By Bill Sendelback
Photos: ©2016 Gillian Jackson Photography c/o BBCT Media. www.gillianjackson.ca.
If you’ve sold hearth products for any length of time, most likely you’ve sold hearth appliances designed and engineered by Tony James. He has developed more than 400 gas- and wood-burning hearth products for some of the industry’s largest manufacturers, both past and present.
But, tired of the corporate rat race and wanting to have his own business, in 2003 James started Woodbridge Fireplace, a Jack among the giants of the industry. Today the company is profitable, sales are increasing, and he’s manufacturing the gas hearth products he has always envisioned.
“Instead of working for the big corporations, I wanted to be in a position where I controlled my destiny,” says James, who is the founder, president and co-partner of Woodbridge Fireplace.
“It seemed that, for 18 years, I built up other companies through my designs and efforts. I wanted to do it for myself instead of for others; I wanted to offer great products that were cutting edge and different from what else was out there.”
|The company’s retail showroom.|
In the Beginning
In his mid-20s and just out of college, James landed in the hearth products industry, joining then-Canadian gas log manufacturer Jet Flame Gas Products that later became Haugh’s Products. After evolving into gas, wood stoves and gas fireplaces, Haugh’s was purchased by Jacuzzi. One year after the Jacuzzi buyout, James was recruited by Desa International; he moved to that company’s Kentucky location in 1997.
In 2000, Desa bought FMI, and James was making the weekly trek between Kentucky and California, supervising hearth product engineering at both locations. In 2001, on one of those trips to California, James “woke up to all the stuff going on” (such as 9/11) and decided to return home to Canada. In 2003, he started Woodbridge Fireplace in Brampton, Ontario, a suburb of Toronto.
“I had always been fighting with my superiors at the larger companies when it came to creating products that were ‘cost effective,’ better known as ‘cheap,’” he says. “I didn’t want to do that anymore.” James says the California company would ship a truckload of products, knowing full-well that there was almost no profit in it.
“I didn’t want to do that,” he says. “That’s what contributed to the demise of companies like CFM and some others – low margins and high volume. I wanted to create products that were solid, would last forever and were different from what was out there. When I started Woodbridge, I focused on creating quality products. I know we won’t do huge volume, but I have no illusions of becoming a half-billion dollar corporation.
“I also have no desire to make this company so large that it’s going to get out of control. I have a passion for what I do and what I’ve always done. I thoroughly enjoy this business. I have never liked the politics of this industry, but I’ve always enjoyed developing products, introducing and manufacturing them, and then the customer relationships.”
It took James his first year as Woodbridge to create and introduce his first product after starting from scratch and putting everything he had into it. “My background is in developing gas and wood hearth products, but our focus now is strictly on gas models, gas direct-vent fireplaces and inserts, outdoor fireplaces and outdoor fire pits.” Suggested retail prices range from a small $800 outside fire pit to a large $8,000 contemporary fireplace.
|DVI750 firebox weldment.|
For the first five years, James put everything back into the company to get it going. Now, with scores of finished models, and about five new products every year, Woodbridge has enjoyed double-digit sales growth each of the past five years.
Forty percent of Woodbridge’s sales are OEM to other manufacturers. Of the 60 percent of sales recorded to the Woodbridge brand, 20 percent is sales to U.S. hearth retailers, and 80 percent to Canadian dealers, mostly in Ontario and Quebec.
“We have a lot of exposure with high-end homebuilders, designers and architects,” he says, “but our main focus is definitely on growing the hearth products dealer network. That was my main background and I love it.”
With previous manufacturing companies, James also worked with mass merchants and other types of retailers, “but I wanted to avoid that with Woodbridge. We definitely want the local mom and pop hearth store. The more experienced and entrenched in the industry they are, the more they can respect the type of products we make and my background.”
James has dabbled with sales out of North America but is not pursuing those avenues. “We would only consider selling to countries that accept our North American ANSI/CSA product certifications,” he says. “We don’t want to try certifying for Europe because of the different gas types and pressures and other differences there. We’ll stick with our ANSI/CSA approvals for now.”
Woodbridge’s extensive product line includes contemporary, traditional and now transitional styles. “I started with the contemporary stuff 10 years ago,” says James. “When I did all those early linear units, there weren’t many others, but over the last five years everybody has gotten into it. Now I’m seeing a movement back to traditional styling with larger viewing areas.”
James is particularly critical of the growing trend to larger and larger gas fireplaces. “These designs are pushing fireplaces to be less efficient,” he says. “In the push for larger flames in larger fireplaces, too much heat is being produced for the home, so some of that heat has to be vented. We’re almost going back to B-vent technology with fan assisted venting to induce draft and remove that excessive heat. It’s much less efficient, and I think it’s bad for the industry.”
With the latest in manufacturing equipment in Woodbridge’s 11,000 sq. ft. factory, the company makes everything to order and ships within one or two weeks. “We do everything in-house including our R&D, design drafting, manufacturing, website development, and maintenance and literature production,” says James. “Everything is done in-house with our very experienced staff.”
That staff totals only 18 employees; some of them handle a retail showroom that is combined with the company’s R&D facility into another 4,500 sq. ft. facility.
|An employee working on the DVI400 fireplace.|
A Partner Joins the Company
In 2010 Bob Stead joined James as a co-partner in Woodbridge after an extensive background in manufacturing and industrial accounting, and most recently as an owner of an electrical equipment company supplying the medical industry. At the time that he sold the company, he was employing 350 people in two North American factories.
Stead learned firsthand about the importance of quality as the new owners shifted manufacturing overseas. Quality suffered, products failed and deliveries were delayed.
“When I was introduced to Woodbridge, I saw a company with great products and top level people who needed help in accounting and manufacturing in order to grow to the next level,” says Stead. “With all the innovative new products coming out of the Woodbridge engineering team, the next few years are going to be exciting for us.”
While Stead handles the manufacturing and finances, James handles product development and sales. “I love creating great products,” says James. “That’s my focus. Bob makes sure that we remain profitable.
“A main advantage we have against competition is my background in developing products,” says James. “It’s almost seamless for us to take a product concept to a finished, certified product within six months, when most other companies struggle to learn as they work with their junior engineering staff.
“Our quality is another way we sell. Once we are in the door, the customer learns about that quality and sees that our products weigh more than those of our competition. All our products are always designed to be among the best in the industry.”
As an example, James points to the Woodbridge DV1400 direct-vent gas fireplace the company recently introduced. “It’s only 10 in. deep, and it also can fit into an existing fireplace as a fireplace insert by using two three-in. co-linear liners. I’ve not seen anything out there like this, so we’re looking for this one to help get us in the door with more dealers.
“My background is another door opener,” James adds. “When you’re dealing with most bigger companies, you’re no longer dealing with the guy who started it. You’re dealing with people who have been hired over the years. It’s not the same thing.
“I’m very much in touch with everything our company does. Our company is small enough that we can really stay on top of any customer’s needs, but we’re large enough to produce anything.” James says that, because of Woodbridge’s smaller size, the company can and does customize products such as making custom surrounds for its fireplace inserts.
Next on the horizon for Woodbridge Fireplace will be more innovative gas fireplace products – and perhaps gas grills as well. “But not wood-burning products,” says James. “I see that market in decline. We’ll stay with what we’re doing.”
Tony James and Woodbridge Fireplace appear to be very well focused.