Hope Katz Gibbs

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Backs to the Future [Business Life magazine]

by Hope Katz Gibbs
Business Life magazine
The Business of North Carolina

Does your back hurt? If so, you are not alone. Statistics show the majority of the adult U.S. population has persistent low back pain at some time in their lives.

Low back pain seems to affect people in epidemic proportion, says back expert Stephanie Levin-Gervasi in her book, “The Back Pain Source Book.” She estimates five million Americans are partially disabled by back pain, that another two million are so severely disabled they can’t work, and says back aches account for 93 million workdays lost every year at a cost of $5 million in health care.

“Regaining control of your chronic back pain takes time,” offers Levin-Gervasi. “It is important not to isolate yourself. Pain management requires an active role. You are a key player.”

But where do you turn?

One shop that may help is Back Relief Unlimited. Based in Greensboro since May 1997, a mom and pop shop that offers 550 products to make a bad back feel good. Owners Geoff and Kay Hall sell recliners that automatically adjust to support the neck, chairs that improve productivity, and an adjustable comfort air sleep mattress system with a pillow.

They simply have a great time helping others feel good. And it shows. A hairless Geoff drives around in a forest green van that unabashedly advertises the store.

“It has all sorts of information slapped all over it,” explains the February issue of the company’s newsletter, The Back Relief Gazette.

In fact, covering the van’s windows, doors, and hood is the company logo, the store phone number and address, as well as information about what they do and why they do it. “Honk if you see a bald-headed guy driving,” offers the flyer.

The Halls deliver mattresses and chairs for free, and give away a four ounce tube of BioFreeze cold pain relief gel with every purchase of an electric massage unit. The freebees are sincere. The owners want to thank their clients as well as cater to them. They are quick to respond to personal requests, and even offer customized chairs that fit executives of all sizes: slim (for folks under 5’5”), tall (for those 5’10” to 6’3”), and extra tall (6’4” to 6’8”).

It is a combination of marketing savvy and hospitality that attracts customers.

“Business couldn’t be better,” says Kay. “We saw a niche that needed to be filled, and have been real pleased with what has happened so far.

The booming business comes as a happy surprise to the Halls, who in 1996 found themselves at a financial crossroad. Kay was laid off from her job as an account manager at Nabisco. She’d sold Chips Ahoy, Ritz crackers and Oreo cookies for 24 years before the company downsized, leaving the 40-something saleswoman searching for a new career.

About the same time, her 50- something husband was looking for a more prosperous venture than his photo lab, Greensboro Photo Print, was providing.

“The overhead from his scanner was eating him alive,” says Kay. “After we
freaked out that I’d lost my job and he was losing his business, we calmly assessed
the situation.”

They began leafing through Entrepreneur and other business magazines looking for a new venture they would both enjoy. The Halls considered several options, but kept coming back to the idea of opening a store that specialized in providing back relief.

What initially drew their attention, Kay says, was the hope they could find some relief for Geoff’s bad back. “He was backing down the driveway one morning, and pop, it hit him,” Kay says. “It really wasn’t one incident that caused his bad back. It was a series of accumulated wrong twists and turns, combined with stress. A situation similar happens to most of our customers. One day they turn the wrong way and suddenly find they can’t move. “

Customers don’t have to suffer alone anymore. “We have a very narrowly defined purpose,” say the Halls. “We provide quality back care products. Like the logo on our van says, we’re the most comfortable store in town.”

The Halls aren’t the only entrepreneurs who want to ease the pain in the aching lumbar region of many North Carolinians.

The HealthyBack Store in Raleigh, a haven for an aching back, carries hundreds of ergonomically correct aids including a fancy high-tech black Herman Miller “Aeron” chair, an architecturally appealing back-friendly desk, and a half dozen styles of plush recliners. The store also stocks electric foot and back massagers, exercise balls, and self-help healthy back books.

In center stage of the store is the piece de resistance—a bed. Not your average coil kind, but a HealthyBack Store bed manufactured to meet the store’s specifications. They come in four styles, and owner Tony Mazlish says: “All our beds are designed to mold to the body instead of the typical situation where the body is forced to mold to the bed.”

Prices for HealthyBack beds range from $399 for a twin three-zone foam mattress (soft at the head, firm in the middle, soft at the toe) to $1,399 for a king size Spring Deluxe. The high-end bed is known as the “bed that listens to your body,” because the spring mattress is topped with a layer of malleable molding “memory” foam. Memory foam is a firm, yet pliable substance that surrounds the body that sits on it.

Another popular bedding item constructed completely of the malleable material is the Temper-Pedic bed. It was adapted by a Swedish company from a design by NASA to reduce pressure on astronauts during take off and is famous for its ability to limit tossing and turning.

In fact, the Swedes who constructed the Temper-Pedic bed conducted studies of sleeping subjects and found testers who spent a night on the mattress turned over about 17 times per night—compared to 80 to 100 turns on a standard coil mattress.

Says Mazlish of the Temper-Pedic bed that runs for $1,399 for a queen size, “When you sit down on memory foam, the bed sort of grabs you.”

Grabbing you – body, bad back, and soul – is Mazlish’s intention. He wants
you to come into his store and browse, to sit on the bed and in an ergonomically
correct chair, to pick up the wooden massage tools and give yourself a little rub.

“Each item in the inventory is geared to help customers rid themselves of back pain,” says Mazlish, who knows what ails his customers. The 33-year-old owner of The HealthyBack Store joined the ranks of back pain sufferers in 1986. He was moving into a group house after graduating with a degree in art history from Duke University. With a boxed television set in his arms, he jumped to the ground from the bed of a Ryder truck.

“I heard something go snap,” he says. “It didn’t really hurt at first. It started as a twinge, but the pain kept getting worse and worse. Within six month I had gone to several doctors, but none of them could really help me.

So, Mazlish decided to help himself and others in the same predicament. He put together a business plan and started looking for investors to open a store that catered to alleviating back pain. By late in 1993, he gathered $184,000 from 12 investors. Six months later, he christened the first HealthyBack Store in Rockville, Maryland. Four years later, there are eight HealthyBack Stores around the country: four in the Washington, D.C., area, three in San Diego, California, and the one in Raleigh.

The company currently employees 50 administrative and sales people, regularly mails a color catalog to 50,000 customers, and generates sales of $15,000 to $20,000 per month from its web site alone (http://www.healthyback.com).

Mazlish’s long-term goal is to open a HealthyBack Store in every major U.S. city. “Having a bad back is a universal problem,” says the ambitious owner. “These products help ease their pain. It’s a lot of fun being in a business where I help people feel better.”

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"I get by with a little help from my friends," says Hope, who gives special thanks to:

• MICHAEL GIBBS, website illustration and design: www.michaelgibbs.com
• MAX KUKOY, website development: www.maxwebworks.com
• STEVE BARRETT, portrait of Hope on Bio page: www.stevebarrettphotography.com

Contact HOPE KATZ GIBBS by phone [703-346-6975] or email.

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