One morning last fall, Michael Lezberg was handed a message marked urgent. It said, “The ship is sailing. Call immediately.” Returning the call, Lezberg, owner of a pillow factory, discovered that the ship was a major luxury cruise liner and it really was sailing the next day. “But they needed 3,000 sleep pillows, or they couldn’t leave port,” said company owner Lezberg.
He sprang into action. “I juggled everything,” he said. “I brought in extra shifts. We worked all night. The pillows got to port in time, and we broke into the cruise ship industry.”
For Lezberg, president of Aurora Sleep Products, based in Altamonte Springs, Florida, this was all in a day’s—or night’s—work. By pulling off feats like this, he has turned Aurora into a $1 million-a-year enterprise. He thinks sales can reach $10 million within a few years. “We’ve got the manufacturing capabilities, the work force, a network of distributors in place and a carefully-developed business plan,” he explained.
Lezberg never dreamed about making pillows, pun intended, but he certainly had the entrepreneurial background for it. For years he owned a Serta Mattress plant in Massachusetts; then he started a voice-mail telephone business in Orlando. He sold both businesses but wasn’t ready to retire. “I wanted to start or buy a business but I couldn’t find anything that felt right,” said Lezberg.
Then he spotted a newspaper ad, “Pillow Factory for Sale.” This intrigued him. Checking it out, he found a 14,000-square-foot building housing 35-year-old equipment in need of repairs and a client base of 10 to 15.
The business, he learned, had a roller-coaster history. It got started on a fluke by a husband and wife who moved to Central Florida in 1993. The wife shopped for pillows but couldn’t find a good one,” said Lezberg. “She said to her husband, ‘We should start a pillow factory.’ ”
And so they did. Friends in New York, who had worked in the pillow industry, advised them how to start. They leased an old building and purchased used equipment through a classified ad. Once the plant got operating, they called on distributors who supplied pillows to Orlando area hotels.
The business flourished; sales reached $1 million, but the owners expanded too quickly and ran out of money. The landlord, unpaid, wound up with the business. Inexplicably, he sold the company to his roofing contractors on Sept. 1, 2001. Ten days later, 9-11 struck, stunning the hotel and tourism industries.
The roofers sold the business to another husband and wife who could make pillows but couldn’t market them. Sales wilted from $600,000 to $200,000, at which point Lezberg entered the picture.
“I found a business somewhat in disarray,” recalled Lezberg. “Sagging sales, broken machinery, four employees, a handful of customers—and yet I saw a sleeping giant.”
Before plunging ahead, Lezberg tested the market. He contacted distributors of sleep products and found them eager for a local supplier. “Hotels always need pillows—in a hurry,” he said. Its a win-win situation.
Lezberg taught himself the pillow business by reading books and manuals on the equipment. “I needed to understand how the machines worked,” he said. “I wanted sales chasing production, not vice versa.”
With the purchase, Lezberg inherited a machine with a conveyor belt on which raw polyester fibers are opened, separated and combed. The fibers are blown into cotton fabric pillow covers. A sewing machine operator stitches the pillow covers closed. A compressor flattens the pillows so they fit into polyurethane bags, which are boxed and shipped by trucks.
In his marketing strategy, Lezberg broke down potential customers into five channels: Hospitality (hotels, resorts); decorators, designers; retail (department stores, specialty shops); medical (hospitals, nursing homes) and ships (cruise lines, yachts).
He approached each channel differently. In hospitality, for example, Lezberg mostly deals with distributors. They are middlemen who buy pillows and sell them to hotels. “They take the risk,” explained Lezberg. “We’re paid right away; they own the pillows.”
Lezberg contacts distributors in person and through industry trade shows. He sets up booths and product displays at about 30 shows a year. Last year he broke into the yacht industry through a contact made at a show. Another distributor ordered 150 pillows a week, upped this to 2,300 a week; now the order is approaching 40,000 a week.
Lezberg broke into the medical channel through a special cushion he designed with a major medical supplier. Patients rest their heads and upper torsos on these cushions while undergoing x-ray procedures. “This line by itself could generate sales of $5 million nationally,” said Lezberg.
Not surprisingly, Lezberg is his company’s best salesman. He calls on interior decorators and designers, upholsterers, department stores and specialty shops. “I know my products inside and out, pricing, and production capabilities,” he said. “I don’t have to clear a sale with anyone. I can close on the spot.”
Lezberg keeps up with what his brand-name competitors are doing but he’s not concerned about beating their prices. He has a long-range strategy. “We want to cover our costs, build volume and offer a mix of customized products and styles that can be profitable,” he said. “We have lower overhead, closer supervision. Our competitors manufacture overseas and face shipping and freight charges up to 20 percent. We can deliver faster and cheaper.”
As for production, the company cranks out 1,200 to 1,500 pillows daily; this should reach 4,500 to 5,000 daily within two years. The company has 10 dedicated employees.
Looking ahead, Lezberg plans to push sales through Florida and the Southeast. But at the moment he is focused on the area around Disney World. “There are 130,000 hotel rooms out there,” he said. “I want my pillows in every one of them.”
For more information on Aurora Sleep Products, visit www.AuroraPillows.com, or call 407-331-9800. Aurora Sleep Products is located at 927 Fern Street, Altamonte Springs, FL 32701. – By Stan Roberts
Michale Lezberg is his company’s best salesperson. He calls on interior designers, upholsterers, department stores and specialty shops. He keeps up with what the competition is doing and is not concerned about beating their prices. The company cranks out 1200 to 1500 pillows a day and expects to increase this output to 5000 pillows a day within two years.