Sleepy Willow seeks national reach

— John and Jamie Bender would love to sell you a little girl's twin bed for the audacious price of $6,000. And they know exactly what they are doing.

The Benders are the owners of Sleepy Willow, a year-old catalog business that sells custom linens for little girls' bedrooms, as well as remarkably expensive beds. The beds are beautifully designed to resemble the backyard playhouse that every girl dreams of.

Sleepy Willow's product line includes fine flannel sheets made in Portugal and cotton sheets from Turkey. There are cotton blankets, flannel duvets, chenille throws and pillow shams, all in creamy whites and pastels.

The products are of high quality, but what the Benders are actually selling is a romantic dream borrowed from a 19th century children's book. Their own family of two boys and a little girl star in this dream, and the $6,000 "Miss Ellie's Cottage Bed" is the centerpiece of the fantasy. The bed itself is meant to create a buzz, and in that way, drive sales of custom bed linens.

"I want to be the company that makes people say, 'Did you see the company that has those little beds for $6,000?' Then they notice the flannel sheets for $24," Jamie explained. "I'm a huge shopper myself, and I know how this goes. That's how women are. Don't you understand it?"

Here's how Jamie sees it. If you believe that people choose their clothes to project an image, then you'll agree that women also define themselves by how their homes look and what they do for their children.

Local showroom

The Benders just opened their retail showroom in Copper Ridge Business Park last week. Although they are eager to have local customers visit and see their products, they go out of their way to acknowledge Sleepy Willow's product lines aren't really a good fit for Steamboat's western design sensibilities.

Among the products on display is "Brady's Barn Bed," a rustic bed for little boys that's made out of 100-year-old Amish barn wood. That's about as close as Sleepy Willow gets to Steamboat's log cabin, cowboy aesthetic. All of the bed linens are in whites and pastels that don't evoke the ruggedness of the Rocky Mountains.

Jamie explains that her product lines were designed with a national and international clientele in mind.

Jamie is the creative spark behind Sleepy Willow while John, equally enthusiastic but clearly a calming influence, is the numbers guy. He is a former computer consultant who has a mind for balance sheets and writing HTML code for the company's new Web site.

Jamie is a University of Colorado graduate who studied English and journalism. But she found her career path in her talent for marketing and sales.

John recalls the family was here on a ski trip eight years ago from their home in San Diego. Like many visitors to Steamboat, they were asking themselves, "Is there a way we could move here and make a living?"

Bed from an idea

It was during that same trip that Jamie told John she had an idea for a custom bed for their daughter's bedroom. When they got back to their vacation home, they played with a deck of cards to approximate the design in Jamie's mind.

John went to the lumberyard when they returned to San Diego and bought the wood needed to build the bed Jamie envisioned.

The completed bed was still in the garage when the Benders held a garage sale in their driveway. Several of their customers offered to buy the bed, and one friend urged her to pitch the design to a national retailer.

Jamie followed up on that notion, and when she found herself in negotiations with a top executive for Laura Ashley in London, she knew she was on to something good. The Benders decided to keep their idea for themselves and currently hold design patents on two of their unique beds.

The Benders hired a couple of carpenters and a cabinetmaker to refine their designs. They needed to perfect a scheme of modular construction of the beds that would allow them to be shipped by truck on pallets. It also needed to be easy for dads to assemble with identical Allen-key bolts.

Building relationships

Jamie reasoned she and John couldn't really make a lot of money selling expensive furniture. Instead, she has built the business around the textiles such as sheets, pillows and pillowcases that go with the beds.

Jamie trains her telephone salespeople to take as much time as needed with customers to build relationships.

Sleepy Willow's catalog tells the story of a little girl named Ellie Jean and her best friend, a rabbit named "Miss Millie." One day, the little girl's mother served Ellie and Millie their usual snack of carrots, cheese and tea in their backyard playhouse. The 4-year-old girl asked her mother, "What if this little house was my bed and I got to sleep in it for all of the nights?"

The catalog unfolds from the story. And customers are buying the story as well as the bed linens. Jamie says her telephone salespeople frequently tell her the customers want to know what she (Jamie) is doing next to redecorate her children's rooms.

"Anybody can go out there and make the cutest sheets there ever were," Jamie said. "But nobody can take our story away from us."

In the textile business, it's critical to retain customers, Jamie said, and spending 15 or 20 minutes on the phone with customers is a way to build relationships with buyers who are, in many cases, affluent.

"They want that one-on-one contact. They all want to know our story and all about our family," Jamie said. "We want it to be a lifetime relationship. We just want to keep them forever. I mean forever."

Looking to the future

The Benders are close to bringing out a line of bedding for little boys' rooms. Linens for adult bedrooms will follow in the future.

"We're achieving what we set out to do," Jamie said. "Eventually I'd like to open up retail stores all over the country."

For now, the Benders are content to gradually build their catalog sales. The original catalog mailing went out in October 2000. They shipped 85,000 books to people on a mailing list they purchased from a New York company. They re-mailed 95,000 copies in April. John says a 1 percent rate of return on catalogs is considered a good return in the mail-order industry. Sleepy Willow's return is slightly less than 1 percent, but he attributes that to the relatively high cost of their products and is satisfied with the pace at which the business is growing and says it fits in with their business plan.

Growing the business

Phone volume fluctuates at Sleepy Willow, but they're happy when they get 50 to 75 calls a week. "We still have people calling from the first mailing," John said. "For a catalog business, that's phenomenal."

They purchased side-by-side office/warehouse condominiums in the building developed by Snow Country Concrete in Copper Ridge. Combined, they have 10,000 square feet. Inside the warehouse are large bolts of fabric imported from Turkey and Portugal.

The offices and phone-sales operation are on the first floor, next door to the showroom. There is also a room that houses commercial laundering equipment used to prepare some of the imported fabrics for finishing.

Sewing is done in three locations at the fabric mills overseas, at a sew shop in Denver and upstairs in the company's Steamboat location. Sleepy Willow also contracts piecework from Amish women in Michigan and Wisconsin.

Working from their homes, they sew "scrunched-up" fabric flowers that are sewn onto blankets and throws in Steamboat.

The Benders have two full-time employees and one part-time employee in Steamboat. They use UPS to ship their textile products and Bekins to ship their beds.

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