Larry Miller Featured

8:00pm EDT March 26, 2007
Though he takes his business and its success very seriously, Larry Miller still lists “laughing whenever possible” near the top of his priorities. As he sees it, maintaining a sense of humor and treating others as he would like to be treated have been instrumental in his company’s growth. Miller, president and CEO of Sit ’n Sleep, has been working to build and maintain a culture of openness and friendliness since he founded the Gardena-based chain of mattress superstores with his father in the early 1980s. Describing himself as a happy and gregarious guy, Miller is proud of the fact that Sit ’n Sleep has grown to revenue of more than $100 million but he is probably more proud to be on a first-name basis with all of his more than 220 employees. Determined to never settle for the status quo, Miller spoke to Smart Business about how constant evolution can keep a company ahead of the competition.

Treat others with respect. I promised myself that if I was ever fortunate enough to have a business that I would treat people with dignity and respect, and treat people the way I would want to be treated.

It’s really simple. I’ve worked for jerks in my life and I don’t want any of my people to have to work for a jerk.

Leaders need to think about how they would want to be treated in a work environment and deal with people the way they would want to be dealt with. It’s really basically very logical and simple. If you want to be dealt with, with dignity and respect, that’s how you treat other people.

As a result, people know where you’re coming from and they can trust you. People know where they stand at all times. If I’m angry or I’m concerned, I voice it. I don’t hold back.

People prefer that. We always want to know where we stand with other people, and if you’re open and honest about that, and foster open and honest communication, it frees people. People are burdened by what they think other people think, and they don’t have to worry about that with me.

Embrace change. An organization that doesn’t change or doesn’t evolve is an organization that is dying. I’m pretty much a change leader in everybody’s mind, from a truck driver to security guard to supervisors to our upper management.

I’m a change agent and I believe in challenging the organization to evolve and change, as opposed to being a CEO who likes the status quo. I’m constantly asking people to grow and change, and I am, too. I’m evolving constantly.

Without being open to change, another company is going to come up and basically eat your lunch. If you don’t reach for excellence and embrace change as people, you cease to be relevant, really, because what was successful yesterday will not be successful tomorrow. There are thousands of companies in the United States that have perished because they did not change; they did not vary what they do and the way they do it, and the way they look at the market and their people, and the way they interact with their people and internal and external customers.

Empower employees and learn from mistakes. People need to feel safe in the work environment, safe to venture out and make a mistake, and we’ve got to try to foster that. We all make mistakes, and that’s OK. We kind of even celebrate the mistakes because we can learn from them, and we certainly celebrate the positive results.

Get employees involved in the process. We have groups called ‘do-it groups’ in our business, where there are teams of people that just come up with their own projects, present it to a ‘do-it council’ of executives and we almost always green-light it and say, ‘Go for it.’

Leaders can’t do it all on their own. You have to harness the intellectual and emotional power of the organization to help move the organization to the next level.

You have to give people authority to make decisions. You have to let them go a little bit and allow them to go out on their own. Sometimes it’s going to burn you. We’ve had some issues where we’ve given authority in some areas and it cost us, but in the long run, it helps develop people.

As long as you keep your eye on everything, it won’t be that critical a mistake. A leader has to trust. You have to hire the right people and then you have to trust them. You can’t be a micromanager.

Reinvent yourself constantly. Our biggest consistent challenge is reinventing ourself as a company. We started as a tiny futon and sofa bed company and progressed to something else, and then morphed to something else, and went from traditional marketing for our type of business to electronic advertising, from radio to TV.

The biggest issue is to reinvent the business and morph into something bigger and better and different, and accept that and not be so stubborn that you’ve got to do it the way you did it a couple years ago.

Being open to that change and that reinvention is what will make a business great. If you do it the way you’ve always done it, you’ll always get what you’ve always gotten. We have to change. We have to evolve as people — or we don’t have to. We could decide we want to be X millions of dollars and we’d probably be OK with that, but eventually, somebody is going to come and do it better.

Somebody is going to invent the company that is going to put you out of business if you don’t keep evolving and changing. My biggest fear is becoming a company that’s happy with its success and just stagnant, and under my watch, that will never happen.

HOW TO REACH: Sit ’n Sleep, (800) 675-3536 or www.sitnsleep.com