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Hearth & Home January 2015

Denis Normand, and the company’s Opti-myst Fireplaces.

Ethereal Flames

By Richard Wright

A conversation with Denis Normand, who is at the helm of the North American arm of Dimplex, the highly innovative company that created the present electric fireplace category.

Photos: ©2015 Nation Wong Photography. www.nationwong.com

Denis (Deneé) Normand became president and CEO of Dimplex North America approximately two-and-a-half years ago. That entity is part of the giant Glen Dimplex Group, founded in 1973 and now the world’s largest manufacturer of electrical heating, with businesses in space and water heating, cooling, ventilation and heat recovery; it presently has over 10,000 employees working around the world in 30 businesses.

The company made its presence known in the hearth industry when it set up operations in Cambridge, Ontario, Canada, then exhibited at an HPBExpo in 1996. It caused attendees to stop and stare at a wall of electric fireplaces with “flames” that were leagues beyond the rudimentary technology of other manufacturers of those products.

Normand’s path to his present position began years ago at IBM. He then moved to Black & Decker where he worked in Sales, Marketing and Management, rising to director of Sales.

His next job was at the skyrocketing toy company Spin Master. Created by three college buddies on a shoestring, it’s now the fourth largest toy company in the world. Normand rose to senior vice president International, then left in 2012 and took over the reins of Dimplex North America. During all those years he had occasion to work with both Big Box stores and specialty shops in a number of countries.

“I have a pretty good understanding of the various distribution networks and channels,” he says.

Hearth & Home: Where are the Dimplex products manufactured?

Denis Normand: “We manufacture some here in Ontario, some in Europe and some in China. So it’s a bit varied. As the marketplace evolved, we’ve evolved our manufacturing as well. Our innovation, engineering and design are still here in our Cambridge, Ontario, office.”

L to R: David Neufeld - Product Manager, Flame Products; Kelly Smith - Director, Customer Service; Jane Laurie - Director of Marketing, Flame Products; Gino Tersigni - Senior Vice President, Chief Marketing & Sales Officer; David Lackey - Vice President, Marketing & Business Development; Denis Normand - President & CEO; Celeste Brunel – Vice President, Furniture Design & Brand Development.

How many employees do you have in Cambridge?

Normand: “I would say about 130 or so. In the last three years, we’ve had some great innovation that we’ve culled from our partner companies in Europe. Rather than duplicate that manufacturing here, we’ve been able to bring the product in directly from there. We’ve also outsourced some manufacturing, especially component parts, to some areas in China, but we continue to have an Ontario base that provides some manufacturing support for us.”

Obviously you’re in charge of products going into Canada and the U.S. Are you also in charge of products going elsewhere throughout the world?

Normand: “Yes. Some of the products that we have developed here are then sold across the world. The Glen Dimplex Group is a bit unique in its approach because we’re a collection of international companies.

As we develop products for our marketplace, we also sell those products around the world, either through our sister companies or through individual distributors. So we do have sales in South America, in Asia and in Europe.”

Am I correct that you basically have two general categories of products? One is hearth products and the other is barbecues. Is there anything else beyond that?

Normand: “Yes. We have a couple other verticals that you may not be aware of. The Glen Dimplex Group is the largest electrical heating company in the world. As such, we have a fairly big electrical heat business in North America. That is everything from residential up to small commercial to even large commercial and industrial heating. We have products to heat different types of rooms in your home as well as small commercial applications and even heaters that will take care of large warehouse spaces.

“In addition to the electrical heat products, we have an energy storage business, even thermal heat energy. The synergy between our businesses is in the electrical heating products. We also have a product that we call Quantum; it has the ability to store energy in the home as heat, if you like. The consumer still has full control of how they heat their home, but the utilities can send energy and power to the appliance at different times during the day to maximize either renewable energy or lower-cost energy production. That allows us a thermal energy solution which is an area that is growing; it’s an area in which we have a lot of markets under testing right now across North America.”

So you’re actively involved in those markets as well? You weren’t simply referring to your parent company, Glen Dimplex?

Normand: “No. We do that here. Our efforts in barbecues, however, has diminished and come to an end.”

Then our interest in your business would be confined to your hearth products. Is that the way you see it?

Normand: “Correct. And that’s an area where we have made significant investments, as recognized by some of the Vesta awards that you guys have bestowed on us. If we look at the innovation in the last two years on the hearth side of the business, not only have we reinvigorated and improved all of our core fire products, this year we’ve also launched the Multi-Fire XD line of products. Plus we’ve expanded and improved our Opti-myst line and then launched the Opti-V line.

“All three are having tremendous success this year, so we’re quite encouraged. We’ve broken through some new innovation in fire. It has also allowed us to reach a whole new marketplace that we had not reached before.”

Which channels are you presently going through with your hearth products?

