January 17, 2007
By JANICE PODSADA, Courant Staff Writer
Americans are a hardy bunch. From November through April they'll endure night after punishing night of lumps and backaches.
But come spring, they'll fight back. "That's when people buy a new mattress," said Robert Naboicheck, 52, president and CEO of Gold Bond Mattress Co., a privately owned Hartford company.
From May through October, mattress sales soar. Consumers either tire of their aches and pains or they move.
It's a longstanding pattern - as true now as it was a century ago, said Naboicheck, whose grandfather founded the company in 1899.
The key to longevity is knowing what customers want, being adaptable and babying the firm's 80-year-old cotton processing machines. That, and "don't owe anybody any money," Naboicheck added.
Family-owned and operated for four generations, and with just one factory, "we can turn on a dime if we need to make changes," Naboicheck said.
In the mid-1890s, Isador and Rebecca Naboicheck immigrated to the United States from Ukraine. After a stopover in New Jersey, the couple began looking for a permanent home. According to family lore, Isador hopped a passenger train north. When it stopped in Hartford, he surveyed the bustling city, liked what he saw and decided to settle here. Today, Gold Bond employs 75 to 100 workers, depending on the season.
The company would not reveal its revenue or profit numbers.
In Ukraine, the family had been upholsterers. Sticking with what they knew best, in 1899 Isador Naboicheck established a mattress factory in a four-story brick building overlooking the Connecticut River.
To reduce their start-up costs, the family lived on the third-floor of the factory during the company's nascent years. Aaron Naboicheck, Gold Bond's second-generation president, was born over the factory. As Robert Naboicheck tells it, "My dad was born on a bale of cotton."
The company's first product line was stuffed with straw. By the early 1900s, Gold Bond and other manufacturers had switched to a more durable mattress filling - horse hair. That changed again in the 1920s, when cotton batting became the preferred stuffing. After World War II, the innerspring mattress emerged as the industry standard.
In 1961, Gold Bond vacated its original four-story factory and moved into a 60,000-square-foot building on Windsor Street. Soon after, the Navy came calling in need of flame-proof bedding for its new fleet of atomic submarines.
Aaron Naboicheck designed a narrow little mattress that was about as cushy as a granite countertop - but which, he said, was flame-proof.
To clinch the deal, he invited Navy officials to witness a demonstration in the company's parking lot. "My dad pulled me out of school to watch," Robert Naboicheck said. "He used an acetylene torch and cut one of these mattresses in half. It cut through the metal cot, but the mattress didn't burn. He got the contract."
In the late 1970s, Gold Bond began manufacturing futons for the international market.
By 1990, the company's sales ratio reflected its change of focus. Futons generated about 65 percent of Gold Bond's sales in terms of dollars, Robert Naboicheck said. The manufacture of conventional mattresses, however, hung in the balance. If the company wanted to continue producing them, it would need new equipment and bigger lodgings.
In 1995, Gold Bond moved to its present location, a 115,000-square-foot building on Weston Street.
Although it continues to be one of the nation's largest futon manufacturers, the dollar figures on its sales have flipped; now, two-thirds of its revenue comes from sales of conventional mattresses.
If there's one thing that has been a constant, it's the company's six 80-year-old cotton garnett machines. The 1929 workhorses transform raw cotton into cotton batting, used in futons and mattresses. Safety features have been added and the electronics updated, but their steel cores are original. Each year, they process more than 5 million pounds of cotton.
In a partitioned-off section of the factory, cotton dust hovers in the air like low-lying fog. Protected by goggles and masks, workers feed raw cotton into the machines, whose combs rake through the fibers, removing seeds and impurities.
Although the combs can be resharpened, replacement parts have to be fashioned by a machine shop. "It's not like you can buy them off the shelf," Robert Naboicheck said.
Henry "Skip" Naboicheck, 24, Robert's son, has become the fourth-generation family member to work at Gold Bond.
Like his father, Skip's first job at the factory was loading trucks. "I started there when I was 16. It taught me the value of work - getting my hands dirty, waking up at 4:30."
He, too, has embraced the family's philosophy: Make sure your customers are happy, get to know your clients, and keep the company's octogenarians, its 80-year-old cotton garnett machines, humming.
About that last point, Skip Naboicheck said he's none too worried.
"We should be garnetting cotton until I have great grandchildren."
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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