Millennial leadership is the future of family-owned businesses

Owner and MD of Bed King Mervyn Ewertse with his late family friend, Alridge Dunn. Image: Supplied.

Owner and MD of Bed King Mervyn Ewertse with his late family friend, Alridge Dunn. Image: Supplied.

Published Apr 25, 2024


Family-owned businesses play a crucial role in the economy.

It's estimated that 80% of South African companies are family-owned and provide jobs for 90% of the workforce.

In a country with high unemployment, the success and endurance of family-owned businesses are vital.

However, as the businesses mature, so do the founders.

Whether it’s a family member or non-family member poised to take over the reins, having the right structures, a strong culture and a purpose in place are key.

Founded 25 years ago by owner and managing director Mervyn Ewertse on a shoestring budget, Bed King boasts 16 outlets nationwide, with its 17th store opening in Johannesburg this April.

Thanks to Mervyn’s enterprising spirit and ability to identify an opportunity in a sea of sameness, where every other bed shop was selling the same products and competing ruthlessly on price, he has positioned Bed King as the leader in sleep innovation in South Africa.

Building his reputation on integrity and compassion, Mervyn made his mark on the bed industry early on.

Carla Myburgh-Ewertse, the operations director at Bed King. Image: Supplied.

“The mattress industry is notoriously cut-throat, with salespeople pushing brands to close deals without a real understanding of their clients specific comfort and support needs, other than price,” said Carla Myburgh-Ewertse, the operations director at Bed King.

“When Mervyn first started Bed King, he sold the same brands as other stores, focusing on price and volume. But he soon realised this approach was not aligned with his values and purpose. He was genuinely interested in how his customers slept at night and felt he could offer much more than what other bed brands could.”

Myburgh-Ewertse joined the family business in 2017, after working in logistics and distribution.

Fed up with the egos and price wars, Mervyn knew it was time to put purpose before profit. Mervyn’s interest in his customers, their sleep patterns, and how they chose a mattress led him to venture overseas in 2018, to explore the latest sleep trends.

He found that people were struggling to find a mattress that was comfortable and offered personalised support.

He wanted to make it easier for them.

This was when he discovered pressure mapping technology, originally used in the health-care sector to help patients find comfort in wheelchairs and hospital beds, now being applied in the mattress industry.

“It was on his return that we launched the Comfort Solutions Lab, available now in every store nationwide. Offered free-of-charge, it takes only five minutes and can map a person’s sleep positions. The bed has 1 600 built-in pressure sensors to target the body’s pain points, creating the optimal sleep code. This is then matched to three of 12 mattresses, all designed and manufactured locally by Bed King, to complement each sleep code in three price ranges,” Myburgh-Ewertse said.

Carla Myburgh-Ewertse, the operations director at Bed King. Image: Supplied

The mattress industry is undergoing a remarkable transformation, fuelled by technological advancements like this.

The breakthroughs are reshaping how people sleep, enhancing comfort levels, and improving overall sleep quality. To date, 20 000 individuals have gone through the Lab, with 30% of them becoming return customers.

“Innovation is key to growth. It is no longer a luxury but a necessity for businesses to succeed in the modern era. I am always exploring ways to improve our customer experience and automate processes to increase efficiency, especially since we are celebrating our 25th anniversary this year. We’re undergoing digital transformation, just like other businesses that began at the turn of the century.”

With competitive advantage often derived from technology today, the willingness of millennials to embrace the new can create tension if the founders or owners are reluctant.

“As a family business, we must balance the needs of the business with family objectives and expectations,” Myburgh-Ewertse said.

“However, I feel incredibly lucky to have had a mentor like Mervyn. In the early days of the business, when he started, things were hectic. I was only six years old at the time, but I never saw my dad stressed or unhappy. He was always smiling. His attitude and demeanour have stayed with me forever.

“I’ve always known our purpose at Bed King, and as a close family, trust and mutual respect are at its core. Mervyn always listened to his staff intently, and I believe this is part of our success. It has resulted in the collaborative company culture we have today. Mervyn showed me that while entrepreneurship may not be glamorous, it can be gratifying, and perseverance goes a long way.”