Dale Carlsen '84 (Business Administration)

Taking chances part of Dale Carlsen's success

Read the accompanying Made at Sac State interview published by Sacramento State's Office of Public Affairs.

“When you come to a fork in the road, take it.” Yogi Berra’s famous assertion seems unlikely, not to mention ambiguous, advice. But for Dale Carlsen, choosing the path that felt right, rather than the one that matched his plans, has paid off in big ways.

Carlsen is the owner and CEO of the Sleep Train Mattress Center chain, and one will never know how his story would have turned out if he had followed his original career path. He didn’t plan to go to Sac State, he didn’t plan to go into the bed business, and he didn’t know he would become the champion for thousands of California foster youth. It all came from trusting his instincts.

“I was only planning to go to Sac State for a semester. Then I intended to transfer to Cal or San Jose State to study aeronautics.”

But during that first semester, Carlsen joined Lambda Chi Alpha fraternity and his life was never the same. He makes no bones about the fun he had in his college days and even credits the experience with developing the way he runs his business.

“The fraternity is why I stayed at Sac State,” Carlsen says. “I loved it and I loved the guys in it. I have never regretted that decision.”

Carlsen says he applies the tools he learned as an officer in his fraternity to his company, and believes the focus on family and fun is what makes Sleep Train so successful.

“There are things I learned in college, in the fraternity, that are critical to how I operate the company. I learned how to work with people.”

The next unexpected turn on the career path came while earning his degree in real estate and insurance. Carlsen had a part-time job at a Sacramento mattress manufacturer and after graduation he planned to leave it to pursue his commercial real estate license. But the owner of the mattress company was persistent in keeping Carlsen as an employee and finally offered him just the right perk for a 20-something: “He offered me the use of a sports car as a company car. I was young and single, so I liked the idea.”

Again, Carlsen planned to work for the company only a few years while getting established in real estate, but

something came up.

“I realized I could do this ‘mattress thing’ better.”

More than 225 stores later, it appears he was right. Sleep Train is the largest mattress retailer on the West Coast and employs more than a thousand people in the Sacramento, San Francisco Bay Area and San Diego markets.

It was also at Sac State that Carlsen first discovered a cause that has driven his charitable efforts in the years to follow—foster children.

“I did a paper on group foster homes and I decided that’s where I wanted to direct my efforts. Our big focus from day one has been kids in need,” Carlsen says of himself and wife Katy, a pediatrician. “I was raised to give back. So I thought ‘What can I do? Who can I help?’ We’ve donated thousands of mattresses to foster homes and to foster kids programs.”

In addition to providing mattresses and conducting in-store drives for shoes, pajamas and sports equipment, Sleep Train also runs an annual golf tournament to support charities benefiting foster youth. This year the company’s Ticket to Dream Foundation selected the Guardian Scholars Program at Sac State as its recipient.

The Guardian Scholars Program provides financial, academic and programmatic support for youth who have been emancipated from the foster care system and are pursuing a college degree.

“We looked around and learned more about emancipated youth. They’re just dumped with nothing at age 18,” Carlsen says. “And then we found Guardian Scholars. We love it. It gives them that leg up to make it through. It’s fantastic.

“There have been so many great youth we’ve met through the program,” he says, describing one Sac State Guardian Scholar as “a pure example of why a program like that is needed. He’s a kid with great potential who just needs someone to help him.”

Carlsen was named Businessman of the Year by the Sacramento Chamber of Commerce in 2005. He received the Distinguished Service Award in 2002 from the Sacramento State Alumni Association and the University, and was the College of Business Administration’s Alumnus of the Year in 2001.

He also serves on the College of Business Administration Advisory Board, and while he has high praise for the education he received from Sac State, he says the University’s current leadership is taking the College to a “whole new level.”

Carlsen did end up using the real estate training he received at Sac State. Until recently, he oversaw the leasing and site selection for his stores. His current role in the company is to set its vision.

“I determine the direction we’re going. You should enjoy what you do and I want to maintain that culture,” he says. “The success of the company is due to the people I’m blessed to work with.”

And those people have something in common with Carlsen: an alma mater.

“Eighty percent of the executive team—the people who run the company on a day-to-day basis—are Sac State graduates,” he says.

In May 2013, the CSU Board of Trustees awarded Carlsen with an honorary doctorate degree.

This article was originally published in the Summer 2010 edition of Torchlight.