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Hearth & Home March 2018

Gary Spinuzzi in front of a Napoleon Ascent X70 fireplace, and a Napoleon Torch (not lit).

Spinuzzi’s Last Stand

By Bill Sendelback

PhotoS: ©2018 David Lauer Photography. www.davidlauerphotography.com.

For 40 years, founder and owner Gary Spinuzzi of Bighorn Stove & Spa has battled the many difficulties that come with being a “small” specialty retailer; now, he’s close to retirement.

Now nothing’s impossible I’ve found, for when my chin is on the ground, I pick myself up, dust myself off, and start all over again.

Don’t lose your confidence if you slip, be grateful for a pleasant trip, and pick yourself up, dust yourself off, start over again.

– “Pick Yourself Up” written by Dorothy Fields and Jerome Kern

It seems as if the largest hearth products dealers get all the attention, yet the smaller, so called “Mom and Pop,” dealers have always been the backbone of the hearth products industry. They’ve gone through the hard times, economic downturns, and recessions and, thankfully, most have survived. But smaller dealers don’t have the economic resources and marketing power of the big boys, so survival and success for these mom-and-pop stores are both difficult and uncertain – resulting in unique and interesting stories.

Typical is Bighorn Stove & Spa in Pueblo, Colorado, a hearth and spa dealer that has survived a still-tanked local economy, a lower income population, and severe personal disasters.

Bighorn owner and operator Gary Spinuzzi began his business life after college as a civil engineer working for Morrison-Knudsen, a large, Boise, Idaho-based civil engineering and construction company.

“In college, they tell you that you have to pick a major. I could spell ‘civil,’ so I picked civil engineering.” After four years in that profession, Spinuzzi decided that he didn’t like civil engineering – even if he could spell it. So he returned to Colorado and started a solar-heating retail store.

In 1978, while demonstrating solar-heating equipment at a Colorado Springs mall, a lady asked Spinuzzi to walk her to her car because she did not feel safe with the thousands of dollars she had in her purse from selling, at the mall, the Schrader wood stoves her son was manufacturing.

The solar heating business was about to disappear along with the demise of government tax credits, so this lady and her cash “dilemma” had Spinuzzi’s full attention. Ironically, she was looking for a dealer in Pueblo, and suddenly Spinuzzi was a Schrader dealer; he soon picked up the Fisher and Heat King line as well.

Spinuzzi began his wood stove venture in 1978 with an 800-sq. ft. store that has now grown to a 2,500-sq. ft. showroom and a 3,000-sq. ft. warehouse. “The secret of our success was just pure luck,” he says. “We got into the wood stove business when electricity around here started getting very expensive, and you couldn’t even get a gas tap in Pueblo. So if you were building a house here, you put in a wood-burning fireplace or a wood stove. After selling wood stoves for 40 years, we’ve pretty much seen manufacturers come and go, but mostly go.”

Stoves and inserts from HearthStone, Heatilator and, mainly, from Quadra-Fire.

But more than 35 years ago, Alan Trusler, then co-owner of Aladdin Steel Fabrication, later acquired by Hearth & Home Technologies, showed up at Bighorn Stove & Spa with a pickup loaded with Quadra-Fire wood stoves. That started a relationship that today has Quadra-Fire representing 75% of Spinuzzi’s hearth products sales.

“Today we only sell hearth products and spas. I tried grills once, but there is no barbecue or patio business here. If people want fireplace accessories, patio heaters and things like that, they just buy them online, probably for the same price for which I can buy them.”

Wood-, gas- and pellet-burning appliances are gaining a larger share of Bighorn’s sales as its spa business continues to decline. “Our spa business has all but evaporated, to only 15 or 20% of our sales, with hearth products representing the rest. We’re primarily a wood-stove business; that category represents about 75% of our sales,” says Spinuzzi. Most of Spinuzzi’s purchases are dealer-direct.

While the economy in most of North America is improving, the economy in Pueblo is stagnant, certainly affecting Bighorn’s sales and product mix. “We were doing okay selling about $1.5 million and maybe 100 stoves a month until the previous administration took over,” Spinuzzi explains. “Then things went downhill here for eight years, and our sales have shrunk to about $850,000. But with this new administration, we are finally seeing a bit of improvement in our economy.”

Although the economy in northern Colorado is “booming,” Bighorn in southern Colorado has a “very poor” clientele; Pueblo is 66% Hispanic with an average household annual income of less than $40,000. As a result, Spinuzzi says, only 10% of his sales are higher-end products. “I’m getting away from more expensive stuff because my clientele doesn’t spend that kind of money.”

Homebuilder business for Spinuzzi is non-existent. “I quit trying to work with builders almost 10 years ago when most went out of business and only 20 to 40 homes a year were being built in our entire county. The few builders left want something cheap and then don’t want to pay for it. It just isn’t worth our effort.”

At left, a Napoleon Gas Ascent 42; at right, a Quadra-Fire 7100 wood-burner.

Like most dealers, Bighorn has Big Box store competition. “When those consumers come in for service, I tell them that if they bought it from a Big Box store, go back to them to get it fixed. If they want us to install a stove they bought from a Big Box store, that’s fine, but we charge them an extra 30%.”

A tough economy and clientele with little money to spend might be enough to sink many small mom-and-pop operations. Add to that a personal disaster, and that probably would end most dealerships, but not Gary Spinuzzi, his team, and Bighorn Stove & Spa.

After a $20,000 sales day Friday, Aug. 12, 2016, Spinuzzi called his wife to arrange a celebration dinner. While riding his motorcycle home, an oncoming motorist suddenly turned left in front of Spinuzzi, and Gary hit the car doing 30 miles an hour. He flew over the handlebars, over the car, and landed on his head in the street, splitting his crash helmet. Many bones were broken, including 12 ribs, but the worst damage to Spinuzzi was traumatic brain injury.

