Pioneers in Design
By Bill Sendelback
Photos: ©2015 Curtis Ryan Lew Photography. www.curtislewimages.com.
Contemporary styling is a growing trend in hearth products in North America, but for Niels and Alyce Wittus, owners of Wittus - Fire by Design, contemporary is much more than a trend. It’s both a passion and a lifestyle, as it has been for over 37 years now.
A business that began in 1978 in Pound Ridge, New York, by importing Rais wood stoves, Wittus today offers a broad range of wood stoves to the North American market. There are hearth products from Denmark, Germany, Italy, Belgium and the Czech Republic, as well as a few European-styled products produced in the U.S.
Today, with more than 100 dealers throughout North America, Wittus’ core markets are architects, designers and custom home builders.
|L to R: Phenix Green 85, Folium Utensil holder with Stilus tool set, Phenix Green 120.|
|L to R: Cubic 215 designed by Anders Nørgaard, Etna wood-burning fireplace, H530 wood-burning Insert.|
“We select and import fine quality, contemporary, European-design fireplaces, stoves and accessories to meet the needs of the American market,” explains Niels Wittus, company president and founder. “We focus on providing products with sophisticated design, the latest technology and environmentally clean-burning systems. Viewing the fire is key, but we also stress design and craftsmanship.”
Although wood-burning hearth products represent 90 percent of Wittus’ sales, the company does offer some gas fireplaces and pellet stoves, as well as pizza ovens, camp stoves and accessories. In addition to distributing throughout North America, Wittus also has a retail store in its Pound Ridge headquarters and a warehouse in nearby Connecticut.
Back in 1978, Rais, a Danish manufacturer of wood stoves, was trying to enter the U.S. market under the guidance of Per Wittus, international sales manager and Niels’ father. But the deal with a U.S. importer didn’t work out, so son Niels became the importer.
Niels, born in Denmark but now a U.S. citizen, and his wife Alyce soon found themselves in the unfamiliar wood stove business, Niels’ initial introduction into the business world after working in real estate. “I combined my love of my native country,” he says, “with the desire that so many immigrants come to this country with – pursuit of the American dream.”
But that dream had a rocky start. “I was juggling both jobs at the same time. On my lunch break from the real estate office I would run over to our barn warehouse to meet a trucker to ship out stoves and then back to my desk at the real estate agency.”
While Niels brought passion and creativity to the challenge, his wife and now company vice president Alyce brought tons of business, marketing and technical experience. A Chicago native and graduate of Northwestern University, Alyce had worked for IBM and then started her own computer software company.
Later, after becoming president of an advertising agency, Alyce was an assistant vice president at both Dun & Bradstreet and Mutual of Omaha. She topped it off by doing video and data development for Verizon. The skills of both Niels and Alyce were needed to bring the young company through the early tough times.
Wittus’ stove business started without a lot of planning and marketing strategies, says Niels. They grew by “trial and error.” Even so, they quickly set up almost 40 dealers, primarily on the East Coast of the U.S., by trailering demonstration stoves to prospective dealers.
“Dealers really appreciated the typical Danish high-quality manufacturing, but these stoves didn’t sell. In those early years, dealers only related to traditional, old-fashioned stoves.”
With stove sales very slow through hearth dealers, Wittus found new opportunities in designer trade shows, contemporary furniture dealers and consumer-direct sales through a broad range of advertising.
“We stumbled on to a couple of trade magazines that really catered to architects and designers,” Niels explains. “We tested a few ads and started seeing sales. If it wasn’t for advertising, we wouldn’t have our sales, even today.”
Early on, Wittus’ initial dealers did poorly in selling its stoves, because the dealers didn’t do any local advertising, according to Niels. “If they did advertise, it was maybe an ad in the Yellow Pages back in the ’70s or early ’80s. They just did not draw anybody into the stores until we started advertising.”
Advertising continues to pay off for Wittus; it allows them to put their products in front of architects and designers. “Many of our customers were not looking for a stove, but their designer or architect said to them. ‘You’re building this great house, so take a look at this stove’. Many of our customers say they never even looked in a stove shop, but they saw our stoves or fireplaces in a magazine.”
While the company now has more than 100 dealers, Wittus still concentrates its marketing efforts on reaching architects and designers. Trade show participation is aimed at the building industry, such as the International Builders Show, plus high-end design furniture shows that bring in architects and designers.
“Often our products are associated with a particular project,” he says. “An architect saw the product, loved it and specified it. That has always been our bread and butter.”
Sales of contemporary products were still a slow-go back in the day, particularly those with European styling. But that has changed for the better in the last few years, as Wittus’ sales continue to grow.
“Dealers are more receptive to European-type stoves now,” says Niels. “It’s the newer generation of store owners. They like the unique, contemporary designs. But some still laugh and say, ‘Why can’t you put an 18-in. log in these units?’ That’s interesting, because very, very few of our customers ever mention anything about log size. It’s not important to them. They simply order or cut their wood to size. Dealers are beginning to understand that.”
