The Past Is Prologue
By Bill Sendelback
Some products are so well designed that their appeal lasts forever – or at least for a long, long time. Such is the case with the wood-burning cookstove that surfaced in the 1890s, and with the smooth lines and compelling colors of kitchen appliances during the 1950s.
But it takes a dedicated team such as the one at Elmira Stove Works to keep those iconic designs in the marketplace while updating them with current technology.
In 1975, Tom Hendricks was running the local hardware store in downtown Elmira, Ontario – an Amish/Mennonite section of the Province – and was selling quite a few cookstoves and parts, when his “Eureka” moment arrived.
“I shouldn’t just be selling these things,” he thought, “I should be sourcing them and making a better margin than what I get at retail.” He drove to a company near Ottawa that had been manufacturing the cookstoves – Findlay, it was called. Trouble was, it had just gone out of business.
|L to R: Tom Hendrick, founder of Elmira Stove Works; Tony Dowling, vice president of Sales and Marketing; and Brian Hendrick, CEO.
Photo: ©2016 Brandon Barré Photography. Seven Image Group.
When Hendricks couldn’t convince them to get back in the business, he bought all of the electrical parts and tooling he needed, loaded them into two tractor-trailers, and drove them back to Elmira where he set up shop in a chicken barn outside of town.
That was the beginning of Elmira Stove Works, and its now-iconic 1890s-era cookstove.
The year 1975 also marked the re-emergence of the hearth industry, as entrepreneurs throughout North America reacted to the heavy-handed embargoes imposed by the OPEC oil cartel. In Vermont, Duncan Syme and Murray Howell created the Defiant, their first stove, which set a high bar for other manufacturers joining the industry.
Up north, the Canadian government was offering a subsidy for the purchase of wood-burning appliances, so Hendricks – ever the entrepreneur – added wood-burning fireplace inserts to his line and, a bit later, freestanding wood stoves. Business went through the roof (no pun intended).
Meanwhile, consumers continued to purchase the company’s wood-burning cookstoves, but many voiced their desire for a similar product fueled by gas or electricity. It wasn’t long before Hendricks greatly expanded the business by meeting those requests.
The relatively new network of hearth retailers took note, and many felt they could do well selling that product in their market area. A network of several hundred dealers for cookstoves and heating stoves was soon developed across North America – and its growth continued for some time.
In 1990, on the heels of a recession, Elmira Stove Works declared bankruptcy.
A competitor purchased the tooling and parts for the appliance (cookstove) side of the business; Hendricks bought the name and tooling for the wood-burning heating stoves, then almost immediately set to work producing cookstoves once more.
For the next 10 years or so, a local company provided the fabrication for the wood heating stoves, and they continued to be sold through a company store as well as the network of dealers. Around the year 2000, Hendricks made the decision to get out of the heating business; it just wasn’t profitable enough. The focus, he decided, should be exclusively on cookstoves and kitchen appliances, and that’s the way it remains today.
The company has around 20 employees. It doesn’t do fabricating or welding and sources out a lot of the parts. Its focus is on fit and finish: painting, powder-coating, assembly, polishing and inspecting.
It’s all about the look.
The company’s larger refrigerators are built on Whirlpool Corporation base units: Whirlpool, Amana and KitchenAid; smaller refrigerators use the Midea base.
Hendricks is still active in the business, although we’re told he does like his vacations (which he has earned through many years of hard work); his son, Brian, is president, and Tony Dowling, who has been with the company off and on since 1989, is vice president of Sales and Marketing.
|All main kitchen appliances are available in the Antique line, and customizable by model, color, options and accents.|
Today, the company has two very distinct, and complete lines. There’s the Antique line, a design from the 1890s (think of your grandmother or great-grandmother in front of the stove, cooking up a batch of pancakes for breakfast), and the Northstar line, which is a 1950s design (think of a Cadillac with fins, ranch-style homes, Sinatra relaxing in Palm Springs).
