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David Perry

Protect-A-Bed execs find rainbow at end of journey

Growing U.S. company has South African roots

CHICAGO — When Clive Goldin, Lawrence Hirson and James Bell walked aboard the luxury cruise ship Odyssey here the other night, they joined members of their Protect-A-Bed team for a dinner cruise on Lake Michigan.

As the ship pulled away from Navy Pier on a blustery autumn evening, Goldin, Hirson and Bell led the celebration of the opening of the company's expansive new Chicago-area distribution center and office.

In the warmth of the enclosed dining room, safe from the cold lake winds, the sounds of clinking glasses and excited conversations filled the air. Nestled in that festive setting, Protect-A-Bed's three U.S. principals marked another chapter in the growth of their company.

 Protect-A-Bed executives Clive Goldin, left, Lawrence Hirson, James Bell and David Kaplan with U.S. and South African flags, celebrating the company’s heritage.Protect-A-Bed executives Clive Goldin, left, Lawrence Hirson, James Bell and David Kaplan with U.S. and South African flags, celebrating the company’s heritage.

The three run Protect-A-Bed together, combining salesmanship and business acumen to keep their mattress and pillow protection company on what they say is a growth track - even in a year of recession in the mattress business. It was fitting that they were cruising on the Odyssey, for Goldin, Hirson and Bell have each undertaken a personal and business odyssey that brought them from South Africa to the United States, where they have engineered an American success story.

Their story begins in South Africa in 1980, when a new kind of mattress protection product was developed. Unlike conventional mattress pads, which feature light layers of padding, the new Snugfit product was constructed of a waterproof membrane that provided additional protection for the mattress.

Goldin, Hirson and Bell, all living in South Africa, at the time were unaware of the development of the new Snugfit line.

Hirson left the country in 1983. "I didn't want my children born in South Africa," he said. Goldin also moved for family reasons: "I wanted to give my family a better opportunity."

Protect-A-Bed, the U.S. name for Snugfit (that name was already trademarked for another product in North America), was launched in 2000 by Hirson and Goldin. David Kaplan, who had developed the line in South Africa and now heads operations in Australia, offered the U.S. rights to the line to Hirson and Goldin.

"One thing I can do is sell," Goldin said. "If a product has no substance, I can't get behind it."

But the new Protect-A-Bed line offered a valuable benefit to the U.S. market: It helped consumers enjoy a healthy, comfortable night of sleep by shielding the mattress from the allergens that can disrupt sleep, and disrupt lives, Goldin said.

Goldin and Hirson set up shop at the New York textile show in October of 2000. "The reaction was strong enough to help us decide this was a great product," said Goldin, who opened an office in Philadelphia. Hirson, who lived in California, began hitting the road, calling on retailers.

"I knocked on doors across the country, but kept getting thrown out," Hirson recalled of that first year. "I kept going back until they listened." Added Goldin: "Lawrence was persistent."

By the end of the year, sales had reached $38,000, Hirson recalled. At the end of the company's first full year in business, sales were $350,000. A year after that, the company hit the $1 million mark.

Meanwhile, James Bell, a successful businessman in South Africa, joined Hirson and Goldin in setting his sights on the U.S. market. "I left South Africa on the sixth of August, 2001," Bell said. "I wanted to broaden my horizons and sell something to a bigger market. I wasn't sure exactly what I was going to sell."

Bell had known Goldin in South Africa, where both worked in the toy industry. Bell was a retailer and Goldin a wholesaler. Goldin likes to remind Bell that Bell didn't buy from him in South Africa.

Bell moved to Chicago, where he got a call one day from Goldin, inviting him to sit in on a Protect-A-Bed sales call. It was an eventful one; the retailer they were calling on suffered a heart attack over dinner. (He survived.) For his part, Bell was impressed with the Protect-A-Bed line. The third piece of the company's management team fell into place.

"We took on James because we needed someone to establish the company in the Midwest," Goldin said.

And that geographical distribution of the three principals remains in effect to this day: Bell heads the Chicago operation, Hirson supervises the West Coast from his base in California, and Goldin lives in Philadelphia and heads the office there.

"We all do the same things," Goldin said. "We are all jacks of all trades."

The three run the company together; decisions reached by the management triumvirate must be unanimous.

Protect-A-Bed has expanded its line over the years, introducing an encased product called AllerZip designed to protect mattresses from the ravages of bed bugs, a growing problem in the U.S.

"Bed bugs are a big story," Bell said. "We are growing nicely with our encasement products."

Contract placements are one of the keys to the company's growth story this year, helping push revenues up by about 25% compared to last year. Protect-A-Bed is aiming to do $40 million in business this year in the North American market, company officials said.

They are doing that with almost 40 full-time employees and a total sales force and trainer team of about 80.

"We like to do events with our own people to make them more of a team," Bell said. "We all travel a lot and it's hard to get together."

On this day, that wasn't a problem. Earlier in the day, the company held an open house at its new Northbrook, Ill, warehouse and office facility. The Protect-A-Bed team was out in force, enjoying a buffet of South African foods. The tables were set with stands that held small U.S. and South African flags, another nod to the company's roots - and a reminder of the long journey to success traveled by Hirson, Goldin and Bell.

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