By Jeff Balke
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By Craig Malisow
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Writing about Jim "Mattress Mac" McIngvale brings on the urge to use bold-faced type and a thousand exclamation points. Mac is a man of color, of action; relegating him to the written word comes across as a slap in the face. Sure, he has an autobiography (Always Think Big), but one glance at the cover tells everything: Mac is smiling because he thinks big. Always. And in case anybody misses the complexities of his philosophy, the word "Big" is BIG and yellow and takes up almost half the cover.
Mac's story is passed down like sacred lore: Born in Mississippi, raised in Dallas; college was boring, so he dropped out and opened fitness clubs with his dad. McIngvale was doing great, selling plenty of "discount" memberships, until folks complained and the state found out the only discount present was that of the truth. McIngvale was sued under the Deceptive Trade Practices Act, his wife filed for divorce, and he lost his shirt.
But when he got another shirt -- a nightmarish version of the Stars and Stripes -- it would be to Jim McIngvale what the leather jacket was to the Fonz. He opened a Houston furniture store in the early '80s. Soon Houstonians were hit with the sight of a bellowing freak, barking like a crazed cult leader about his furniture prices. Not even Charles Manson was that garish. But it was his jejune tag line that would somehow indoctrinate viewers and become part of the local landscape: "Save you money!"
Only a fool or a savant could have predicted that, ten years later, McIngvale would become one of the most successful furniture retailers in America, and one of Space City's biggest philanthropists.
In the early '90s, McIngvale began the Christmas tradition of giving away a houseful of furniture to a needy family. It's heartwarming and good for the bottom line, too: Every year, the Houston Chronicle writes about the lucky souls who heap praises upon Jolly Ol' St. Mac.
Sure, he may still be thought of as a joke, but get this: In 1992, he paid to feed 20,000 homeless Houstonians with three tons of turkey, 3,000 pounds of dressing, 600 gallons of gravy and 12,000 pounds of sides. He put his money where their mouths were, and he made a big difference.
A proud Catholic, McIngvale took his family to Rome in 1999, where, he told the Chronicle, he had a religious awakening. So he paid more than $500,000 to send to Rome 300 students and teachers from each of the Galveston-Houston diocese's 60 schools.
These good deeds helped many individuals. But it was McIngvale's love of tennis that helped the city.
After buying the foundering Westside Tennis Club, McIngvale laid out clay courts and millions of dollars to attract pros such as Andre Agassi, Andy Roddick and Roger Federer. McIngvale even brought the prestigious Masters Cup championships here for two years. Oh, and he didn't forget about the kids, either: He paid for a tennis center at Yates High School.
McIngvale always had a soft spot for Agassi, who told the Chronicle that McIngvale is an inspiration: "Mac is one of the greatest human beings I've ever seen when it comes to his commitment to put his money where his mouth is, to step up to the plate and actually affect the things he claims he cares about."
Of course, you don't get to be this big without drawing criticism. Tales abound about McIngvale's alleged abuse of employees, which he has flatly denied. In 2003, two fired employees sued McIngvale for age and gender discrimination. One of them, a 55-year-old sales manager, accused McIngvale of calling him "old man" and making him sweep the warehouse. Yet it took the jury only 40 minutes to return a verdict in favor of Mac.
Mac isn't afraid to point his own finger, either. When Association of Tennis Professionals head Mark Miles moved the Masters Cup from Houston to Shanghai, McIngvale called him "worthless," accusing him of having more interest in flying around the world than in promoting tennis.
And this is a guy who does motivational speaking.
But that's the unpredictable nature of Mac. Take, for example, his much-lauded work in telling kids to stay off drugs. The only reason he did that in the first place was because a court ordered him to. After an eight-year-old-girl was attacked by a lion at a flea market McIngvale owned, he was ordered to make antidrug TV spots. The thing is, Mac continued making them even when he no longer had to. Why? Only he knows, but it's clear that Mac sees that doing good deeds benefits both business and the community.
Not everything goes his way, though. He bought an expensive Thoroughbred, only to find out the horse wasn't healthy enough to run in the Kentucky Derby. And he flushed away a reported $8 million on Chuck Norris's bomb Sidekicks.
But forgive Mac his transgressions. He can afford to run down those rabbit trails, because his efforts pay off where it really matters. Bush 41 turned to him to help raise money for tsunami victims. Mac followed that up with a check for $250,000, then he produced a big-name tennis exhibition at the Toyota Center that raised more money for the cause.
The University of Houston's nationally renowned Bauer College of Business recently established a scholarship in McIngvale's name. Associate Dean Bob Casey says McIngvale regularly delivers educational and inspirational lectures to students, showing that a person's true worth isn't judged by just wealth.
"He's an icon in our community, and he is one of those that leads by example," Casey says. "...How do you transform the lives of young people?" McIngvale "gives us his financial treasures, as well as his time."
So does this mean you can't make fun of Mattress Mac anymore? Of course not. As long as he continues to spend a reported $6 million a year on those freaking commercials, it's open season. And as long as he keeps a necklace once owned by Princess Di in his store and sometimes gives speeches while wearing one of Elvis's capes, you practically haveto make fun of him.
Just remember that when you do, you're laughing at a guy who's fed the hungry, aided countries devastated by natural disasters and paid for hundreds of Houston kids to pray in St. Peter's Basilica. He's done a lot more than just save you money. He's gladly given away a lot of his.