2024 Lifetime Achievement honoree: Ryan Trainer’s stewardship leaves lasting legacy

Talking to Ryan Trainer about his legacy of work and his 22-year career with the International Sleep Products Assn. is a walk through the bedding industry’s litany of seismic shifts.

During his tenure with ISPA, the last 20 as president guiding the organization, he’s been involved in working with the Consumer Products Safety Commission on a federal flammability standard and worked diligently to establish the Mattress Recycling Council and draw industry attention to sustainability and product circularity, both of which continue to grow.

He’s weathered three antidumping petitions brought by U.S. mattress makers and foam producers against a wide array of countries for dumping beds.

ISPA has a wide range of member companies — both domestic and international — and the organization served as an information resource for its members no matter their location and “be neutral, accessible and provide information” as needed, according to Trainer.

‘Watershed moments’

The national flammability standard went live in 2007, just ahead of the recession and prior to Trainer joining the association in a full-time capacity. The issue was a tough one to navigate; however, most now agree on having one cohesive national standard instead of multiple requirements from different states.

A lawyer, Trainer first joined the association in 2008, as general counsel where he led ISPA’s statistics, legal, consumer product safety and sustainability programs. Prior to coming inside to the organization, he served as outside counsel to the group and was involved in advising ISPA on the standards. In 2010, he took over as president.

In addition to helping create a safer sleep environment for consumers, Trainer said the process pushed the industry to look at its products from a more technical angle instead of from a purely aesthetic perspective.

“The industry worked with the CPSC, and through that process we developed a cooperative relationship,” he said, adding that the industry helped develop the tests for the open flame standard. “This standard should preempt lawsuits for the industry. The ongoing relationship with the CPSC has paid off, and retailers are comfortable selling safer products.”

Trainer calls the flammability issue a watershed moment for the industry. He also classifies the COVID years in that manner.

“Both helped the industry understand pinch points and search for solutions on how to deal with them,” Trainer said.

Jazzed about recycling

Few industry topics get Trainer jazzed up more so than mattress recycling, sustainability and circularity. Under Trainer’s watch, the association created the Mattress Recycling Council in 2015. Since then, three states — California, Connecticut and Rhode Island — have implemented mattress recycling programs, and Oregon’s program will take effect this year. Bills are pending in Massachusetts, New York, Maryland and Virginia.

While the association is still working to expand the recycling programs to other states by working with state legislatures, the conversation has broadened to include product sustainability and circularity, the concept of what happens to the parts of the mattress at the end of its life.

At this year’s ISPA Expo, new components and machinery throughout the show floor featured varying sustainability and reuse stories. Trainer is hesitant to take credit for much of the associations’ successes, instead pointing to ISPA’s board of trustees for the wins.

How he got here

Trainer earned his legal degree in 1981 from George Washington University. From there, he joined the U.S. Department of Commerce where he worked for two years as a trade lawyer. He moved into private practice working on trade cases and consume privacy laws, and in the early 1990s, his path crossed with Russ Abolt, ISPA’s longtime president until 2002.

That was about the time that the CPSC was looking at mattresses and flammability standards. The rest, well, we know how the story ends.

“Life throws random things at you,” Trainer said. “You have to be alert to them, take advantage of them and know when there’s a good opportunity. I have had some wonderful jobs. I have traveled the world and met some great people.

“This has been the crown of my career. This is a terrific industry to serve. Our team is great to work with, and there are so many amazing things that they do. It’s fun work.”

Industry executives who have served on ISPA’s board of trustees throughout the 22 years that Trainer has served offer high praise for his ability to bring a sometimes-fractured industry to consensus on important issues over the years.

By most accounts, the International Sleep Products Assn. was in disarray when Trainer joined the organization. The largest bedding manufacturers weren’t supporting the group through membership, and medium to smaller industry players often felt sidelined. New leadership was not only welcome, but necessary for the success of the organization, executives said.

Rebuilding was needed, and Trainer took the reins with the right tenor at the right time.

“He was handed a lot of trials and tribulations during his tenure. He and the ISPA team have always pulled through with flying colors,” said Bryan Smith, president and CEO of Southerland. Smith also sat on the ISPA board for an extended eight-year term working closely with Trainer.

“He has been a breath of fresh air,” Smith said. “He has been a strong advocate and voice for our industry during some of our toughest times.”

Hank Little, the current past chair and former president of Atlanta Attachment Co., served on the ISPA board twice – once early in Trainer’s tenure and now as the end nears.

“Ryan is always level-headed, very fair and very objective. He always tries to see things from both sides,” Little said. “The times that ISPA has needed to have an opinion, he has come to the table with documentation.”

Building consensus

Little attributes Trainer’s leadership and his innate manner of pulling people and companies together for the association’s growth over the years.

“He is a true leader,” Little said. “Employees make the company, but Ryan has pulled together a great team. They have had to deal with a lot of industry issues, and under his leadership, they are always on top of them. When you have a good team around you, someone still needs to quarterback the team, and he has.”

As a consensus builder, Little said no one is better.

“He engages everyone, not just the industry’s biggest players,” he said, adding that he’s deliberate in information gathering to understand a variety viewpoints. “He is balanced, is fair to everyone and makes everyone feel part of the team. He truly sees value in helping the industry, and we have benefitted from his expertise.”

Little and Laurie Tokarz, the new chair of the board, are part of the organization’s search committee to find a successor. Both have said Trainer leaves big shoes to fill.

“We’ve been really fortunate with the leadership Ryan has brought to ISPA,” Tokarz said. “His legal background has been a real asset in understanding legislation that could impact the industry. He will leave a strong legacy of collaboration.”

Gerry Borreggine, CEO of Therapedic International, was the chairman of the Better Sleep Council, ISPA’s consumer-facing education arm, when Trainer was hired. Borreggine said Trainer “blossomed into the job. His personality really came through.”

“Ryan is a gem of a man, just a beautiful human being,” Borreggine said. “He has been a great ambassador for the industry. I don’t know how we replace someone with his expertise on the Hill, his legal knowledge and his expert management skills.

“He has been a solid citizen and a super representative for our industry.”

See also:

  • Planting seeds for long legacies | Sheila Long O’Mara
  • Retail Giant of Bedding, 2024: Furniture Fair carves out bedding niche amid big players
  • Retail Giant of Bedding, 2024: Boulevard Home builds ‘consumer-wowing experience’

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