By Bill Sendelback
Photos: ©2016 Riccardo Cellere Photography. www.riccardocellere.com.
Customer Service is a too-familiar buzz phrase used by most every company, whether it’s true for them or not. But if you find a major hearth products manufacturer that has not lost a single customer in 25 years of business, you must admit that Customer Service must be more than just words for them. According to many of those customers, Industrial Chimney Company, better known as ICC, is the poster child for sincere customer care.
“We are a relationship company,” says Ray Bonar, ICC’s vice president. “We have good, strong relationships with our customers, and we never look to the short term. Lloyd Pugh taught us to look to the long term, and that has served us well.”
Ed. Note: Lloyd Pugh created the rep firm Lloyd Pugh & Associates, which functioned as both a sales and marketing arm for its customers. After his passing, his son, Tom Pugh, took over the reins. Both father and son were drivers of, and forces in, the hearth industry.
About 26 years ago, Bonar was a hearth products distributor in western Canada. Doug Singer, now his partner in ICC, was vice president of Engineering for Security Chimney, and Andre Bibaud was an engineer and second in command in Engineering to Singer at Security.
The three decided they could do a better job of making venting. After a year and a half of planning, Industrial Chimney Company, now better known as ICC, was born and this year is celebrating its 25th anniversary.
|The ICC management team (L to R): Daniel Laviolette, Jean-Francois Houle, Josee Longchamp, Dan Bonar, Louise Cleroux, Lesley Fournier, Ray Bonar, Claude Maziade, Annie Ward, Andre Bibaud, Steve Rea, (Doug Singer, not present).|
The three original partners are still the active owners of ICC. Bonar says that both he and Singer are “50 percent retired,” but a strong team of shareholder partners is now involved in all aspects of management. These days Singer and Bonar share CEO duties, although Singer’s focus is primarily on Production and Product Design, while Bonar’s focus is on Sales and Marketing.
Bibaud heads up Research & Development. Singer’s son, Steve, heads up ICC’s Commercial and Industrial Chimney business, and Bonar’s son, Dan, is in charge of Residential Products marketing. As the company has grown, key employees have been given the opportunity to become partners, and there are now a dozen partners active in day-to-day operations.
“We’ve always believed that specialty hearth retailers are the foundation of our industry,” says Bonar. “Everything we’ve done from the beginning has been built around the concept of selling through specialty hearth retailers. We look for long-term relationships that will be mutually successful for our customers and for us.” Bonar says that ICC has done this by making innovative, high-quality products sold exclusively through specialty hearth retailers.
|One of ICC's two automated laser welding machines that produce the flues and casing for the company's residential venting products.|
“We work very hard to establish and maintain long-term relationships with the very best specialty hearth distributors and retailers in our industry,” he says. ICC does this by selling through independent manufacturer’s reps directly to well-established, two-step hearth distributors who in turn service hearth retailers.
“We don’t sell dealer-direct, and we don’t sell our residential products through any other marketing channels, such as HVAC or mass merchants,” he says. ICC does, however, sell its new Commercial and Industrial Chimney products through specialist Commercial and Industrial manufacturer’s reps.
|Production of VIC Condensing Vent, part of ICC’s industrial product offerings.|
First up for the fledgling ICC 25 years ago was a Commercial and Industrial UL 103 pressure chimney, followed quickly by the company’s familiar Excel Class A insulated chimney for wood stoves and fireplaces, and Ultra Black double-wall stove pipe.
In the following 25 years, ICC has added its Excel Prime single-wall stove pipe, Excel Liner rigid chimney liner, Excel Direct for direct-vent gas products, Excel Pellet for pellet burning products and Model RIS large diameter insulated chimney.
In 2013, the company spent three years in product development before introducing its separate new line of Commercial and Industrial venting aimed at an entirely different market than residential venting. The line now includes IS insulated chimney, VIC single-wall and double-wall condensing vent, and VIP pressure vent, grease duct and positive pressure chimney.
“We still have a few holes to fill in this line,” admits Bonar. “When we started this project, we had a five-year plan for our Commercial and Industrial sales and now, in year three, we’ve more than exceeded those goals.”
In addition to venting, ICC has become a force in high-efficiency, clean-burning wood fireplaces with its RSF and Renaissance lines. Singer developed the BIS fireplace while he was at Security Chimney, and Bonar sold them through his distributorship.
|Welder putting the finishing touches on an RSF Opel firebox.|
“We both liked the idea of a built-in fireplace that burned and heated like a wood stove, a controlled combustion model that could heat a house and burn overnight,” says Bonar. “Later on we both installed RSF Opel fireplaces in our homes and really liked them. So when the line came up for sale, we bought it.”