The typical Wittus customer is usually 30 to 50 years old, affluent and willing to spend more for design and functionality. Niels says their buying decision is based on the product being attractive, contemporary, with special unique features, easy to use and maintain its burn capability and efficiency – and price – in that order of priority.
|L to R: Cosmo 1500 wood-burning stove, Linea wood holder, Stromboli rotating wood-burning stove, Cosmo Pedestal wood-burning stove, Cosmo 971 clad in sandstone wood-burning stove.|
“The people who buy our products come to us because of the design, the look,” he says. “They are not driven by heating bills or whether their house seems cold. That’s different than the way I think most wood stoves are sold in this country.”
The appearance of the stove is the most important purchase factor for Wittus’ customers, says Niels, so women tend to initially be the “go getter” in the sale. Efficiency and emissions are down the list of factors, but Niels sees these as more of a factor with his younger customers.
“They’re very concerned about the impact of emissions and efficiency, but they don’t typically come to us and say they’ve looked at another stove boasting 78 percent efficiency and ask why ours is only 70 percent. Most of our customers don’t look at it that way.
“But there has been more focus on conservation in the last 10 or 15 years that has brought about a different focus for this newer generation of Americans who are beginning to understand the concept of being responsible and not wasting energy. We consider our products to be warm furniture that people want to live with and enjoy.”
Today Wittus has much better success finding good dealers, with a few dealers selling 15 to 20 stoves a year. But sales of seven to 15 stoves a year is what Niels considers a good dealer.
“Our successful dealers tend to be larger, high-end fireplace shops with second or third generation, younger owners. They are more apt to like our unique contemporary designs, and they advertise. Especially with our products, you just can’t wait for people to come in. You have to show them that these products exist.”
Wittus does extensive national advertising for lead generation to its dealers, but it encourages dealers to contact their local architects and designers through the local American Institute of Architects chapter.
“Some of our more aggressive dealers will visit architects, designers and builders with a binder of their products,” he says. The company also offers technical service and sales training support.
Besides sales leads generated from national advertising and an extensive web site, Wittus assists its dealers with local advertising. It also offers additional discount incentives for increasing amounts of sales.
“We try to encourage them (dealers) and make their job easier,” Niels says. But if a dealer really wants to sell contemporary products, he has to rethink his marketing and displays, advises Niels. He suggests that the dealer dedicate a section of his/her showroom into a contemporary area where different styles, colors and features can be shown.
“You want to establish a modern setting for these units. That’s one thing that helps make dealers successful with contemporary,” he says.
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While 90 percent of Wittus’ sales are from the U.S., even Niels is surprised why only 10 percent of his business comes from Canada since Canadian dealers and consumers have for so long been much more accepting of contemporary styling.
“The demographics of Canada are very promising for contemporary,” says Niels. “In many ways, the Canadians have more of that European sense of wood-burning culture than the average American. But we’ve never had the time to devote to that market.” Until now. Wittus recently contracted with Cookstoves Canada, a large Canadian stove distributor and marketer to offer Wittus’ product up north.
Although most of Wittus’ products are contemporary wood stoves, the company also offers contemporary wood and gas fireplaces. Niels admits that these units are not inexpensive, with the average installed price hovering around $15,000.
“They mostly go into very unique, architecturally-designed homes,” he says. “Certainly energy efficiency is important, so that people can have their fireplace and feel good about it without wasting energy.”
Wittus’ German-made xeeos Twinfire model is EPA-certified and 93 percent efficient, and its Bodart & Gonay Phenix Green zero-clearance model is also EPA-certified.
However, getting their European
suppliers to understand the need for EPA-certification has been a problem for years.
“They would say, ‘Our stoves are very clean-burning and meet the European standards, so we shouldn’t have any problems,’” says Niels. “But none of the European stoves meet EPA standards right out of the box because EPA standards and testing are different from European standards. Testing to our EPA standards can cost from $15,000 to $100,000, depending on the stove modifications needed. These suppliers find it huge just to understand our EPA standards.”
In 2013, Wittus-Fire by Design was awarded second place in the Wood Stove Design Challenge in Washington, DC, with its unique and efficient Twinfire series wood stoves. In 2014, the company also took second place in the Collaborative Stove Design Workshop, again with its Twinfire series, and received the highest score for consumer appeal.
“So we are trying to be instrumental in the next generation of wood stove technology as well as promoting and influencing modern design,” Niels says. “We as an industry have not even started on the contemporary market. There is a huge market out there of the next generation of people who want something different in their homes and are not happy with the traditional stove look.”
Store Name: Wittus – Fire by Design
Location: 40 Westchester Ave., Pound Ridge New York 10576
Owners: Niels and Alyce Wittus
Year Established: 1978
Web Site: www.wittus.com
Phone: (914) 764-5679
Number of Stores: 1
Number of Employees:
Gross Annual Sales: N/A
Av. Sq. Ft. of Building Space:
Advertising % of Gross Revenues: 10%
Advertising: Newspapers 5%, Magazines 70%, Direct Mail 15%, Other (Web) 10%