Normand: “Primarily through the specialty hearth product channel. But we are very engaged with architects, interior designers and builders. We’re looking at both residential and commercial applications, and we’re doing a lot in the hospitality industry. There are multiple areas that we are engaging with and creating awareness of our new line of products; service and installation is primarily handled by our folks in the hearth world and electrical world.”

You didn’t mention Big Box stores. Are you still going to the Home Depots of the world?

Normand: “Yes, we do. It’s almost a different type of product line. It’s more of a lower price point, a traditional type of both mantel and media. Certainly the Big Box channel continues to be a relevant channel and something that we’re keenly focused on, but our new innovation has been driven toward the hearth and home channel.”

I recall conversations with your predecessor, Martin Champ, when he would moan about the Big Box stores being a race to the bottom. What price ranges are your products at the Big Box stores?

Normand: “We tend to be at the mid to high price-point ranges on the mass side. But that seems to fluctuate a lot lately as those retailers ultimately control price points.”

In the specialty channel again, I refer back to your predecessor who was frustrated that the hearth specialty dealers didn’t really embrace electric hearth products. I believe he worked very hard for a number of years, and still found it difficult to make inroads. Have you noticed that is changing? Are specialty hearth dealers more receptive to what you’re selling?

Normand: “As we continue to innovate and create better products, the marketplace is responding with greater support. I can’t speak to the past, but as we’ve engaged with the folks in the channel, we’ve realigned the new products that we’re developing and the strategy behind them up to the level of support that we’re receiving from them, which is encouraging.”

From my perspective, it seems that it should have reached a turning point already. Any specialty hearth dealer not carrying products such as yours is making a mistake.

Normand: “But not all products appear the same. We do strive and continue to bring new innovations to the marketplace. We’re also acutely aware of the people (competitors) who are watching and are very quick to replicate what we do. That’s an ongoing struggle for us.”

Are you able to give me retail price ranges of the products you sell through the specialty channel?

Normand: “They vary. It’s hard for me to see a price point. We range anywhere from an item that can be $400 or $500 right up to a fully installed system at $2,500. The final price point is often a hard one to measure because it usually includes an installation.”

What I was getting at is whether the products you’re selling in the specialty stores are at a substantially higher price than what is going through the Big Boxes.

Normand: “I’m glad you asked the question. We spend a lot of time in our organization to make sure that we recognize and protect and provide what’s needed to the hearth and home specialty retailers. So our product line differs when it does go to mass. It differs in feature content. It often differs in terms of the different types of price points that we develop for them. So there is a strong differentiation between our line in our mass retail and the line we have in specialty retail.”

Have you come out with a linear fireplace, which seems to be selling so well for many of your competitors?

Normand: “I believe that we are by far the market leader in that area. The linear fireplace has been in the line now for over three years. It’s one of our best-selling items and I think that’s part of the reason why you’ve seen a lot of our competitors carrying it.”

Is that the product that most attracts designers and architects?

Normand: “It’s a very attractive piece. We’re receiving the most calls and the most activity lately on the Opti-myst and Opti-V lines. The Opti-myst has a full three-dimensional flame effect that you can have with contemporary looks as well as with log set looks. It’s becoming very popular for a commercial and hospitality environment. It has one of the most realistic flame effects that you’ve ever seen; we’re seeing a lot of opportunities where gas was not an option, or even in some cases we’re replacing gas because of its versatility.

“The Opti-V has taken that to a whole other dimension with a full three-dimensions. We’ve added sound to the effect. So now you have a high-end solution that is a three-dimensional fire with sparks and sound effects; it’s proving to be very popular in high-end residential as well as small commercial and hospitality environments. Those are the products generating a lot of calls.

“Then our linear line, which has been one of our most popular lines for the last couple of years, continues to expand. We expanded it this year. We’ve got further expansion this coming year. We’ll be launching new products in the spring to expand that line.”

I remember being at the Dimplex booth the first morning of an Expo about three or four years ago, whenever you introduced for the first time the Opti-myst. There was a Fire Safety fellow at the booth trying to shut down the Opti-myst because he thought it was a fire hazard. Someone in the booth kept saying, “Just put your hand in the flame and see. It’s not a fire.” But he wouldn’t do it (laughs). If you had a video of that, it would have been a great advertising tool.

Normand: “Yes, very much. Oddly enough, we still get that reaction often. However, the Opti-myst line from three-and-a-half years ago has continued to evolve. We now have a very contemporary looking, very robust product in the market. But we still get that ‘Wow’ effect; people just can’t believe it is not a real flame.

Opti-myst.

“Putting your hand in it is still very much a key part. From a customer’s standpoint, it becomes a very big reason to buy because of the safety aspect of the product. You don’t have to worry about grandchildren running up and putting their hands in it. From a commercial standpoint, you have no liability from any consumers who may venture too close to the flame. It has a great appeal to a lot of folks.”

