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Stephen Magnotti Helping unify hearth and patio industries

As Stephen Magnotti steps down as chairman of the Hearth, Patio and Barbecue Association this month, he is savoring the role he played in the largest wood stove changeout program HPBA has ever undertaken.

From 2005 to 2007, specialty retailers, manufacturers and other members of the industry association donated approximately $1 million in stoves, chimney venting and cash for installation to replace hundreds of old wood stoves in Libby, Mont., with today's cleaner, more efficient hearth products.

The community needed the help. Libby is nestled in a bowl-shaped valley in the northwestern corner of Montana where temperature inversions can trap smoke and other air pollutants close to the ground. Because many residents of the economically stagnant town depend on wood heat, it wasn't unusual in past winters for smoke to enshroud the valley. The resulting health hazard was particularly dire for the high number of residents who have asbestos-related lung disease and other illnesses after years of exposure from a vermiculite mine six miles from town. Although the mine closed in 1990, about 1,000 individuals were suffering and even dying from its effects.

Given Libby's poor air quality, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency asked HPBA to work with it in helping to fund a changeout program. The final results were expected to be released this month, but it is obvious that the program has been a wild success.

“People there say that last year was the cleanest air in years and that even indoor air quality has improved,” said Magnotti, president of the Fireplace and Patioplace, Pittsburgh. “It is a great example of how an industry can come together to do some good.”

Doing good is just one reason Magnotti has taken on leadership positions in both the hearth and outdoor furniture industries. A past president of the Casual Furniture Retailers Association, he believes specialty dealers who don't take advantage of industry associations are missing the boat.

“These are your peers, and typically the retailers who are active in these associations are the successful retailers that you want to learn from,” he said.

Magnotti is just such a resource. He has worked full time at Fireplace and Patioplace since 1989, but has been involved in the family business basically his whole life. The parent company, Magnotti and Son, supplies stone, marble and granite for fireplace and other builder needs, and was started by his grandfather in the early 1950s. Stephen's dad Pat added a retail fireplace store in the late 1960s, while his mother, Lynn, took the business into casual furniture in the mid-1970s. Today, there are four retail locations as well as the stone business.

Magnotti had been accepted into law school when he made the decision to join the family business full time after graduating from college. As his dad started working less over the years, Magnotti took on more of the responsibility, ultimately becoming president.

“It's been a very smooth transition,” Magnotti said. “I still go to him for advice.”

If Magnotti has a mentor, it is his father Pat, who was the first chairman of the Wood Heating Alliance which would go on to become HPBA. In addition to passing on the tradition of being involved in the industry, Pat taught Stephen not to micromanage.

“Our leadership styles are similar insofar as we don't get involved in every little detail,” Magnotti said. “We have good people working here, and we let them make the day-to-day decisions.”

Magnotti always goes back to stressing the importance of having good employees when talking about the challenges of thriving in the outdoor furniture and hearth industries. Although consumers are still inclined to work with the experts at specialty stores when bringing fire into their homes, the big box stores are making inroads in both sides of his business.

“It has gotten tougher and tougher, no doubt about it,” he said. “So you have to make sure that you set yourself apart — that your salespeople are trained and know what they are talking about and that they take the time to spend with the customers.”

Participating in association events can also help.

“The best thing [about attending an association event] is being able to sit down with another retailer or manufacturer's rep and pick their brain,” Magnotti said. “If you can pick up just one or two good ideas at these meetings, they pay for themselves.”

Magnotti credits the diversity of his family's businesses in keeping them growing in the current economy.

The newest Fireplace and Patoplace location opened in 2004 in the Pittsburgh suburb of Cranberry and includes dedicated floorspace for both hearth and patio products. Unlike many specialty dealers, Magnotti has also stayed in the barbecue business, focusing on outdoor islands and upper-end grills. Special orders are pushed in all departments.

Although his job has gotten harder over the years, Magnotti hasn't lost his passion.

“It is definitely more challenging that it was 20 years ago, but I still enjoy it,” he said. “It's still fun to come to work.”

Magnotti and his wife, Wendy, have three children 13, 11 and 6 years old, and when he's not working, Magnotti can often be found at one of their sporting events.

“Softball, soccer, wrestling, football, baseball ... I've been head or assistant coach of them all,” he said with a laugh. “Between practices and games, my kids keep me running. They are awesome to be around.”

Stephen Magnotti inside Fireplace and Patioplace, which sells outdoor furniture, hearth and upper-end grill products in the Pittsburgh metro area.

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