Mattress Firm’s King-Sized Acquisition: How CEO Steve Stagner is managing massive organizational change

A spring in his step...

A spring in his step: Mattress Firm CEO Steve Stagner’s acquisition of Sleep Train makes the company the biggest US mattress retailer

CorpU recently talked with Steve Stagner, the CEO of Mattress Firm, the leading specialty retailer of mattresses and related products in the US. In September 2014, Mattress Firm went through an eye-opening transformation when it acquired Sleep Train, increasing its business size dramatically by 20%. 

But Stagner isn’t losing sleep over it. He reports that one of the tools he’s using to successfully manage the process is CorpU’s course Leading Breakthrough Change, led by former Schwab CEO Dave Pottruck. Stagner personally took the course alongside executives from both his own company and Sleep Train.

An edited transcript follows.


Q: Steve, what made you take time out of your busy schedule as CEO to personally participate in the Leading Breakthrough Change course?

A: The acquisition of Sleep Train is transformative for our company given the size: roughly 300 stores merging within our chain. The reason I wanted to go through the course personally was to a) lead from the top, and b) make sure we were all speaking the same common language given the fact that this transformation is going to take a couple of years. And I thought it would be real important that we go through the journey as a team.

Q: What did you expect from the course? Was anything different than you expected?

A: What exceeded my expectations really, were a couple of things… The case studies with the combination of the videos really gave everyone some perspective they probably wouldn’t have had. That perspective translated into hallway conversations and decision-making conversations that were very useful.

But bigger than that was what happened at our watershed event with the top 100 leaders. By having them all go through Leading Breakthrough Change, we all got on pretty much a common language, and that was really helpful in bringing the leadership teams together, in a much faster and more thoughtful way than I’ve seen before.

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Q: What do you mean by a “common language”?

A: When you’re merging two big organizations, obviously people do things differently…By using the steps in the process—the Leading Breakthrough Change steps—what that did is it gave us a common platform to talk through… It makes it less like personal agenda-based or biased.

So that creates an opportunity for the organizations to say, “Hey, do you remember that real-life story we read about in Harvard Business Review—what that case brought up means this to me…” That helps the two parties start talking… it creates a lot more productive conversation than “Well, let me just tell you how we do things over here.”

Q: What were your two or three key takeaways from the course?

A: One is: how to create the case for why we’re doing it. What the course challenged me to do was to not underestimate how important it was to sell everyone on the “why”.  And secondly, the importance of communicating and over-communicating at all levels. [You can’t assume] all people will… accept all the things that are happening, or interpret them the way you intended… Those two things really stood out to me.

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Q: So it sounds like Leading Breakthrough Change was an important factor in helping you frame and explain this acquisition?

A: I think it was a huge catalyst. It also helped us develop a framework, to how we should—and why we should—talk about the things that we’re talking about. At our national conference in Los Angeles [February 2015 BED Talks Leadership Conference], the senior leaders kind of naturally used some of the learnings from this course.

Q: What kind of impact has the course had on your organization?  

A: Extremely positive. I think a lot of people are seeing value out of the course because the videos and the readings that we’re doing are relevant, and they’re learning things they can apply.

Also, going through this course really gave us a platform to bounce off of. That’s why I think it’s so powerful. It kind of created a third party to talk through.

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Q: What features of the CorpU platform have you found most useful?

A: The biggest is, we have 2,000+ stores spread across the entire country… and our corporate headquarters now with Sleep Train are in Sacramento and in Houston, so we’re across multiple time zones. So just the fact of the platform being online so that people can chatter between, and provide feedback and insights, creates a dialogue…That was really powerful, because it gave me a running-start dialogue with 100 people… it created a fantastic foundation for accelerating the relationship.

I’ve been through 20-plus acquisitions… trying to get people to know each other. And I’ve got to tell you, there was a marked difference in the speed at which our teams connected. It was almost as if we had been working together for years. I credit the course for doing that.

Q: What do you think of CorpU’s learning approach compared to traditional executive education programs?

A: I’m really impressed… I think that we live in a very busy world. And the approach provides busy executives time to learn something and reflect on it, and then a forum to get together and share that learning. All of the other executive programs I’ve been through are not able to be continuous, and most importantly, to connect leaders—I’m connected with leaders in Charleston South Carolina, Sacramento, San Francisco, Seattle, all at the same time—and that’s highly productive for a company that’s spread out across the country.

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Q: Any final thoughts or comments you’d like to make?

A: I think this platform is the future of how we’re going to elevate the education in our company. Bottom line. And if we elevate the education in our company, I think it’s a bet that pays off, because obviously the more we upgrade our knowledge, the more we upgrade our results.

There may be some other platforms out there, but what makes CorpU unique is the blend between academia and real-life executives who really understand what businesses go through. And that’s a great way to disperse education through experiences.