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It was love that did it.

When 25-year-old Jan Ryde saw 19-year-old Anne-Lie, it was love at first sight; one intense enough for him to abandon his teaching position in the city and dive straight into the family business he had ignored till then. For, in order to win Anne-Lie’s affections, he would have to move back to his hometown Köping in Sweden and work really hard to pull her out of the clutches of an existing boyfriend. It took nine months, multiple dance classes and fitness programmes to lose weight before he succeeded.

Once that was done, Ryde moved focus to his 161-year-old old family business, Hästens, Sweden’s oldest bed-manufacturing company.

I see Ryde for the first time in the lobby of the Shangri-La hotel in Mumbai. He has arrived (from Dubai, as I discover later) looking like a tourist, complete with the backpack and eager enthusiasm with which he looks around the relatively new hotel. Since I am not sure it is him, I continue waiting in the lobby. He returns half an hour later, this time in a dark business suit, his enthusiasm still in place, but looking more refreshed.

In the restaurant Seven, the staff guides us to an unoccupied conference room, away from the jarring lobby music, where Ryde settles down with his back to the window, and the streaming Saturday afternoon sun. Considering the weather in Europe, he is happy to feel warm. The cappuccino he orders will help battle jet lag.

Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint
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Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint

When Ryde started with Hästens, it had 22 employees, sold only in Sweden and had a turnover of 13.5 million Swedish Kronor (around 11.2 crore); today, there are 190 employees, a presence in 35 countries and a turnover of 400 million Swedish Kronor.

Ryde says his immediate focus was on three key areas: product development, understanding the consumer, and salesmanship. “We had a few dealers, we needed to get better. All focus was on product development. We knew what we wanted: to make this the best bed in the world."

“The main thing that was stopping us (till then) was the skills of salespeople. For the consumer, it’s about trust. He has to understand that the salesman is selling me a bed for my best sleep."

Ryde pauses for a sip of his coffee. He sits casually, laughs frequently and speaks easily in an accented, soft, lilting tone that sounds as if he is reading a bedtime story. This becomes particularly notable when Ryde starts to talk about the subject closest to him: sleeping.

“I am on a mission to make this world a better place by making people sleep better," he continues. “We know as a fact and it’s built on a belief that when people sleep better, everything starts to change: We get healthier, live longer up to 20 years and the immune system gets better. Swedish scientists have proved that if you haven’t slept well, your Internet photo does not look good, which means you can’t be successful in Internet dating," he says, laughing. “If you haven’t got a Hästens bed, you are wasting your time."

It’s also one of the reasons, albeit a minor one, why he plunged into the family business. “There were no good beds in the market to satisfy the need for sleeping well. Everything else was just crap. It was foam, low quality. All foam mattresses of that kind start to heat you up. You get sweaty. It doesn’t allow you to turn naturally. We all want the soft comfortable sense of being surrounded, and safe. Your brain then tells you it’s time to fall asleep."

Ryde says that in mature markets, where the company has been present for some time and has a deep-rooted distribution network, an average price for a king-size, mid-level mattress could be in the range of $8,000-10,000 (around 4-5 lakh). For India, which is new, this could be $28,000. He is aware that the price might be quite high. “It’s good because sleep is the ultimate luxury but bad because we only reach consumers who can afford $20,000-30,000 beds."

“People think it’s just another mattress, which changes when they come in contact with the product. That’s the reason for the high repeat business—50% of our business comes from consumers who have already bought our bed at least once before."

His strategy for India is simple—glossy magazines do not work any more, he says, but the Web makes marketing measurable, easier and more cost-effective. “A year-and-a-half ago, we didn’t do Facebook. Now we have gone from 200 ‘likes’ to ‘42,000’. We are still small, but it’s completely shifting how we work. The paradigm has shifted." Hästens has been present in India for four years now, with stores in Mumbai and Delhi.

IN PARENTHESIS: Jan Ryde says Hästens’ beds are predominantly handmade, but they’ve had to battle hard to prove this. They were taken to court on this subject, he says, and had to show that their mattresses are hand-stitched as claimed. He says the company’s competitors were jealous they had grown so fast, and when retail stores were given an ultimatum to choose between brands, most chose Hästens. “We have distinct blue-and-white checks. They started to do the same, copycats. We had to prove in court we had the copyright. We now know how to protect it.

Through the years and through difficult times, the company has remained privately owned. Ryde says he did consider going public, but briefly. “When I started in the company, I wanted all key matrices in place in four years. It happened, and then I thought, is this what I want? We didn’t need the money. It would be too much work and I have so much already. So we never did that (go public)."

He also continuously kept evolving the way he worked and the way the company functioned. “To be a good manager, you have to be adaptable. I took over (the company) when my parents were in their sixties. My father died last year and he was in the business every day. For the first couple of years, with both father and son working, it was difficult for the rest to decide who the boss is," he says, cracking up.

When the company grew to 50 people, he says, he had to alter practices because what worked with a smaller company did not work with a growing one. “Then again at 100, at 150…you have to adapt to new times. I had to hire the best professionals. That was a big shift. I am only the fifth generation. To do this well for the family—we are here for a limited time on earth—and to take care for the next five generations, this has to be set up in a professional way. This is a Swedish company with 160 years’ tradition, but our management team is global, with only two Swedes."

Ryde’s relationship with Anne-Lie lasted 16 years; the couple divorced in 2004. He has four boys: 21-year-old Marcus is studying management, 19-year-old Lucas goes to university, 16-year-old David is committed to football and the youngest, Napoleon, 13, wants to pursue music.

“So I have to do this for a while," he says, smiling. “My sons can come into the business if and when they want to. I am 49. I have plenty of time."

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