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Pete Bils’s background is in sales — or, as he puts it, “retail concepts.” He joined Select Comfort 12 years ago to teach its salespeople how to better sell the company’s Sleep Number Bed. The Sleep Number Bed is an air-filled mattress. Each side can be inflated with a little remote control to the ideal level of firmness for the person sleeping on it — his or her “sleep number,” zero to 100 — thus accommodating a husband who prefers his side firm and a wife who likes hers softer. You may recognize the Sleep Number Bed from its television commercials featuring the original Bionic Woman, Lindsay Wagner. Or you may have seen Bils himself explicating its many features and benefits in the loneliest hours of the night on the QVC shopping network.
Times Health Guide: Sleep Disorders
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Off-camera, Bils spends much of his time reading scientific research. He mingles at medical conferences and is chairman of the company’s “Sleep Advisory Board,” a consortium of doctors. He “sleep tinkers,” coordinating pilot studies in sleep labs to understand how to build the mattress of the future. His goal at Select Comfort is to educate Americans about the science and benefits of healthful sleep, and this, plus his title — senior director of sleep innovation and clinical research — makes him seem deliberately more man-of-science than mattress-salesman. The distinction is less clear-cut when it comes to the man himself.
“How’d you sleep last night?” Bils asked, strolling into a conference room to meet me at the company’s headquarters outside Minneapolis one morning last summer. He blared it, the way certain men blare, “Darn glad to meet you.” Later, sitting down to lunch, he noted that the weather had not been “muggy” or “unbearable” but “bad sleeping weather.” Then raising a smile from behind...