IN BED WITH A.H. BEARD
“We have a vision of A.H. Beard 200 – that’s planning for the business to remain under the family ownership for 200 years.” Allyn Beard
For something that’s such a huge part of life, I have to say – I’d not truly thought about how much I value my mattress, until I’d become acquainted with the 4th and 5th generation of the Beard family. With over 120 years experience crafting hand-stitched mattresses and running a family business, they’ve been through enormous change. From hard times with early founding family members, to surviving short-lived competition and the ins and outs of navigating rapid expansion – there’s a great deal you can learn about commanding a business, from Allyn, Garry, Rachel and Matt Beard.
The one thing that really stood out for me during our interview, was the monumental impact their cultivated relationships had on the survival of the business. From Gerry Harvey (of Harvey Norman fame) to former Prime Minister John Howard – each relationship has a story behind it, and they all weave together to create the fabric of what the company is today.
A SINGER, SOME STRAW AND A HALF-GOLD SOVEREIGN
Originally from the UK, the first Beard family member, Enoch William Beard, immigrated to Australia in the 1800s in search of “a new future”. The mattress wasn’t yet something that had come into the picture as far as business ideas go, it was a combination of fortunate and unfortunate circumstance that led to their foray into the mattress world. ‘The unfortunate’ was the burning down of their original Mill factory in 1926, and ‘the fortunate’ was the tenacity of Enoch’s son Albert – who went on to rebuild the business.
With the finance of a half-gold sovereign and off the back of a bet, Albert and his wife made the first seven A.H. Beard mattresses within a week. It’s humbling to hear the story told by Albert’s grandsons, Allyn (Director) and Garry (Managing Director and Chairman) as they recall the first mattresses being made by a “Singer sewing machine”, by their grandmother, who “made the cover” and “pop” who “filled it, probably with straw” – you truly get the sense of a craft and a legacy that’s been passed on through generations.
So, seven mattresses and a week later – A.H. Beard was born.
THE POWER OF RELATIONSHIPS
4th generation family members Garry and Allyn are brothers, and can be attributed with turning A.H. Beard into the global business it is today. While at the helm of operations, sales and marketing, the brothers have seen the company expand from a team of 28, producing about 300 mattresses a week, to now a group of 450 working together to turn out up to 10,000 a week.
But, just because they’re family, doesn’t mean they got an easy ride to the top – the brothers had to work their way up to their respective positions and they certainly earned their place. Initially told to “go and get educated and get a job outside of the business” because the company was “not going to go to the next generation”, Garry did just that, only to come back to a position within the business from which he was “sacked” by his dad shortly after commencing. And so begins the first future-altering relationship story from A.H. Beard…
The reason behind the decision to “sack” Garry, was essentially because the business was in the midst of being split and sold off to various family members who didn’t quite share the same vision for the future as Garry and Allyn’s father did. Enter, the Warrett family. The story goes that this relationship, cultivated by Garry and Allyn’s father – allowed them the means to buy out the family members who had wished to sell and split the business.
Garry recalls the day it all came together in intricate detail; “so I remember vividly going and sitting on the veranda with Harry and Lionel [Warrett] and Harry said to Dad ‘What do you want to do?’ and he said ‘well I haven’t got the money to buy the business’ and he didn’t have the money to buy the business. So Harry said ‘why don’t you buy it’, and Dad said, ‘Well, what does that entail?’ to which Harry responded, ‘well, work out what you think is a fair price and come back and see me’. So, I was sacked on Thursday and we had to be back at the board table on the following Thursday.”
Together they settled on what they thought was a reasonable price to buy out the business and Harry agreed to finance it under one condition, that the Warrett family business would “become their main supplier, of two major raw materials”, which at the time was coconut fiber and cotton wadding. This was their first understanding of just how powerful relationships with fellow family business owners could be, and perhaps also the moment they realised what a huge asset it was to in fact be a family business themselves.
From here, the business expanded from the San Souci factory set up by Garry and Allyn’s father – to a national operation. A huge part of this expansion was due to yet another incredibly influential relationship, this time with Harvey Norman magnate, Gerry Harvey.
Who even when faced with cheaper competing brands, still chose to keep A.H.Beard mattresses on the floor. As Garry puts it, “that’s the success of A.H Beard, the relationships with people like Gerry Harvey. These go back to when we first started, and they stuck with us even though we were dearer.” Not only this, but the bond between Gerry and the Beard family went on to “enable the company to grow with Harvey Norman”, as “they started opening more and more stores” and took A.H. Beard with them on a “huge roller coaster” expanding into Queensland and beyond. If the Beard brothers said they didn’t want to expand, they’d “be left behind”. So expand they did and to this day they’re still Harvey Norman’s biggest supplier after 58 years.
CRACKING THE CHINESE MARKET
The Chinese market is both one of the most lucrative and the toughest to crack, but somehow the Beard boys have done it.
