentucky Derby, I think, in 1971, when Canonero II won the Kentucky Derby, with my late aunt. She loved horse racing. I had a great time, and that kind of got me in the horse racing game, and I’ve been in it very heavily since 1995. My horse, Runhappy, was an Eclipse Award winner, champion sprinter in 1995, and I decided to play, so I’m very involved in the racehorse business, and I like the idea of fixed odds coming to horse racing. I think that’ll be very helpful and very beneficial, and the Kentucky Derby experience went above and beyond my expectations, so we’re hopefully looking forward to doing that again.
DD: Of all the major sporting events, what’s your favorite? And when you have big wagers, do you prefer to go attend in person, or are you running on the treadmill in one of your stores?
JM: My favorite is probably game 7 of the World Series. I was on the winning end of that when the Astros beat the Dodgers, and on the losing end when the Astros lost to the Nationals. But game 7 of the World Series is fun because there’s so much drama going through those first six games. Obviously, I like the Super Bowl. I like the Kentucky Derby. But my favorite sporting event probably would be either game 7 of the World Series or Super Bowl or Kentucky Derby.
GDD: In closing, you’re a genuine and thoughtful person who always seems to look out for the greater good of the community. You once referenced that you believe we all have a responsibility to make the world a community. What do you mean by that, and what is the motivation that feeds you for your philanthropic drive and the determination to do good?
JM: You know, there’s so much hurt in the world. There’s so many people that are lonely nowadays. It used to be the average size of a U.S. household was eight people. Now it’s less than two. People are lonely. We need to reach out and create relationships with people, whether it be at work, whether it be at church, whether it be at schools. We need more people to have strong relationships with each other. I think relationships are the currency of life, and if my sports antics bring people together, where they watch the game together in their house, they pull for whatever team can get them a free mattress, then maybe I’ve done something to help build some relationships.
At the end of the day, the good Lord is not going to judge us upon how much money we made, but the good Lord will judge us based upon how much of a difference we made. That’s what we’re trying to do every day at Gallery Furniture, help our team members become better breadwinners for their families. We have a free trade school at Gallery Furniture where we teach people skilled trades. We have a free high school program for people 16-26 if they haven’t finished high school, and we have a free preschool from age 6 months to 5 years old for our team members and the people going to our schools, so they don’t have to pay for childcare. So we’re very involved in helping better people’s lives and turning the negativity in this country into a positive atmosphere, much like it was in my idyllic childhood.
Fast Facts with Mattress Mack:
- Favorite sport to watch? Baseball
- Favorite sport to wager on? Baseball and big future bets
- Sporting event that you’d like to attend, but haven’t yet? U.S. Open tennis.
- Hobbies? Horse racing and spending time with my children.
- Favorite bands or musicians? Fleetwood Mac.
- Shows, books, or podcasts? I read a great book recently called What Happened to You? It’s a book by Oprah Winfrey and a personal friend of mine named Bruce Perry, MD, who’s one of the premier child psychiatrists in the world.
- Favorite city that you like to visit? Houston, Texas. I’m a homer.
- A city you would like to visit, but you haven’t yet? I’d like to go to Anchorage, Alaska, and go salmon fishing.