Can you compare how well you’re doing in Canada versus the U.S.? Have you made much greater strides in Canada?

Normand: “No. I would say that our greatest growth is coming from the U.S. Certainly the economy shows that, and we’ve invested some time in growing our U.S. business. While we continue to have a leadership position in Canada, we’re certainly having a tremendous amount of growth in the U.S. We’re excited about it. It’s double-digit growth and that’s part of our game plan. We continue to nurture and work hard at that.”

Is this more a product for urban areas than it is suburban or rural?

Normand: “No. If I were to look at our product line three years ago, I would have said we were more of a rural type of product or suburban. We’ve continued to enhance that side of the business, but our new innovations reflect a bit more of the modern look. It certainly reflects some of the multi-dwelling construction that has gone up.

“I think that, now, we have a broader line of products that still appeal to key traditional consumers and then expands as you get into both the linear looks and the Opti-myst and the Opti-V. There is so much opportunity to be creative right now, and to bring all kinds of different looks into the home because of the inserts and wall mounts. Plus we can create islands now, three-way viewing. I think the versatility and creativity of our technology and products allows us to have even more appealing installations.”

Over the past few years, have you increased the amount of heat output that your products can produce?

Normand: “We have. As I mentioned before, our background as one of the world’s largest electrical heat companies allows us to leverage some of that knowledge. We have new products now in the marketplace that allow us to provide greater heat output at a lower energy cost. You’re going to see more of that coming from us.

“Sometimes consumers don’t want or need increased heat output. They just want a nice steady heat. Through patented technology we have comfort heat out there that is providing a great deal of heat at a lower cost. So there is an energy efficiency story as well.”

So when the U.S. and Canada experience a really cold winter, as it was last year, and the rest of the hearth industry is going through the roof, you are able to ride that sales wave as well.

Normand: “Absolutely. We have the ability to heat up a room quickly and to maintain that heat in a very comfortable fashion and probably at the lowest cost out there.”

There are more than a few people in the hearth industry who say the future of the hearth industry lies with electric fireplaces. Have you thought about that a bit, and do you think there is any truth to it?

Normand: “I certainly am of the same opinion that there is room for growth in our industry, and with our types of products. It’s an area that we continue to invest in; however, I do believe that consumers will always want to have different options. But I’m seeing more and more awareness of the capabilities of electrical fireplaces.

“We have healthy debates in our building, a dialogue on whether we should call this new technology electrical fireplaces because it is so much greater than what it was five or 10 years ago in terms of the effects that we can create. From our standpoint, we need to continue to provide products that give consumers the warmth and comfort that they’re looking for, give them energy efficiency and give them some really stunning visual effects that folks believe is a natural looking fire.

“That’s one of the differentiations of Dimplex. Every log set that we create starts with a burnt piece of wood that is the essence of making sure we’ve got a flame effect that looks like a real fire.”

Arkell Media Consoles with Multi-Fire XD.

Which products are your newest, most current and with the most cutting-edge technology?

Normand: “We now have a full line of hearth products. We’re able to deliver fireplace and insert solutions, as well as wall mount solutions, across the spectrum from as small as 20 in. right across to 100 in. long. That includes our core products such as the Multi-Fire XD, the Opti-myst and the Opti-V. There are quite a few different products, and targeted at different segments of the marketplace.

“The depth of line that Dimplex has brought to the marketplace in the last 18 months is as robust and as broad as this company has put out. As a leader, that says a lot because we’ve been in this business and we have led this category for a long time. Our product line today across the spectrum is quite strong.”

Well, you created the category.

Normand: “Yes, and two years ago we set out on a path to reinvent the category, and that’s what we’ve done now. We’re probably most excited about that. Not only have we created a category, but we’ve now taken it to new levels in terms of design, innovation and new products.”

Are architects and designers primarily using your products for residential use, or is it primarily commercial or a mixture of both?

Normand: “It’s quite a mixture. Quite frankly, we never before had a product line that was innovative enough to break through to that segment, and the awareness level of electrical wasn’t that high. We now have products that allow designers and architects to incorporate the technology into their designs, and to create custom-made solutions for their customers.

“We’re seeing those installations as much in residential as in small commercial as well as hospitality. We’ve made tremendous strides into restaurants, hotels, business lobbies and boardrooms. Our products are now being included in new designs in areas for which they just were not considered before.”

What have I not asked that I should have or that you would like to get out?

Normand: “We want folks to know that Dimplex is continuing to invest in innovations and we really have a very comprehensive product line. We are seeing the growth of the category across a multitude of different channels and consumers, and we’re very excited about that. I encourage your readers to come and see us. We will be at the HPBExpo in March and the IBS Show in January. We believe that the future is very bright for our categories."

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