Ralph Behrens could be described as an accidental entrepreneur who has somewhat reluctantly accepted his Natural Beds business needs to grow. But, he maintains, he runs the business; it doesn’t run him.
Ralph Behrens has led an interesting and somewhat alternative life, initially learning his trade in an American Ashram. Today he owns Natural Beds which, from a workshop in Oratia, West Auckland, produces hand-made latex mattresses, futon mattresses and slat beds and it’s in growth-mode.
Ralph came to New Zealand 30 years ago, with his [now former] Kiwi wife.
German-born, he had been living in Australia and in the early 1980s was part of Indian guru Rajneesh’s organisation. During this period, he took on the job of helping establish an Ashram in Oregon in the United States.
When the couple returned to Australia they took on “a bit of futon making” which they had learnt at the Ashram, starting from their back yard in Sydney and later moving the business to New Zealand.
He’s not involved with the Ashram movement now, but has fond memories and no regrets. He sees it today more as a community organisation, which is about self-awareness and knowing yourself.
And that does translate, in many ways, into business. Ralph has done a lot of work in the area of self-improvement and it carries over to the way he deals with people and with the business itself.
“I don’t like the business running me; I don’t like to be taken over by something like a business. It needs to serve me, not me serving the business.”
With the first bed business, the couple felt it was indeed running their lives and so sold it and took time to travel overseas with their, then, nine-year-old son, including a stint travelling in Mongolia hitch-hiking around the country in old Russian trucks.
On their return to New Zealand they started FutonNZ (now called Natural Beds) in 2000, which makes latex mattresses using latex from Sri Lanka, wrapped in wool from New Zealand and covered in organic cotton from Australia.
Latex mattresses are organic and sustainable, made from the sap of the rubber tree. Latex is odour free, fire resistant and non-toxic. It’s naturally dust resistant and is anti-bacterial, anti-microbial and anti-fungal.
It's also good for those with back problems because the density of the latex makes it therapeutically supportive.
Ralph says latex mattresses have a huge range of density from very soft to very firm. “It’s the thing that makes us unique.” The company was the first in New Zealand to be able to change the layers in the mattress at any time and fine-tune it to suit the customer’s needs. This is a free service for up to three months after the sale and it’s a big selling point.
The company sells mainly directly to customers, not other companies “because other retailers are the worst customers you can imagine,” as they don’t always pay promptly.
With direct supply he knows they are offering very good service. “You can’t do that through a third party.”
To grow or not to grow
Ralph says he has been learning recently that you can’t pull the reins back on a business, He has been tempted to do so to try and consolidate and keep things as they are – but realises you can’t get away with that. “You have to keep growing and that calls for some hard decisions. The business would just die if I hadn’t recognised over the last couple of years that unless you allow for growth and promote growth you will be in danger. You have to look forward and look at ways of growing the business.”
He admits these are good problems to have. The business is growing strongly and production is up, so much so that his areas of concern are around the size of the showroom, staffing and storage.
One of his business tenets is loyalty to suppliers and Ralph says he is hard to budge once he has found a good supplier.
Over the years he has found that business is all about people and that drives a lot of what his company does, whether it be customers or staff - “what they need and what they want and how to accommodate all that without giving too much of yourself away”.
“I don’t like the business running me; I don’t like to be taken over by something like a business.”
Personally he finds marketing is the trickiest part of a business and knowing how to get it right. He has burnt himself a number of times with different marketing avenues and says being able to say no to people is important.
When they started their first business 28 years ago a friend was working for a radio station and Ralph spent $3000 on radio advertising, which was a huge amount of money at the time.
Marketing these days is through Google and some Yellow Pages advertising but he believes that online advertising is the way of the future.
Ralph’s message to aspiring entrepreneurs is that you must primarily enjoy what you are doing and feel good about what you are doing.
“If you are not there you are not going to succeed. Don’t allow yourself to be pushed into buying things and taking up all sorts of proposals. A lot of people will come to you with offers but you need to be very careful about spending money on advertising and marketing.”
And his final word?
“Most of all you need to be able to relax, and not be run by the business and get stressed by it. You need to have a life.”
Author: Annie Gray, editor of Management.