After moving the operation from northern British Columbia to Quebec in 2001, ICC started its own production and expansion of the RSF line. “We’re continuing to update the line,” he says. “It now includes two models that have tested to 2.5 gph, and our Delta Fusion, which is the first product tested and listed to the EPA’s new single-burn-rate standard.”
ICC also offers its Renaissance line of wood-burning fireplaces. “Our Renaissance models were designed to be clean burning, environmentally friendly, conventional fireplaces,” Bonar explains. “They were never designed to be heating units. They are very high-end, aesthetic, low-emissions units.”
Bonar says that ICC introduced the Renaissance line at the wrong time – just as the new-home construction business tanked. “So for the first few years sales were not what we had hoped,” he says, “but they now are doing very well, especially with the new, large, linear wood-burning model.
“We built our business on engineering venting products that, before anything else, are easier and faster to install. And we design a lot of parts to do multiple jobs and fit multiple sizes to cut down the SKUs to help our dealers and distributors have complete inventories in less space with less investment.”
|Multi-coil quick-change feeder for ICC’s new precision cut-to-length line.|
All ICC products are manufactured in the company’s 120,000 sq. ft. factory and headquarters in St. Jerome, Quebec, a factory that is currently working 24/5 with almost 250 employees. “We recently added 30,000 sq. ft., and we’ve not yet outgrown our space,” says Bonar. “We have enough land so that we can easily double our space when we need it.”
ICC has no plans to move into gas appliances but “will continue to work on specialized wood products, either high-end decorative ones or high-efficiency heating appliances. Of course, we will continue to make improvements in our venting lines.”
ICC has a very high market share in residential wood venting in Canada, and Bonar says that the business is stable. “We’ve grown it by adding new products such as single-wall stove pipe last year and our direct- vent which has been growing steadily.” ICC’s fireplace business in Canada also has been growing steadily, but not quickly, according to Bonar. “But with a new linear model and our new Delta Fusion, we’re going to see really, really large sales increases.”
ICC’s wood venting business in the U.S. is “significant and growing steadily.” Bonar also sees sales growth in the U.S. for ICC’s direct-vent and single-wall stove pipe. “We have a large share of the pellet chimney business in the U.S. and Canada,” he says, “but it has not been a good market for it in either country for the last couple of years.”
ICC’s sales are not limited to North America. “We’ve had steady business in Japan for many, many years,” says Bonar, “and we sell some in South America and even Russia.” ICC’s overall sales are divided 50 percent in Canada, 45 percent in the U.S. and five percent overseas.
“We have three really, really good competitive strengths,” according to Bonar. “We’ve made a huge investment in product development with a superior facility and engineering staff, allowing us to do our own EPA and UL testing. We didn’t start out this way, but we now have state-of-the-art machinery that allows us to build superior products compared to anyone’s – or at least as good as anyone’s. We also have a really great team of very strong people in all departments.”
|Two ICC employees rolling a large diameter stainless-steel chimney.|
Customers seem to agree with ICC’s direction, in particular its emphasis on its customers.
“Our life would be simple if every supplier were like ICC,” says Mike Nordby, vice president of hearth distributor Brownstone Distributing, Minneapolis, Minnesota. “We were ICC’s first U.S. distributor 25 years ago. We have always found them easy to work with, and with their quality products, great customer service and excellent response, we give ICC a 10.”
Northwest Stoves, a hearth distributor headquartered in Langley, British Columbia, was ICC’s first Canadian distributor, also 25 years ago.
“ICC is a pleasure to deal with, and they truly value the customer relationship,” says David Rosvold, president. “ICC is known as a technology leader, and they are always improving their products. But I don’t think a lot of people know that ICC really is a family company. They make a conscious effort to ensure that our relationship is about much more than just sales. We’re proud to be an ICC distributor.”
“Sounds corny, but we love ICC,” says Kirk Newby, president of Associated Energy Systems/AES, a West Coast U.S. hearth products distributor headquartered in Kent, Washington. “They have a good idea of what we should accomplish, and they work with us to accomplish those common goals. They are out in the marketplace, aware of what’s going on, and are very realistic about how the market is changing. They are not trying to sell everyone like some suppliers do. They are focused on the hearth dealer business.”
A hearth products retailer once told a group of manufacturers, “I wish you spent as much time working to retain my business as you spent trying to get it.” As a manufacturer that has not lost a customer in 25 years, it sounds as if ICC heard that message loud and clear – 25 years ago.