“I’m 66 years old and had been riding since I was 15,” he says. “I had open heart surgery in April, 2015, with two heart arteries replaced, but that was minor compared to the motorcycle wreck. I would trade open heart surgery in a flash for what happened to me with this brain injury.”

It took Spinuzzi more than a year to overcome the traumatic brain injury, but he went back to work after just 12 weeks. In the meantime, his wife Sharon, who previously had been working part-time at the store, was running Bighorn with surprising results.

On his first day back at work, Spinuzzi walked into his warehouse and asked, “What happened to all my stuff?” Sharon had sold off all the “white elephants” and reduced Bighorn’s inventory by 30%. Then he looked at his accounts payable and found that Sharon had paid off every bill including Bighorn’s inventory load.

“She literally paid down $150,000 in debt in those 12 weeks,” he says. “I thought that I really didn’t need to be here, so I could just go home.” But Sharon promptly put Gary back to work as he struggled to get his head back into the game.

“What can you say to your wife who kept your business open for the 12 weeks you were laid up? She stepped in and took over. She ran the business beautifully, and she is responsible for our business still being here. I thank God for my wife.”

It has taken many months for Gary to recover from the traumatic brain injury; he still has some struggles, although he improves every day. “I remembered all the business stuff, and the salesman in me is well intact, but my short term memory sucks,” he says. “However, working has been good for my mind and my memory.”

Like most smaller hearth products dealers, Spinuzzi’s 2,500-sq. ft. showroom is not overly fancy, but it’s clean and well organized, he says. Bighorn’s showroom has three distinct display areas, all designed by Spinuzzi. One side of the showroom features wood-burning products with six burning wood stoves and four burning wood fireplaces. Pellet stoves take up 1,000 sq. ft. on the opposite side of the store with six burning models. Gas stoves and fireplaces are featured in the center of the showroom.

A variety of hearth products greets visitors to Bighorn Stove & Spa.

“We’re lucky this 80-year-old building hasn’t fallen down given all the venting holes we’ve put in the walls and roof,” says Spinuzzi with a laugh. “Ours is a clean, well-organized little store. We don’t have junk all over the place like some wood stove stores. I want people to walk in and go “Wow!”

Bighorn does all of its own servicing and installations with in-house employees, and that is a major profit center for the company, he says. “I charge top prices for service work, and I pre-collect with a credit card for a service call.”

While Spinuzzi’s staff has not taken any HPBA-sponsored technical training, they have received extensive product training through Quadra-Fire. “Laurel Allen, my installation and service technician, has common sense, and that is what it takes in this business. He started off repairing spas, and if you can do that, you can repair a pellet stove.”

Spinuzzi warns that most dealers forget about the costs of their service trucks. “We put a 10% service charge on to a service call for what I call GOTD – gas, oil, tires and depreciation – so we won’t end up with worn out equipment that costs a fortune to maintain and we cannot afford to replace.”

Spinuzzi spends from 5 to 7% of his gross sales on advertising. He used to use television and radio spots, but today Bighorn’s advertising is entirely local and area newspaper ads. He also offers dollars-off coupons in cooperation with some manufacturers at the end of the hearth sales season. Spinuzzi relies on his website, which is tied into the sites of his manufacturers.

An old sales standby for most wood stove dealers, state and local fairs went away five years ago for Spinuzzi. “I used to make a ton of money at those fairs, but I just don’t want the stress anymore. They required at least 12 hours a day for 16 days. I hate to say it, but I’m not nearly as aggressive as I used to be.”

Spinuzzi faults hearth products manufacturers for their lack of national advertising. “Companies as large as those we deal with need to spend more money on national advertising,” he says. “If anything is going to put our industry out of business in the next few years, it’s lack of advertising support. Manufacturers give us co-op funds, but national advertising by them would be much more effective.”

“While younger consumers today think everything can be done on the computer, it simply cannot,” he says. “You might not read the newspaper and you may do everything on your cell phone, but people 55 and 60 years old still read newspapers, and they are the ones with the disposable income to buy our stuff.”

Like many long-time hearth products dealers, Spinuzzi is slowing down and taking life easier, especially after open-heart surgery and a motorcycle accident. So like many old timers, he’s thinking about retirement. “The trouble with the stove business is that most of us are in our mid-60s,” he says.

“A sales rep recently asked me what my five-year plan was. My plan is that when I’m 71, I’ll be out of here, and if I can sell the place, fine. But somebody is not going to just come walking in my door and say they want to buy my business. Heck, young people don’t have the money, and most don’t even have houses. The reality is that I don’t think it will happen. Let’s put it this way: I’m glad I did what I did, but I wouldn’t wish this life on anyone.”

SNAPSHOT

Store Name: Bighorn Stove & Spa

Address: 1511 W. 4th Street, Pueblo, Colorado, 81004

Owners: Gary Spinuzzi, owner and operator

Key People: Sharon Spinuzzi, wife and “right-hand woman;” Laurel Allen, installation and service technician; Allen Rollins, head installer

Year Established: 1978

Web Site: www.bighornstoveandspa.com

E-mail: E-mail

Phone: (719) 543-2673

Number of Stores: One

Number of Employees:
Full-time: 3
Part-time: 1

Gross Annual Sales: $850,000

Sq. Ft. of Building Space:
Showroom: 2,500
Warehouse: 3,000

Hearth: Quadra-Fire, Mendota, Napoleon, Jøtul, HearthStone, Heatilator
Spas: Maxx Spas

% of Gross Sales for Advertising: 5-7%, all goes to local and area newspapers

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