Top Line Mattress
Luxury bed maker E.S. Kluft doesn't lose sleep over its workers' slow pace
It's difficult to imagine a factory these days where workers are encouraged to take it easy, but that's the story at E.S. Kluft Co., one of the world's top luxury bedding brands, where handcrafted mattresses take days to make and cost more than some luxury sedans.
"We like to say that we pay our people to slow down," said David M. Binke, 55, chief executive of E.S. Kluft, which creates some of the most exclusive sleeping surfaces on the planet under its Kluft and Aireloom brands. "Our mattresses will take two to two and a half times longer to make than the standard mattresses we compete with."
Kluft operates at the upper 15% of the mattress market price range, the "premium sleep" category, but it's not even close to being the most expensive of the lot. Swedish bedding firm company Hastens, for example, has mattresses that sell for $49,500 and more.
A top-of-the-line, handcrafted, king-size Kluft Beyond Luxury Palais Royal (with a choice of plush, firm or somewhere in between) costs about $36,200, according to Bloomingdale's website. By comparison, a BMW 3 Series sedan starts at $32,950 and a 2015 Audi A4 starts at $35,500.
Binke isn't bothered by the comparison.
"You might spend an hour in your car if you have a long commute," Binke said. "You'll spend a third of your life in bed."
The company's director of marketing and product development — and self-described "mattress geek" — I. David Long said he came to Kluft after growing weary of other mattress companies that were mainly concerned with productivity and profit margins.
Not so at Kluft, Long said, joking that "we are probably the most inefficient factory in the United States." Kluft, which was founded in 2004 but traces its roots to the creation of the Aireloom brand in 1949, has 200 employees spread equally between its Rancho Cucamonga and Pennsylvania manufacturing plants.
The U.S. mattress industry was hit hard by the recession, but Kluft avoided the collapse, executives said, in part because the company expanded sales outside California, finding customers in other parts of the nation willing to pay top dollar for a good night's sleep.
Revenue rose 20% last year and is expected this year to climb above $75 million, a record, Binke said. Kluft competes at the upper end of the $7.5-billion-a-year mattress industry, in which sales of premium mattresses account for as much as 21% of sales.
New owners Flex Group of Spain, one of the world's largest bedding manufacturers, has plans for further expansion. The company, which completed its purchase of E.S. Kluft in March for an undisclosed sum, already owned one of Britain's oldest luxury bedding brands, Vi-Spring, which was founded in 1901.
Flex Group recently launched an advertising campaign to take the laid-back California vibe to overseas customers. One Aireloom ad features an ocean wave breaking into a perfect curl over a mattress, with the words "California Design — Handmade."
"A lot of customers want American-made merchandise," Binke said. "There is a cachet about it, a perception of higher quality."
Currently, Kluft's international business accounts for just 1% to 2% of sales, but the strategy is to make that a much more substantial part of the business. Kluft recently filled the new position of vice president of international sales.
"We think in about two years it will be about 10% of our total sales," Binke said, "then 15% to 18% in the next five years, depending on how quickly we can grow. We're going to go all over. We think Asia is the biggest opportunity for us."
Kluft makes mattresses that are so comfortable that salespeople sometimes have to be trained to resist the urge to tell prospective buyers to please just finally get up and buy the darned things.
Aireloom mattresses ended up in every White House bedroom during the Reagan administration. Others were bought by Frank Sinatra and Golden Age of Hollywood actress Rita Hayworth. Comedian Ellen Degeneres has a custom-designed Kluft.
Sleeping wasn't always the point. In 1969, former Beatle John Lennon and wife Yoko Ono held one of their two weeklong anti-Vietnam War "Bed-In for Peace" events on an Aireloom mattress.
E.S. Kluft will sell about 100,000 mattresses and foundations this year with about a dozen a month at the top end, taking as long as three days to make, largely by hand. Its less-expensive brands, such as the Aireloom queen that starts at about $2,000, can be made in two to three hours.
The top of a high-end Kluft mattress might include a layer of Belgian spun Pima cotton jacquard, a special form of cotton that accounts for just 3% of all U.S. production. It is most often found in premium products because it can be woven into softer, finer and more luxurious fabrics. The jacquard weave describes a process in which the decorative design is incorporated into the weave rather than dyed on or printed.
Next comes 10 pounds of cashmere, Angora goat mohair, silk and luxurious New Zealand wool, which wicks away moisture and cradles the sleeper. Other layers follow, including more biofoam shaped like a giant egg carton to provide air circulation. Layers of natural latex help ensure that one sleeper's movement isn't felt by the other. A layer of organic cotton felt is also used to help the mattress breathe.
More expensive models can include horsehair, which also allows the mattress to breathe. The horsehair is hypoallergenic, repels nasty critters such as mites, helps the mattress feel springy and wicks away moisture, including nighttime sweat. It also won't compress like cheaper materials.
"It's a different kind of firming agent, not like foam, which is bouncing, or cotton, which is kind of a dead feel," Long said. "The horsehair has a curl to it that pushes back up. It's in the top three models of our Kluft's at Bloomingdale's."
The bottom of the bed has a bioform layer. On that sits as many as 2,000 individual coils used in the box springs, which are manufactured onsite. The string repeatedly wrapped around each coil to bind them together is Italian hemp twine.
"When you look at the amount of handwork that is done, the fact that we don't use any inexpensive components, the fact that we produce our own bed springs, that is how the cost goes up. That's how you get a better night's sleep and a better product for retail," Binke said.
The process starts in two sections of the 105,000-square-foot Rancho Cucamonga factory. One is the sewing section, where covers, for example, are made. The other is the section where the individually wrapped coils for the bedsprings are made.
The sewing alone can take up to two and a half hours, unlike traditional mattress manufacturing, which completes the sewing in as few as 30 minutes.
Chief Operating Officer Ronald Bruneau said the company will never let a mattress go to market before its time.
"Quality is our No. 1 priority," Bruneau said. "Even if it is a little less efficient, so be it."