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The Story of Gallery Furniture’s Rise to the Top

“Late to Bed, Early to Rise. Work like Hell and ADVERTISE.”
– Jim McIngvale

“What are you going to do next?” Jim McIngvale’s football coach asked at the end of the season in 1972.

Despite lack of size and speed, McIngvale had become a team captain, in his senior year, through determination and drive.

“I’m thinking about opening a health club,” McIngvale replied.

A few years later, though, with the health club business a failure, McIngvale was left jobless and penniless. He didn’t even have a car.

“I remember riding the bus around from one McDonalds to another, playing their instant scratch-off game, hoping to win the $10,000 prize. All I ever won was fries.”

Needing a job, McIngvale began working as a furniture salesman in Dallas, and that’s when he discovered his calling.

Daring Entrepreneur

In June 1981, newlyweds Jim and Linda McIngvale moved to Houston. The Houston oil industry was booming, and McIngvale watched as scores of U-Haul trucks headed into the city. He reasoned that many of the people would need furniture for their new homes.

With $5000 in savings, McIngvale and his wife opened Gallery Furniture in a tent on the North Freeway. At first, they could not afford to hire a single employee. They bought furniture from a Dallas warehouse and hauled it to Houston overnight in a rented van. They slept on the floor of the store and opened at first light to sell the merchandise. They offered fair prices and immediate, same-day delivery.

“It was do or die for me,” McIngvale says. “I’d been a failure before. I just couldn’t fail again. I felt like I had one chance left and I needed to make it work no matter what.”

A Houston Icon
(or: How an Oil Bust Made “Mattress Mack” a Household Name)

On a shoestring budget, and without debt, Gallery Furniture grew and became successful. As the store prospered, McIngvale began to give back to the community.

Then came the oil-bust of the mid-1980s.

McIngvale says: “When we started Gallery Furniture, we were in the right place at the right time. The economy was booming and oil was at $30 a barrel. Then in 1983 the bottom fell out. Our sales went from $40,000 a week to $5,000 a week. We were just about to go broke.”

McIngvale took his last $10,000 and plunked it down for a television ad. The advertising bet nearly went sour.  After three hours of taping, he had nothing worth putting on air. The producer told him to give it one more try.

Under pressure, he gave a fast-talking spiel for Gallery Furniture: great prices, quality furniture, immediate delivery.

Near the end, he jumped into the air and yelled, “Gallery Furniture SAVES YOU MMMONEY!”

The line would become legendary, but there was still one more hurdle to cross.

A few days later, he was told by the station that the ad was “amateurish and in too poor taste to run.”

McIngvale says: “Well, I told them my money hadn’t been too amateurish for them and I expected to see my ad, so they ran it.”

The ad was run on late-night television and Gallery Furniture experienced a spike in sales.

“It was a leap of faith,” McIngvale says. “We more or less bet the company on that campaign. And it paid off.”

Building America’s #1 Furniture Store

McIngvale admits that his early success came from knowing little about the furniture business. This forced him to find new approaches to the retail business.

In the beginning, Gallery Furniture, like most furniture stores, paid its sales staff on commission. McIngvale ended this practice in 1990, after studying the work of management guru Edward R. Deming. Deming taught that workers should be rewarded and encouraged to take pride in their work, not just drive sales volume.

Today, Gallery’s unique “no-hype” approach to consumer education wins praise from customers and furniture industry experts alike.

McIngvale also learned from Deming the practice of developing long-term relationships with just a few suppliers. These relationships are noticeable throughout the store, not least in the high-quality solid wood furniture Gallery carries, sourced directly from Amish craftsmen.

Gallery’s special care in choosing suppliers is also reflected in its new Mack-O-Pedic line of mattresses, which are not available anywhere else.

These unique practices have allowed Gallery Furniture to become one of the most successful furniture stores in the country. Today, Gallery ranks among the top 100 private companies in Houston. Gallery is also among the top 100 furniture stores in the USA.

Measured by sales per square foot, a key indicator in the retail industry, Gallery Furniture has been the #1 furniture store in America for over a decade, according to Furniture Today.

