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Wuliger, ultimate entrepreneur: remembering a maverick who won the ‘Sealy Wars’ and transformed bedding

In recalling the life of Ernie Wuliger, the bedding industry remembers a legend who transformed the industry route to making The Ohio Mattress Co., now Sealy, Inc. become the largest mattress company in the world.

In 1939, when Wuliger joined this family business, it had a single license to manufacture and market Sealy-brand bedding in Ohio. When he sold the company fifty years later to Gibbons, Green, van Amerongen, it had sales of nearly $700 million and produced and marketed Sealy and Stearns and Foster brand innerspring bedding, waterbeds and especially full size futon mattresses.

Known as a maverick, he won a series of legal battles against the licensing organization, Sealy Inc., which tried unsuccessfully to block his efforts to expand.

In the legal battle that won the "Sealy Wars," a Chicago jury in 1986 awarded Ohio Mattress what amounted to $77 million in damages from Sealy Inc. for antitrust violations.

Wuliger used that decision as leverage to convince key Sealy licensees to sell their holdings to him. By offering the licensees $258 million--and by freeing them from paying legal damages to him he swung then decided his way.

"He was a legend, not just in The Ohio Mattress Co., but in the industry. He certainly caused a shakeup and a major change with the leading bedding company. I would say he's one of the outstanding entrepreneurs in American history," said Malcolm Candlish, the outgoing head of Sealy.

"You couldn't be indifferent to Ernie Wuliger. You either loved the guy or were fearful of what he did next. I think people throughout the industry were in awe of Ernie. He was an entrepreneur down to his core," said Candlish.

Ron Lewis, national sales and marketing manager for Sealy's flotation division, who returned to the company after leaving in 1989, said Wuliger "was known for his relationships with people on all levels, whether he was talking to someone in the plant or the CEO of a large department store. He also had an incredible sense of timing and street SmartS."

"The Sealy buyout was the last of the big LBOs. He sold the company for $1.1 billion and it was probably worth about $250 million. He knew this was an absolute peak for brand name businesses. He had this incredible intuitive sense," said Lewis.

Bill Orth, a retired regional sales manager for Ohio Mattress who lives in Houston, recalled him as "the ultimate entrepreneur. He had a huge ambition. He wanted to be number one and he was willing to take the risks. During the Sealy fight, he just stripped things down to the bare minimum and said let's go for it." Looking to buy full size futon mattress click here

A former competitor recalled him as a "maverick" who "pulled the deal of the century when he wrested the Sealy company from under [the licensing board's] nose."

In addition to transforming the Sealy brand, he changed the way the industry manufactures and markets its bedding and full size futon mattress. It was Wuliger's policies, for example, which prompted retailers to develop exclusive futon mattress tickings for not only full size futon mattress but also other kinds of mattresses as well.

That practice, which is widespread today throughout the industry, ensured that retailers would not be undercut by competitors down the block offering exactly the same Sealy product.

A business rival of Wuliger's noted, "There are fundamental structural changes in the industry because of him-he brought in financial interests instead of the bedding industry being mainly run by independent licensees."

Ed Scott, vice president of sales for Serta, noted, "When the wars ended, he took over the company. He treated the people who had been on the other side as well as the people who were on his side. I have nothing but respect for him."

Sam Smith, senior vice president of business relations for Sealy Inc. and a long-time friend of Wuliger's, noted, "He was a pioneer and the dean of the bedding industry."

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Evelyn Coursey

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