“I’m a half-capitalist and half-social-worker,” McIngvale said in an interview Thursday night. “I can’t let my people drown. It’s so easy to open the doors and let them in. … They’ve got pretty much all the creature comforts they need. We let them in and take care of them, just let them know that people care about them."
On Thursday, he would open his doors to about 120 people, rescued by Mack’s furniture salespeople from the likes of stranded vehicles, strip-mall parking lots and sometimes while fleeing their own flooded homes. Once at Gallery Furniture, they were given warm clothing ― a Gallery Furniture sweatshirt — and food and drinks from the store’s in-house restaurant. They camped out on mattresses, sofas, couch beds, anything with a cushion, and could watch TV on Mack’s big screens. If they needed a shower, the store had those too, usually just for employees after using the gym.
Fifteen to 20 people would stay the night, McIngvale said.
For the past 38 years, that’s the outlook that has turned McIngvale into one of the most beloved business executives in Houston, known as much for his wacky, fast-talking “saves … you … MONEY!” commercials as he is for his charity. He’s always been a philanthropist, donating new furniture to dozens of needy families at Christmas and feeding thousands of homeless people on Thanksgiving. But in recent years, as flood after flood has devastated the city, the salesman’s reputation for offering rapid-fire flood relief to some of the most desperate Houstonians has eclipsed his image as the guy wearing a mattress on television (although he still does that too, from time to time).
“I’m a practicing Catholic,” he said, “and I think I should practice what I preach.”
But first, before the philanthropy, he had to do the commercials.
McIngvale moved to Houston from Dallas in 1981 with $5,000 in his pocket, all of which he invested in his new business. Until he could afford a store, he sold the furniture under a tent on the side of the freeway.
But things got better. His big break came in 1983. McIngvale, desperate for customers, bought a 25-second commercial. In his very last take, frustrated after hours of failure, he improvised. He whipped a few bucks out of his pocket and blurted, “Gallery Furniture saves … you … MONEY!” It stuck — for the next 36 years.
Before long he became Houston’s “Mattress Mack,” a nickname he picked up as anyone with a TV in Houston began to recognize him as the guy who wore mattresses in his ads. He was inspired, he told The Washington Post, by a Texas tire salesman who wore tires in the 1950s to distinguish himself from competitors — and it worked for Mack, too. Promising to “save you money” dressed as an inanimate object, McIngvale saw sales soar. He started to dress up in other costumes, too, such as a hunchbacked Father Time or a pink Easter Bunny.
By 2000, the Houston mattress advertisement market was wild, as competitors tried to outdo the famous Mattress Mack. That year, late-night host Conan O’Brien took note while watching his own show on TV in Houston. Hilton Furniture ran a commercial trying to slash mattress prices with an actual chain saw, which came right after McIngvale advertised a recliner chair saying, “Look, Ma! No hands!” O’Brien turned the ads into a competition.
But by then, McIngvale wasn’t quite as concerned with catchy gimmicks. As his business grew, so did his philanthropy.
“People have been seeing these commercials for 38 years,” he said. “But as retail continues to change, we have to try to stay relevant. And being part of the community I think is what helps us stay relevant.”
McIngvale first opened his doors to flood victims in 2005 after Hurricane Katrina rocked the Gulf Coast. He said his faith drove him to do it, as he saw people with nothing pouring into Houston after losing everything in New Orleans. On the billboard outside his store, he wrote, “LOUISIANA RESIDENTS SLEEP HERE FREE.” Hundreds did.
He would offer hundreds of flood victims free mattresses in ensuing years if they lost theirs, such as after the Memorial Day floods in 2015. But Harvey was something else.
Tens of thousands of people were displaced in a matter of hours in August 2017, seeking emergency shelter as they were rescued by civilians in fishing boats and first responders in dump trucks. The city had used every resource at its disposal to combat the unprecedented flooding. McIngvale knew he had to do something.
Reading from a short speech he wrote in Sharpie, he got on Facebook Live and told nearly 4 million people to come on over to Gallery Furniture for a place to sleep, and bring your animals.
He gave them his personal cellphone number.
“My daughter’s favorite saying is, if not for my struggle, I would not have known my strength,” he said, referring to his daughter who overcame severe obsessive-compulsive disorder. “For a couple hundred years, Texans have banded together and helped each other, and we will get through this crisis of flooding and hurricane.”
His employees, like countless other civilians and first responders that weekend, waded through water past their waists to reach trapped Houstonians and bring them to the furniture stores. For several nights, roughly 400 people poured into McIngvale’s two stores. Donations of clothing and supplies poured in, and some of the refugees turned into volunteers, helping serve the meals from the in-house restaurant. “Think a slumber party on steroids,” he told NPR at the time.
More than 200,000 people signed a petition asking that the city to name a day after Mattress Mack because of his generosity, calling him an “icon,” saying he “deserves to be remembered.”
He gave it out again Thursday as he welcomed dozens of dripping wet Houstonians to Gallery Furniture for the third time. Less than two minutes into his Facebook Live video, he picked up the phone.
Yes, he told the caller, “we are open as a shelter."