Dan Shimek: Owner & President, The Outdoor GreatRoom Company
Staff Staff -- Casual Living, March 1, 2009
There’s a common belief out in the world that good entrepreneurs don’t make good business people. They are big idea people, not operations managers.
If so, entrepreneur Dan Shimek bucks the trend.
Maybe it is because he surrounds himself with an assortment of family members who know how to work together and who learned early on to leave company concerns at the office. Maybe it is because he’s trained as a chemist, a profession requiring meticulous focus. Or maybe it is because he enjoys and believes in what he is doing so much that none of it is beneath his notice.
Whatever the reason, Shimek is an entrepreneur with an outstanding track record of innovative products and successful companies.
He sums it up pretty simply. “I enjoy working,” he said.
Shimek first touched the outdoor furniture industry when he and his brother, Ron, launched Heat-N-Glo in 1975. By the time Shimek left his day job at 3M Co. in 1986, Heat-N-Glo was a $3 million company and his younger brothers, Steve and Ger, were part of the management team. In 1996, the Shimek brothers merged their company with Heatilator to form Hearth & Home Technologies, the largest hearth products manufacturer in North America, with Dan as president.
“We had grown that business to more then $500 million by the time I retired at the end of 2002. In about three months, it was clear that being retired wasn’t going to work,” said Shimek, laughing that as much as he loves to golf, it wasn’t enough.
Shimek arranged to buy HHT’s grill division, which became the foundation of the Minneapolis-based Fire Stone Home Products. As the company evolved to include pergolas, outdoor furniture and other outdoor living products, the concept of The Outdoor GreatRoom grew, leading to a name change in November 2008.
“I’ve been asked why I didn’t go back into the fireplace business, and the reality is that the opportunity is greater in the outdoor room category in terms of growth potential,” Shimek said. “We’ve been able to develop a lot of new products and new looks, and create some excitement around the outdoor greatroom.”
As the company visionary, Shimek participates in product design of everything from grill islands and outdoor furniture to decks and pergolas. These days his selling is limited to trade shows and other events, but his connections in the hearth industry continue to serve a powerful dealer opportunity for the company.
The outdoor furniture industry offers opportunity as well, but Shimek admits frustration in finding dealers ready to take on selling the entire outdoor greatroom concept because it includes handling backyard installations that can require a gas line or electricity.
“With a little bit of effort, they can easily overcome the issues,” Shimek said. “But my experience with casual furniture dealers is that if they want to sell other outdoor products, they need to get comfortable with dealing with the whole backyard.”
Those who have stepped up to the challenge are doing well, he added.
By the time Shimek left HHT, more than 50 patents had been filed by the hearth companies under his leadership since the first Heat-N-Glo fireplace hit the market. The inspiration for that first unit came when Ron, a physicist and a father of six in 1975, decided he would build a glass, free-standing fireplace of his own rather than pay $2,000 for the one he saw in a store. The first prototype featured glass from the local hardware store.
“It blew out and almost burned down his house, but he eventually figured it out,” Shimek said. “It looked pretty good, so I told him if he’d figure out how to build them, I’d figure out how to sell them, and that’s how we got started.”
Although Ron died several years ago of cancer, Shimek continues to draw inspiration from his memory.
“He was a great partner, and we inspired each other,” Shimek said. “The Legacy gas grills are named in his honor.”
With today’s recession, Shimek is concerned that manufacturers are not investing in the kind of innovation that has been part and parcel of every Shimek brother venture.
“Consumers and dealers are looking for innovation, and I think having people who think that way in leadership positions can help to create those opportunities,” he said. “In some cases, these are the products that can help people expand their offering in a down market and maybe save their business.”
For its part, The Outdoor GreatRoom Co. has put together various outdoor packages at a range of price points, as well as dealer support materials. Probably more importantly, it is also carrying inventory for its dealers.
Shimek also has directed his creative energy and leadership skills outward to help his community and beyond. For example, he and his wife Kay helped raise $500,000 to build 60 homes and a library/community center in Sri Lanka after the 2004 tsunami.
“It was one of the more effective programs in Sri Lanka because the people we teamed up with were Sri Lankan [living in the Twin Cities] who knew government people there and so got the land project going,” Shimek said. “They really did the work. We helped on the fund-raising side. The experience was very rewarding for both of us.”