Above: Representing the second and third generations of the Wolkin family at Colgate Mattress are (from left) Vice President Richard Wolkin, national sales manager Dennis Wolkin, operations manager Brent Wolkin and President Alan Wolkin.
What is striking when you meet any of the many Wolkins working at family-owned and -operated Colgate Mattress is that they are all modest, soft-spoken and even reluctant to speak with a reporter — it was not until the end of the interview that they said Colgate was honored for continued service by the state of Georgia in a proclamation a decade ago.
Founded on Ponce de Leon Avenue in 1955 in the area of what is now Ponce City Market, the three-generation manufacturer of crib and toddler mattresses has been boosted in recent years by Martha Stewart, who bought a Colgate mattress for a grandchild and later featured them on an episode of her TV show, and by placement in the 2014 Bill Murray comedy “St. Vincent.”
President Alan Wolkin, son of founders Sol and Anne Wolkin, remembers when he began working with his father in ninth or 10th grade.
“My father taught us we first needed basic skills in order to climb the ladder; we need to get our hands dirty with everyone else. So he had me start by sweeping,” Alan said.
Sol was known for personal and professional ethics and served in England during World War II, having enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Corps the day after Pearl Harbor was attacked in 1941. After the war, he was active with the Jewish War Veterans and “went to every reunion he could,” Alan said.
Back from Europe, Sol first worked in several textile companies in New York state. After realizing he could do better on his own and learning about opportunities in the South, he borrowed $1,500 from his brother-in-law and moved to a small apartment with his young family in Morningside, where they lived for many years.
He opened his small factory with one sewing machine and a couple of employees. In the late 1960s Colgate acquired the building that is now Paris on Ponce across the street from the home of the minor-league Atlanta Crackers.
As youngsters, Alan and his sister played on the railroad tracks, seeing the transients, and in the factory, watching the machines and their bookkeeper mother, the “fastest stenographer I ever saw,” Alan said. “She once told me that one of the IBM typewriters was too slow for her.”
Colgate has been an industry pioneer, being first with polyurethane mattresses, foam crib mattresses, dual-firmness mattresses and organic mattresses. “We always give the customers the best quality for their money spent,” said national sales manager Dennis Wolkin, Alan’s son. “The consumer and retailer know they’re getting better value and better product.”
Vice President Richard Wolkin, Alan’s brother, said the family practices in business the Jewish values instilled by Sol and Anne. “It’s a Jewish value to have high standards and to produce high-value products. This is important for us. For example, we take pride in the durability of our cribs, which is one of the most important purchases a parent will make, since babies will be there more than anywhere else — more than a stroller or car seat.”
Atlanta in the 1950s and 1960s was a very different city, but the Wolkins said Colgate’s policy inside the workplace was one of equality. For example, there weren’t separate bathrooms for “whites” and “coloreds,” and Sol took his children to watch Martin Luther King Jr.’s funeral procession in 1968.
Alan said his mother made a point to sit in the back of the bus with her children.
One of Atlanta’s first gay bars was next to Colgate’s Ponce de Leon factory, and for many years Colgate had a gay secretary. Vice President Richard Wolkin, Alan’s brother, said: “We just did not care. I did not even know he was gay until someone told me one time by chance. We just never even thought about it.”
In the 1980s, Colgate stood out from its competitors by using a label with a glossy picture of babies of different races. “We wanted our products to be for everyone,” Richard said, “not just certain groups.”
Alan said: “We don’t care who is who here. When it comes to our employees, we care about someone doing the job right — that’s all. We consciously try to be fair and ethical according to precepts in the Torah. My father taught us to be charitable, and he led by example. Even if he did not have much, he’d go into his pocket if he had to.”
Those Jewish values carry through outside business for Colgate and the Wolkins, who are active in the community from the Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta to the Marcus Jewish Community Center to several synagogues. Alan noted that his father contributed to Israel’s defense during one of its early wars.
Colgate has partnered with KIDS Fashion Delivers and provided people who fled Hurricane Katrina with mattresses and pads once they arrived in Atlanta. Colgate also gives to SIDS research, the Rebecca’s Tent women’s shelter and the Furniture Bank of Metro Atlanta.
Colgate has roughly 40 employees, not counting its salespeople and consultants. Most have worked there at least a decade, and some for several decades. An employee who died recently had been with Colgate for 45 years.
Dennis and Richard said their manufacturing employees are true craftspeople who, like the Wolkins, work their way up from the bottom with in-house training. When Colgate ran out of space on Ponce, the employees were shown potential locations, and the company chose their favorite site in Cabbagetown, which was the most convenient because of its proximity to highways and public transit.
That plant has Colgate in position to compete in an era of big-box stores, Internet retailers and U.S. companies that have moved manufacturing overseas and to handle the uncertainty of global trade, such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which Richard said “could cause an influx of products that are substandard and not subject to the same regulations we are. We have our own standards we don’t want to compromise — and haven’t. On the other hand, it could be good for us, but we just don’t know yet.”
Fostering local, national and international relationships has helped sustain Colgate, which has worked with local companies New Baby, Happy Mango and Georgia Baby and was among the first vendors for Bye Bye Baby. Though many domestic manufacturers have opted to move overseas, it is clear that Colgate has no intention of following suit.