Both lines offer a full array of kitchen appliances, such as a stove, refrigerator, wall-oven, microwave and dishwasher. Both also offer gas, electric or dual-fuel units, and the Antique line also offers wood.
“The wood is something we got back into about eight years ago,” says Dowling. “The fact that we got out of wood was something that ate at us because it’s part of our heritage. We decided to get back in, but to do it differently than before. So we sealed it up, made it much more efficient, put a view-in window into the firebox, and offered the option of gas burners on the right side. It has been a great little product line for us.”
The fire-view window was not only an aesthetic plus, it also allows users to see when they need to add wood without opening the door. But what about EPA regulations? “Right now, cookstoves are exempt,” says Dowling. “It seems that the EPA has acknowledged that cookstoves are unique. They are really a cooking product, not a heating product. Plus it’s not a big market; the couple of thousand wood-burning cookstoves being sold in the North American market are not having much impact on the environment.”
A 50-Year Jump
The Northstar line of 1950s-styled products was created to generate the next growth of the business. “We all thought that it might be just a five-year or so fad. We got into it in 2001 and had a great run for about five years; it didn’t level off, but it did slow down. I thought it might be the beginning of the end for the line, but about six years or so ago, it took off again and has been growing steadily every since.”
According to Dowling, the demographics of those purchasing the retro Northstar product are from 30 to 55. Those folks who actually lived through the ’50s don’t want to go back there. “But the next generation looks at it and says, ‘What a cool time that was! I watched re-runs of Happy Days; I saw American Graffiti. It was a fun time, a simple time.’”
|Elmira's Northstar line is a step back to the 1950s, with its soft lines, rounded corners and refreshing colors.|
A lot of customers – for both lines – are buying for their second homes, says Dowling. They may have stainless-steel, boxy appliances at home, but when they go away for their summer vacation, or to their weekend retreat, they want something different.
“A lot of it has to do with colors and lines,” he says. For Northstar in particular, the lines are very unique. They’re not overpowering. They have a nice, soft curve, but are really eye-catching. Northstar does very well in California, in ranch homes, Arts & Crafts homes or even contemporary homes.”
Demographics for the Antique line skew a bit older – 50-plus. “It’s a very stable market for us,” says Dowling. “It’s not growing, but it’s not going away, either. There is a strong trend toward the 1890s product going into Victorian homes, log homes and stone homes – anything that has a warm, cozy feel to it. It sells well anywhere there are upper-end cottage properties – the Rocky Mountains, Adirondacks, Blue Ridge mountains in Georgia.”
Sales of the Antique line (including wood) and the Northstar line are just about 50/50. Sales of both lines into new construction or as retrofits are also about 50/50.
For the Antique line, prices begin at $5,700 for a fairly dressed-down four-burner range, and rise to over $10,000 for a 45 in. six-burner unit all dressed up with copper trim. The color Black accounts for about 60 percent of sales; the other 40 percent is spread over other available colors, such as Bisque, Cayenne Pepper Red, White and Liberty Blue.
For the Northstar line, prices start around $4,200. The new 36 in., six-burner range will be $6,995; a full-size refrigerator starts at $3,495. The most requested colors are Red, Buttercup Yellow and Robin’s Egg Blue.
The company discourages dealers from trying to stock product, because everything is really customized. “Dealers just have to put one piece on display,” says Dowling, “and they can sell the entire line. If they display a piece from each line (Antique and Northstar), then we will put them on our lead program and on our dealer locator. Sixty percent of our dealers do sell both lines.
“We also recognize it’s a niche market and we’re not going to put two dealers in one small town.”
The company has about 300 dealers in North America, and is looking for agents to handle the U.S. Northwest and the Atlantic area of Canada. According to Dowling, what makes a great and successful dealer of Elmira products is a champion of those products, someone who is passionate about the line, working in the retail store.
Actually, that’s really what’s needed to successfully sell any line, isn’t it?