McIngvale credits this success to taking the road less traveled. He’s implemented new methods that are now considered best practices. Meanwhile, Gallery’s customers receive top service because of stellar employees who take exceptional pride in their work.

Insight into Success: The View from McIngvale’s Desk

Visit Gallery Furniture’s I-45 location on most days, and chances are you’ll see McIngvale when you enter the store.

He often works 16-hour days, and for many of those hours you’ll find him standing at his desk near the entrance of the store. He uses this position to keep a steady eye on the action, and ensure that everyone who comes to the store has a great experience.

Through his television ads, McIngvale has become a local celebrity over the years. Often, people come to the store, approach his desk, and ask to have their picture taken with him.

Stand at McIngvale’s desk and look outward toward the store’s entrance, and you’ll discover many of his sources of inspiration. There are pictures of Winston Churchill and Steve Jobs, as well as  inspirational quotes on the wall, including: “The West was not settled by men and women who had taken courses in ‘How to be a Pioneer’.”

As McIngvale’s stature has grown over the years, he’s been increasingly sought as a business and motivational speaker.

If he’s not at his desk when you visit Gallery Furniture’s I-45 location, chances are he’s delivering a talk on the blessings of American free enterprise, or how to succeed as an entrepreneur.

McIngvale says: “A customer walked up to me the other day and told me the reason he was buying here was because of our involvement in the community. Helping others has always been a big part of who we are. We’re fortunate to have a prosperous business that allows us to give back.”

Capitalist with a Cause

“Pope John Paul II said, ‘The essence of living is giving’ and I try to live by that creed,” McIngvale says. “We’re more than just a furniture store. We’re part of the community.”

Since Gallery Furniture first opened its doors in 1981, McIngvale and his wife have given money and furniture to countless charities and needy families.

Each year, Gallery’s Christmas Giveaway awards needy families and individuals with furniture during the Christmas season.  This year, the program entered its 30th year.

Gallery Furniture also supports Teachers’ Lounge Makeovers, the USO, the Houston Rodeo, the Salvation Army, Houston’s Mobile Stroke Unit (the first of its kind in the USA), and many other charities.

With Gallery Furniture’s new location in Richmond, Texas, opening this spring, the store will include a section showcasing artistic works created by special needs residents of the Brookwood Community in Brookshire, Texas.

“We call our approach ‘capitalism with a cause.’ We sell some furniture while always finding a way to give back to the community,” McIngvale says.

What Others are Saying…

From a letter posted in Gallery Furniture’s I-45 location:

Dear Mac,

What can a guy possibly give a person who is so generous and so darn thoughtful – a guy like you?? The answer is ‘I don’t know but here’s a feeble attempt – a souvenir photo of two Presidents.’ I hope you and yours have a wonderful Christmas, a great bowl game, and your best New Year ever.
– George Bush
P.S. – Barbara loves the star-spangled couch too!  Everyone loves it

“I have visited your store many times over the years and you’ve always been there at the front desk, answering the phone, talking to a customer and even assisting your employee carry out a couch…You are truly one exceptional businessman and a man of God. Thank you…”

 – Tommy D.
Houston, TX

“Jim, I have always admired you as a businessman. I know when, how and where you started and watched you grow a business any man can be proud of…Now I would like to say, I admire you as a great American and a true Believer.”

– Ray B.
Grapeland, TX

“Thank you Mac! You remind me of my father, who was willing to build a business and risk failure, who never thought twice about hiring a friend who had a family to feed when times were tough, and who would go the extra mile to make someone else’s life a little easier. Over the years I’ve seen and heard of many examples of you doing the same, and while you get the limelight for some of these things, you do many more without gathering attention! Thank you…”

– Marilyn T.
Houston, TX

A Success Story, Made in America

We believe that faith in God and freedom go hand-in-hand, and that without faith this experiment in self-government known as America cannot work.

We believe in the power of neighbors helping neighbors, by which generations of Americans have preserved and thrived.

We believe in the American work ethic, for it is only through hard work and the blessings of God that dreams are realized.

We believe that one of life’s supreme joys is the joy of giving back.

For us, these bedrock values will never change.

We’re blessed to be here in Houston. Thank you Houston for making Gallery Furniture a success.”

– Jim McIngvale

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