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Hearth & Home November 2018

Alex Soubliere.

The Cookbook

By Bill Sendelback

Alex Soubliere creates a best practices operations manual for hearth retailers, along with a hands-on help program that he supplies.

Alex Soubliere has been a hearth products dealer for 15 years. After the first five years, he was unhappy with the results of his three Friendly Fires stores in southern Ontario. Sure, the stores were profitable and sales were increasing, but Soubliere believed his stores could be doing better and that he and his employees should be feeling more enjoyment going to work each day.

Out of his soul-searching came Soubliere’s “Cookbook for Success,” an operations manual for any retail operation, and part of an individualized retail program Soubliere has been offering for three years. Included in his Cookbook program are sections, or modules, on sales, service, hiring, training, accounting, operations, health, safety, facilities, and management.

“My first five years in business I was working a tremendous amount of hours, really trying hard by putting in the physical and mental efforts,” Soubliere explains, “but I was not achieving the results I had hoped for. Frankly, I was not having fun. There had to be a better way.”

He began to research what it took to be successful in business, including reading the late Tom Pugh’s “Blueprint for Success,” and talking with business owners from many industries. “I wanted to understand the standard operating processes and best practices needed to keep our entire team headed in the same direction. We were not following most of these processes, and as a result, even though we often thought we had a problem solved, just like a “Groundhog Day” moment we would soon face the same problem again. Now we focus on the processes to reduce problems and eliminate mistakes from recurring down the road.”

Soubliere admits that when he read Tom Pugh’s “Blueprint for Success,” he agreed with all of it, but implemented almost none of it. “We as owners are slow to change,” he says. “I read all those recommendations and they made sense, but I was not able to connect the dots to see just how much sense and how important those recommendations were. That gave rise to my Cookbook program approach.”

Soubliere began developing a “Cookbook,” essentially an operations manual of the best practices that all of his team members could understand and follow, practices that also would help train new employees. “The Cookbook allowed us to grow and, as an owner, to improve myself in the day-to-day operations of our business. It has worked out great.”

He also knew that other dealers were struggling with similar challenges, a realization that resulted in the Cookbook program individualized for any dealer. More than a dozen dealers have signed on for an individualized Cookbook program. “We take the Cookbook that we wrote for our stores and work with other storeowners to tailor a Cookbook for each particular store,” Soubliere explains. “No two stores are alike, so we develop the best practices applicable for each individual store.”

While Soubliere offers one-day workshops at regional distributor and manufacturer dealer meetings, he has learned that the most complete and successful method is to work directly, one-on-one, with dealers in a paid program to develop individualized programs. He, along with his business partner Brad Leonard, use scheduled telephone conference calls, sometimes twice weekly, to develop, advise, and implement each Cookbook.

When addressing specific parts, or modules, of the Cookbook, such as the service or accounting module, the dealer’s employee in charge of that function is often involved in the conference calls to ensure they provide input and buy into the program.

Soubliere does not offer generic Cookbooks. “That seemed like an easy approach, to take something off the shelf, but we came to the realization that, for a dealer to successfully roll out this program, it takes work and a bit of pain to realistically look at the operation, accept the advice, and develop the needed processes. That is the only way for this program to be successful. As an example, anyone can buy a gym membership, but those who regularly meet with and work with a personal trainer will be more successful and actually meet their goals.”

A bit of that pain is the cost of the full-blown, individualized program. “This is a very expensive process, as much as $10,000 depending on how long it takes to develop and implement in the dealer’s operation,” Soubliere says, “So it is a significant investment for the dealer.” On average, he says it takes from six months to two years to complete and implement the program. “There are some dealers that are able to schedule their time and focus themselves to make this happen more quickly. But for others with larger operations, or with more complex issues, it can take longer.”

Soubliere’s Friendly Fires stores have consistently seen sales and profit increases over the last 10 years. “I say the last 10 years because, for my first five years, I was doing things wrong. Our Cookbook customers who have spent the time, energy, and money to roll out their Cookbook, too, have consistently seen similar sales and profit improvements.”

While improved profitability is a result of implementing the processes in the Cookbook, he does not suggest implementing a Cookbook just to improve profitability. “Implementing a Cookbook requires change in a company,” says Soubliere, “change by the owner, in the way they do business, and change by the staff on how they do things every day. As silly as this sounds, simply pushing change for the sake of profitability does not offer a significant enough reason for many owners to change.”

But a Cookbook offers many benefits other than perhaps improved profitability, according to Soubliere. “It is now more enjoyable coming to work because there is less chaos, fewer emergencies, fewer angry customers, less staff turnover, and less conflict among our team. I no longer have to be involved in the minutia that happens in all companies. I can now focus on the things I enjoy doing and not be distracted by the things I don’t enjoy doing. Employees are no longer operating in a chaotic atmosphere. Instead everyone operates in a much more processed and best practices environment.”

Shirley Hampton, vice president of Sierra Hearth & Home, a hearth retailer in Jackson, California, thought she could put Soubliere’s program in place for her store by herself, after hearing about the Cookbook three years ago. “I tried, and even though I am familiar with how large companies are run, I just could not make this work by myself for our operation.”

So she contacted Soubliere and began to implement his program. “Things went very smoothly, and in just 10 months we accomplished putting our Cookbook program in place.”

Hampton and Soubliere had conference calls two or three times each month as Cookbook procedures and practices were tailored to the individual needs of Sierra Hearth & Home, including job descriptions, operations procedures, and even how to open the store each day. “It was certainly worth the cost,” Hampton says. “Now our business almost runs itself. We don’t have to tell employees what to do because it is all written down in our Cookbook.”

“The Cookbook program is the greatest thing I’ve done for my business in 20 years,” according to George Hill, owner of Ultimate Home Comfort, Halifax, Nova Scotia. “It’s a roadmap on how to run my business, and it has really opened my eyes.” Hill realized that there was only one of him and he was trying to do too many things, including running the business. “Now, other employees are doing their functions, giving us more time to think, to plan, and to evaluate each job. It has made us more profitable.”

Hill says the Cookbook has caused him to see his business in a totally different way. “Everything is in writing in our Cookbook, and is available for every employee to read. Our store manager now runs the store. I’m no longer in the trenches, giving me more time to truly oversee the operation.”

Hill started Soubliere’s Cookbook program two years ago, and says he is still in the middle of it. “We take it one module, or function, at a time, along with a conference call every other week with Alex. His consulting has really helped us as we discuss challenges and problems, and getting his advice as we continue to develop our Cookbook.”

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