Jim McIngvale, better known to Houston-area residents as “Mattress Mack,” says there is one question all retailers must consider if they want to be successful: If your store disappeared, would your customers notice?

As it turns out, this is more than a rhetorical question for Mack.

On a Thursday in May 2009, surrounded by his family and a hundred loyal employees, Mack watched his business, Gallery Furniture, go up in flames. An arsonist ((The suspected arsonist, a former Gallery Furniture employee, is currently in custody and awaiting trial.)) with a personal vendetta set out to destroy Mack’s 29-year-old business and, by extension, his life. In the two hours it took to contain the fire, $20 million in merchandise burned. The three showrooms of the facility were badly damaged and the warehouse was destroyed completely. Mack says he’ll never forget the hopelessness, anxiety and despondency he felt watching those leaping flames. He also says he felt God’s grace touch his soul in the midst of the crisis and he knew that “Thursday’s tragedy was Friday’s opportunity.”

During his recent talk to Mays marketing students, Gallery Furniture owner Jim McIngvale read aloud some of the letters he received from customers and other supporters in the days following a catastrophic fire. “That outpouring of love and support sustained us in our darkest hour,” he told students. (view more photos)

With tears in their eyes and smoke in their lungs, the Gallery Furniture family joined hands to pray and sing “God bless America” and “The Star Spangled Banner” in the parking lot, vowing that they would survive and rebuild bigger and better.

To rebound, Mack knew it was imperative that his customers experience no delay in the same-day service Gallery Furniture is known for. While the ashes smoldered that night, Mack ordered an express shipment of furniture from his vendors, though he wasn’t sure where he’d put it. He also shot a commercial, which aired the following day, telling customers he was still in business; inviting them to his location in the Galleria area. The business never missed a beat: not a single employee was let go, nor was there a break in the service to customers—the day after the fire, Gallery Furniture delivered $200,000-worth of furniture to Houstonians.

On the Fourth of July, a mere 44 days after the fire, they reopened one showroom at the main location. While all across America people were celebrating, Mack and his supporters were celebrating their own triumph. “We raised the barn together, just as people in Texas have done for 175 years,” he said. By Labor Day, both of the other showrooms were open, and it was back to business as usual.

Did his customers notice? In the weeks after the fire, he received more than 5,000 cards and emails of encouragement from customers and business associates. “That outpouring of love and support sustained us in our darkest hour,” he said.

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  1. Use the data: don’t select merchandise based on personal preference. Analyze the numbers that are constantly generated in your store.
  2. No friendship buying: Have a good relationship with your vendors, but never accept any kind of gifts or kickbacks from them. Keep it strictly professional.
  3. Treat your vendors well. You must have a win-win relationship with them, meaning you must allow them to make money, too.
  4. At least once a week “put on your customer hat” and walk the store, trying to experience what a customer does.
  5. To see the big picture, be an expert on cost, margin, and inventory turns. If you only understand one business aspect, you will not be successful.
  6. Details matter, down to the placement of an item in the store. Some spots are “hot” and will sell most anything. Others are not. Know the difference. Plan accordingly.
  7. Less is often more: stocking too many products overwhelms the customer. You’ll sell more if you have less selection. Narrow the focus and show customers exactly what you want them to see.
  8. “Get out there on the fringes.” Be on the watch for new ideas. Don’t stay in the safe, middle of the road. Take risks and stay abreast of trends.
  9. Shop the competition so you know where you can be sharper.
  10. Build trust with your customer base through returns and service.

McIngvale began his career sacking groceries, feeling miserable about his prospects. Those feelings got him fired for having a bad attitude. He slouched around, feeling sorry for himself, until he had an epiphany when he heard a message from Televangelist Oral Roberts. It sticks with him to this day: The biggest challenge we all have from our creator is to use our talents. The world doesn’t owe you a favor—you owe the world a favor.

With this motivation, McIngvale went out the next day and found a job at a furniture store, discovering that he had a talent for retail. Eighteen months later, he wanted to open his own store. His mentor told him Houston was a boomtown and that would be a good place to set up shop. With his life savings of $5,000 and a new bride, he moved to Houston and opened a store. There were many naysayers. “All the reasons that they gave as to why we would fail were good and solid, logical reasons. But I had one great big advantage called desire. I have learned in my life that you can do anything if you want it bad enough.”

A few years down the road, his business was floundering. He then made another a risky gamble: he bet his last $10,000 on television advertising. It paid off. Television transformed his business and made him into well known Houston personality. That first commercial had an immediate impact on sales. Today, the medium is still his most powerful resource: He paid for a local spot during the 2010 Super Bowl; The $85,000 price tag was recouped in three days.

It’s a point of pride for him that each year of the past ten, his TV ads have been voted the worst in Houston. Still, they are effective. Through his ads and frequent visits to local schools where he delivers encourages kids to say “no” to drugs and “yes” to school, Mack makes a connection with young people whom he hopes will be customers for life. He is in the enviable position as a retailer of being well-loved and trusted by children all over Houston. Visiting his store is a treat, on par with visiting the zoo, as Gallery Furniture is known for its daily birthday cake, live monkeys and parrots in the store.

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“You’ve got to focus on the customer. That’s all that matters,” McIngvale told students. “We are in the singular business of delighting customers.”

During Mack’s visit to a retail merchandising class at Mays, he discussed one of the difficulties he’s faced since the fire. In their ambition to rebuild “bigger and better,” they changed the layout of the store significantly—now items are grouped by style instead of function. Rather than placing all of the beds in one section, they are spread throughout in pre-set rooms that feature the nightstand that goes with the bed, that goes with the lamp, etc. While his customers rave about how much they love the new look, sales have decreased dramatically. “You’ve got to focus on the customer. That’s all that matters. We are in the singular business of delighting customers,” he told students, noting that the current store layout can overwhelm his shoppers. They are now in the costly process of reorganizing the store.

Trust is at an all-time low in the U.S. today, he says. That means customers are looking for reasons to complain. “Getting the details right in a low-trust economy is critical. The quality of your merchandise and service must engender trust in your customers.”

His final word was to “buy American whenever possible, because the job you save might be your own.” We can’t be a nation that only consumes. We must produce, if we are to survive, he says. And Mattress Mack? He knows how to survive.

Gallery Furniture is a sponsor of the Mays Center for Retailing Studies. McIngvale recently committed to a gift to the center to endow an interactive digital library.