retail | Jul 26, 2023 |
After a CEO shake-up, Serta Simmons Bedding returns to a familiar path post-bankruptcy

This week’s surprise shake-up at the top of Serta Simmons Bedding—right before the important Las Vegas Market kicks off this weekend—may have caught many in the industry off guard. Yet in a certain way, the move is true to form for the way companies that make and sell mattresses operate.

The appointment of Charlie Eitel as CEO and Tim Oakhill as chief marketing officer following the ousting of Shelley Huff from the top spot brings back two industry veterans who have been in the mattress trade for decades. Both had long careers with the Simmons side of the business, and Eitel had only recently joined the board of the company as it emerged from Chapter 11 bankruptcy just last month.

As SSB comes out of bankruptcy with a clean balance sheet and plans for big upgrades on both its product line and marketing efforts, having two leaders who are veterans—and know where the proverbial bodies are buried in the bedding business—is enormously invaluable. Business in the category remains tough, part of the post-pandemic slowdown in the home furnishings sector as consumers redirect spending to vacations, travel, out-of-home activities and seeing the new Barbie movie a few times.

The bedding business, like most industries, is fairly insular, and companies in the sector tend to hire people who have been in it for most, if not all, of their careers. Eitel and Oakhill fit that bill.

Huff, notably, did not. Though she had been with SSB for three years, and CEO since December 2021, she spent most of her career on the other side of the business: in retail. Her almost 13 years at Walmart over two stints saw her rise through the ranks from buyer to heading up its Hayneedle direct-to-consumer unit. She left when that brand was downsized, joining SSB to run its Tuft & Needle DTC business. In between the Walmart years, she helped run JCPenney’s home division.

That kind of retail experience is not something you find very often in bedding—nor, in fact, in any kind of company on the supply side of home furnishings. While SSB’s big rival, Tempur Sealy International, has been run by Scott L. Thompson—an outsider when taking the job in 2015 who came from the auto rental business, where he ran Dollar Thrifty Automotive Group—many of the other heads of big furniture and furnishings companies are industry lifers, sometimes coming up through family businesses. (Although in fairness, it should be said that Oakhill spent 18 months on the retail side at Mattress Firm.)

Huff also stood out in the business as a female CEO, making her an anomaly in a field where women are usually the prime customers and biggest decision-makers in purchasing decisions. An exception is Melinda Whittington, who in 2021 was named CEO of La-Z-Boy Incorporated, the second-biggest furniture company after Ashley. Her career was spent mostly in consumer packaged goods, working for companies like Procter & Gamble and Kraft Foods Group.

Before her departure, Huff had recently outlined her ambitious plans for the company to Business of Home, including an expansion of its product offerings, a marketing strategy refresh and a supply chain upgrade. As an anomaly in the business, it would have been interesting to see what she would have brought to the company.

Eitel is largely well-respected and -regarded within the bedding business, and had a long run in floorcoverings prior to joining Simmons Bedding Company for the first time in 2000. No doubt he will bring reassurance to SSB customers and employees alike (and perhaps investors as well) with his return. It’s unclear whether his strategy will diverge significantly from Huff’s, but a lot is riding on SSB’s post-bankruptcy comeback.

For now, we’ll just have to sleep on it.

Homepage image: Serta Simmons Bedding comes out of bankruptcy with plans for upgrades on its product line | Courtesy of Serta Simmons Bedding

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