Cinde W Ingram -- Casual Living, 3/1/2012 2:00:00 AM
Napoleon fireplaces & stoves has come full circle during the past four decades. Founders Wolfgang and Ingrid Schroeter responded to challenges of worldwide crises while they built a business to meet the needs of North American fireplace, grill and patio dealers.
Change and innovation are constant factors the Schroeters have adapted to and embraced while developing a range of outdoor lifestyle products for all seasons. Their two sons Chris and Stephen are very involved in the family-owned business and contribute new ideas that help it to serve the changing needs of the next generation.
"We began our business with one employee apart from ourselves. Now, 36 years later, we employ worldwide approximately 700 people," said Ingrid, executive VP. "We started in a double-car garage in o ur own home, and now we work out of close to 750,000 square feet of space worldwide. This year, we'll be expanding yet again, building a 300,000-sq.- ft . logistics center in order to improve our customer service and streamline deliveries."
Last year, the Barrie, Ontario, Canada-based manufacturer added 40,000 square feet to its U.S. warehouse and manufacturing facility in Kentucky. The expansion more than doubled its size.
"Our philosophy was always to develop and maintain a very sincere relationship with our customers and our dealers," Ingrid said. "We wanted to provide quality products and back it up with service they could count on. I guess you could say we were and still are a common- sense company."
Each of its many products was developed in response to customer requests and challenges being faced at the time.
"Every time there was a downturn in the economy, our energy-efficient products sold," Ingrid said. In good economic times, new homes and renovations called for stoves, fireplaces and barbecues. Casual furniture, high-efficiency gas furnaces and a new 500 BBQ series are among its latest efforts to serve customers' needs.
History in the making
All those efforts started with a wood stove.
Wolfgang was a tool-and die maker by trade after he immigrated to Canada from Germany in 1969. Ingrid's grandparents had lived in Canada since the early 1950s when she immigrated in 1970. The young couple decided to make their home in North America, and early in their marriage, Wolfgang was laid-off from his job. To combat boredom, he bought a welder and began making metal and oak railings and steel stairs.
Ingrid meanwhile was making a relatively good salary as a service rep at the telephone company Bell Canada. She supported her husband's efforts in the mid-1970s as he began making wrought-iron bistro sets for patio use. They started a small company called Pro Industries, but were not competitive with that type of furniture and stuck with making railings.
An oil crisis in 1979 changed those plans. "Everybody tried to save money and was afraid there wasn't going to be any oil, and so they bought wood stoves," Ingrid recalled.
In the early 1980s, most wood stoves had solid cast-iron doors that prevented viewing the flames. There were a few glass door models, but their designs had led to the glass breaking and dangerous explosions, Ingrid said. "My husband was experimenting and he came out with a glass-door model and an ‘airwash' system, which was a unique design," she recalled. "It was a high-temperature ceramic glass set into a cast-iron frame and that helped us tremendously to get into the wood stove business more."
In the '80s, the Schroeters' business became one of the first companies to add gas fireplaces, inserts and gas stoves to its product line. "The consumer really was looking for something that was a little bit more convenient than a wood stove, and just by the flick of a switch, you could have a fire," Ingrid said.
A big ice storm in Quebec was another challenge that boosted the sales of wood- and gas-fueled fireplace products. To differentiate its products from competitors, the Schroeters coined marketing slogans such as: "No power, no problem. Turn your fireplace on with the flick of a switch. Your satisfaction is our reputation."
In the mid-'90s, the Schroeters realized the seasonality of the business and hated having to lay off workers around Christmas each year. "My husband was looking for another product that we possibly could sell to our customer base and that's when we decided to try our hand at grills, accessories and outd oor product. It has worked out quite well for us," Ingrid said.
Unlike its dealer- and distributor-based fireplace and stove business, Napoleon built its grill and outdoor products sales as dealer-direct from the start. "This is very important for us because it allows us to get close to our customers and to offer them the best in sales and service and product support, store merchandising and special event coordination - along with having warehouses and distribution centers that are close to our customers," National Sales Manager Ted Scott said.
Offering its dealers training through an annual "BBQ University" and a visiting trainer, along with online training through videos, the company websites and use of YouTube are just some of the ways Napoleon works to help them succeed along with providing general or targeted marketing support.
Expanding the empire
In 2009, the company now known as Napoleon Fireplaces & Grills returned to its roots by rolling out a new venture into the casual furniture marketplace.
"Adding casual furniture complements our outdoor product line," Ingrid said. "It works in unison with all of our grills and outdoor rooms. It is something else we can offer our dealers so they can order just from one manufacturer."
Along with its now mature entry into the casual furniture category, Napoleon began to exhibit two years ago at the International Casual Furniture & Accessories Market and the International Pool | Spa | Patio Expo.
The IPSP Expo provides a forum for Napoleon's sales staff to meet with customers who are also looking at expanding outside of the pool and spa arena. "Our philosophy is that when there's a downturn in the economy and your customers may not be spending as much as they normally would, we look for additional customers, but we never forget our existing customers," Scott said.
Although Napoleon participates in many North American and European trade and consumer shows, this month's Hearth, Patio & Barbecue Expo is key to its core business. "At the HPBExpo, our specialty retailers and the distributors on the fireplace and hearth side can come and meet with us personally to see what's new," Scott said. "It's very important for us to be there and we're there in a very big way. We bring our salespeople to meet our customers and to show our new products. We're always looking for new customers, and in doing so, we're always looking at new opportunities both in consumer and trade."
Naxpoleon also exhibits at AHR, the heating and air conditioning show, which is an important show as the company continues to grow its HVAC business. Last year, Napoleon expanded into another field by launching gas, biomass furnaces.
"Really what we want to be is a one-stop supply company so that our dealers or distributors can buy a wide range of home comfort products from us, which makes it a lot easier for them because they know the product and they know the company they deal with," Ingrid said.
Being able to offer products for cold weather, warm weather and for the impulse buyer is valuable to both the manufacturer and dealer or distributor, Scott added. "What's really important is that we have products for all seasons," he said. "We're selling a lifestyle. Really at the end of the day, it's important for that retailer to fill their shopping cart with as much product as possible. We push our suites of products and our outdoor lifestyle products and so far this has worked very well for us."
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