The key for them was to be ahead of the game. Traditionally sleep and bedding in China is very simple and involves “no comfort, no wellness”. Though Garry and Allyn were tipped off by some Chinese business women who’d happened upon their website, that bedding would be the next “wave” of investment for the Chinese market. So, as with all opportunities that came up for A.H. Beard – they dived head first into it.
Interestingly, it was the family business element and their experienced craft “that attracted the Chinese” to them. Garry says “they saw an old family company who knows what they are doing, in the best country in the world, the cleanest country in the world – producing a great product. We had a lot of things going for us that they knew nothing about.“
Both Allyn and Garry would grow to become acquainted with the Chinese market, with Allyn attributing their place in the market to the Chinese ‘success culture’; “once they’ve achieved a certain level of success and affluence, ironically, the last thing they actually want to do is buy a Chinese made product. They want ‘the best of the best’. They’ll buy lounges from Germany. And when it comes to beds, Australia is actually seen as very good quality.” Along with this, Rachel (5th generation Beard family member) further highlights the importance of the family element – “they love the family, and the history and the whole story that goes behind it.”
The brothers didn’t stop at just entering the market though, they wanted to make sure they were seen and truly heard. So who did they get to assist them with this? None other than their (now) good friend, former Australian Prime Minister John Howard. A connection made and then fostered by Allyn, Howard’s involvement with the brand is yet another example of just how instrumental relationship building has been – to the progression and success of A.H. Beard. After receiving a letter from Allyn, Howard agreed to join them in China to do the ribbon cutting at their first store opening. This was a clever strategy devised by Allyn as John Howard is seen as somewhat of a huge celebrity over there and definitely helped give the company clout and presence among an extremely discerning audience. In true Beard style, the brothers maintained this partnership, inspiring Howard to come “back for a few more store openings…” Allyn describes their relationship with the former Prime Minister as “a great friendship” that has “helped massively.”
This introduction and establishment into the Chinese market has seen A.H.Beard survive the threat of short-term local competitors who’ve come in with great marketing and a lower price point. And when you know that they’re selling mattresses to some very appreciative Chinese clients at $70,000-$100,000 a piece – it makes sense as to why. It’s almost as if A.H. Beard as a brand was made for this export market. The Chinese are dubious of quality, and according to Allyn – “they do their research, they’re not fools”, so when they’re spending $100,000 on a bed “it needs to have a very comprehensive story and fortunately, we’re able to tick all those boxes” being family owned, for 120 years.
As it stands the export portion of the business is now doubling every year.
SO, WHAT’S NEXT FOR A.H. BEARD?
Other than continuing their world domination, one mattress at a time, the Beard family “have a vision of A.H Beard 200 – that’s planning for the business to remain under the family ownership for 200 years.”
Allyn recognises that they “wouldn’t be sitting here today if not for their partnership with Gerry Harvey”, so a big part of their future involves maintaining those existing relationships respectfully. Which means carefully navigating a disruptive and innovative market without creating competition for people like Gerry. At the end of the day, their mission is so clear – they hope to be “still making beds and improving lives in 2099” and that’s at the core of all business decisions. This, in particular, is a sentiment strongly carried by Rachel Beard (5th generation). Rachel has now been working in the business since 2015 and brings with her a knowledge of health and wellbeing. So the focus for the ‘next generation’ is not only to create and sell world-class mattresses, but to effectively communicate how important it is to invest in quality sleep. It’s Rachel’s mission (and passion) to really get that message across and to educate people on “what a mattress does and the impact that it has on your overall health and well being.”
While Rachel steers education around the vision, her brother Matt is more operational. Having started out in the business by reinvigorating their Tasmania factory, Matt proved his worth when it comes to managing people. A skill some would say, can’t be learned – it has to be earned. And, when you hear Matt speak about the business, you understand how his infectious positivity is a driving force that continues to bring the business into new frontiers. As he says “at the end of the day, I’m here to make this work”, and that’s exactly what Matt and Rachel do – together.
With passionate ‘next-gen’ advocates, Matt and Rachel, the Beard family would love to increase awareness of their brand on a household level. To help both local and international markets understand the importance of investing in their sleep, because that’s what A.H. Beard truly cares about – improving people’s lives through sleep. And, not only do they care about it, but they’re able to achieve it. So finding platforms to spread awareness of what they do, what they stand for and how they can help people, is a huge piece of their future and one that Rachel and Matt are working toward, specifically.
With such a passionately determined family, infused with true family values – we have no doubt that they will become (as they like to put it) “the R.M. Williams of the bedding industry.”
GARRY’S PIECE OF ADVICE ON BUILDING A BRAND
The main thing is communication, so you actually say this is what we agree on and where we want to go.
THE CITY GUIDE TO GENEVA – FAMILY BUSINESS STYLE
Explore the best family businesses on offer in the popular Swiss region (when you are allowed to leave the house again of course).read more
CHANGING YOUR BUSINESS FOR AN EVOLVING MARKET
We profile three Japanese based business women, transforming their family business into a new generation.read more