Lighting a Fire in the Home Heating Industry
Stove Builder International
Marc-Antoine Cantin and his brother Jean-François have turned a once bankrupt fireplace manufacturer into an international player that is bringing warmth and comfort to homes around the globe. So you, too, can sit back and enjoy the coziness with a glass of wine.
It’s one of the coldest days of the year and your boots crunch on the snow as you make your way home. Your breath comes out in a frosty cloud and your fingers are a little numb as you fumble with the keys to the door. You come inside and feel it right away – the warmth of the wood-burning fireplace crackling in the living room. Is there any better feeling in the cold months than coming home to a warm fire?
Marc-Antoine Cantin, President and Business Development Officer of Stove Builder International (SBI), knows exactly the universal appeal of a fireplace in the home. It’s been part of his job for almost 20 years in business.
“The coziness,” he says. “You can have central heating or a heat pump or whatever, but it’s not like the heat you get from a fireplace, the dry heat radiation that you get when you have a fireplace burning in the living room. A lot of home owners say, ‘I want a fireplace even though I won’t use it for whole house heating’. Just to use it at night, with a glass of wine to unwind and relax – I need that in my life, too.”
Marc and his wife enjoy the Valcourt FP11, which can be operated with the doors open and is designed to heat the living room in their home just outside Quebec City, the location of SBI’s head office and lead design and manufacturing site. “I even had a stainless steel cooking grid made at the plant for me so that I could barbecue over the coal bed! Works great,” he shares.
Simply put, SBI delivers that cozy experience in every solid fuel-burning stove, fireplace and heating system it designs and produces. The company also makes all the accompanying venting systems, including chimneys, and markets them to hearth retailers. Control over the process of design to finished product has huge benefits, Cantin says.
“What appeals to me is that you can have an impact on everything in the manufacturing chain. From buying the steel and transporting it to designing the product, building it and, if you are a bit of an entrepreneur, you can differentiate yourself through your design and your service, because there are all kinds of things you can do from the time you receive the raw material until the product is on the retailers’ showroom.”
SBI marks its 20th anniversary this summer, celebrating an impressive business comeback story. In 1999, the company that traces its Quebec lineage back to 1875 was emerging from bankruptcy when Marc, a young accountant, his brother Jean-Francois, a civil engineer, and their dad bought a 60 percent stake and began the journey that would take them around the world.
Thus in many ways, SBI is proud to be a family company. Their father was the key investor, trusting in the ability of his two sons to take the business forward, and later advising them on the acquisitions they’ve made over the years.
“We have never really had any conflicts,” Cantin says. “I was really involved in finance and business development; my brother was all operations and HR. We both liked what we were doing and were glad we did not have to do what the other was doing! We do have animated discussions at times, but at the end of the day, we always realize that we are working for the business and we must move in the same direction.” It’s this kind of collaboration that has fuelled the company’s products and its management policies – along with the hard work that turned a small operation of about 25 people into a global player in the industry.
“When we bought the company, my brother was instrumental in turning it around because he brought the engineering background and modern HR management structure,” Cantin says. “I brought the business development and marketing. One of the first things I did was apply marketing science behind what we were doing. What brands do we have, what channels are we using? From there, we focused on developing the right products for these channels. It was all about applying science to how we went to market.”
Sure there was market science, but there was also the strong intention to grow beyond Quebec, and to develop fireplaces with a modern design, grounded in a tradition of quality crafting. The team established a dominant position in Ontario and in Atlantic Canada and then added distribution to western Canada. They also didn’t hesitate to enter the U.S., distributing their products out of South Bend, Indiana.
In fact, the U.S. now represents more than 30 percent of SBI’s overall sales. In 2004, the company also acquired a smaller factory that manufactures fireplaces in La Guadeloupe, Quebec. Beyond North America, SBI has invested in world-class infrastructure, with manufacturing sites in Brazil and Australia. All told, the company currently employs about 220 individuals, and is committed to a progressive and healthy work environment, including free fitness programs for employees.
SBI is all about teamwork and dedication, and Cantin is quick to point out the pride the company takes in the quality of its products and its commitment to clients. “What sets us apart is our fireplaces are durable and designed as an impact product to last,” he explains.
When the Cantins bought the company, there was a wave of outsourcing everything in the industry, with small operators moving their operations overseas and losing quality control in the process. At SBI, he says, “Everything is built in our factories with a high emphasis on making a quality product. People will buy our fireplace and keep it for 20 or 30 years, so the ownership experience is important.”
This commitment to excellence comes through loud and clear when you look at the company’s awards, including the Recipient of Distinction Award from Healthy Enterprises Group for healthy workplaces in 2017 and 2018, and several Vesta Awards for heating innovation.
And while there are accolades, there are also the challenges to find ways to improve emissions and do more to protect the environment. It takes an average of eight to 12 months to certify that a fireplace meets or exceeds the standard emissions criteria of 2.5 grams or less per hour. SBI exceeds those standards.
In fact, the company invests more than $300,000 in design costs per unit to make that happen – by including multiple air intakes and refractory material. It’s a fine balance of positioning the air intakes, their size, the firebox configuration and the types of materials used to build products that are industry-leading on the environmental front.
Cantin is also looking ahead to further growth and development. “There are segments of our business that are still very young,” he explains. “For instance, we started making chimneys in 2013. This is a huge market. We are far from mature and we can still quadruple our sales over a 10-year horizon in that segment.”
And while we all love that feeling of cozying up to a fire, there is a second and very important benefit that a fireplace provides. In 1998, the northeastern U.S. and eastern Canada experienced one of the worst ice storms in history. More than five million people were left without power as temperatures dropped. It took up to 33 days for some areas to have their power restored.
An event like this makes people think about what they have in case the power goes out. Many of SBI’s clients have said that it’s important for them to have a second source of heat for emergencies, so SBI does have a key role to play. “With a fireplace, the world can fall apart in the middle of winter. I can stay home and sleep close to the fireplace and I’ll be safe.”