Meet Loretta Dolan
By Richard Wright
Ed. Note: Loretta Dolan will be the third female chairman of the Hearth, Patio & Barbecue Association in its 34-year history and, no, that’s not a very admirable record. The other two were Sharla Wagy (2002-2003), vice president of Marketing for Hearth & Home Technologies, and Wendy Howells (2011-2012), vice president of Lennox Hearth Products.
Hearth & Home: Tell me when and how did you get into the hearth industry?
Loretta Dolan: “It was almost an accident, but a delightful one. I had been hired as a salesperson for Peirce-Phelps, a distributor in the Philadelphia area, and after a year of doing some cold calls and trying to sell one air conditioning product, I had the opportunity to be a Carrier salesperson calling on HVAC dealers. I did that for about 10 years.
“At that point we were looking for something that would be complementary to the HVAC business, because it’s so seasonal. We tried a few different things and then found hearth products. Our thought at the time was, This is great. We can teach our HVAC dealers how to do hearth and then they will be busy in the summer and busy in the winter and won’t that be great? We tried it and found there was almost no synergy. You would think there would be, but it simply wasn’t there. The HVAC guys had no real interest in doing hearth.
“But we found ourselves bumping into an opportunity, as a distributor, to call on a whole new group of dealers, the hearth guys. So we started doing that around 1999. The outfit that gave us their line was Vermont Casting/Majestic. After two or three years we had broken $1 million in sales and we thought, This is just wonderful. What a great opportunity.
“Building on that and hiring folks, we got it all the way up to $8 million; that was around 2007 or so. Then we hit a wall. We had only one hearth line, and they came in and announced they were filing for Chapter 11. We were sitting on $3 million of inventory of theirs. That was kind of a death knell.
“We questioned whether a stable HVAC distributor really should be knocking around in the hearth business. Shortly after that the decision was made that they would rather not be in the hearth business anymore. It was just too volatile. It was so different from the Carrier business.
“That was right at the time when the economy was going down the tubes. So the company talked to BAC Sales in Hudson, New York, and sold the hearth division – and me with it – to them.
“I had been with Peirce-Phelps for 22 years at that point, and my heart was just very heavy with making the change. After about four months I decided I would go into business on my own. The lucky thing for me was that, just as I was making that decision, Rich Hughes from East Coast Sales had just lost a salesperson in the Mid-Atlantic states and I was available.
“We met and I told him I didn’t want to be an employee ever again, but if he would let me sell the products he represents, I would be delighted. I didn’t want any pay until I sold something; I wanted to be an independent rep and free to take on lines of my own – which I have. Rich has taught me a lot and it has been a wonderful association.”
Which companies are you presently representing?
Dolan: “As an independent (Loretta Dolan & Associates), I just signed on with Hwam and I’m very excited about that and working with Steve Rhodes. I also represent Rasmussen and Amantii, and then with Rich Hughes I represent Mendota, St. Croix, Valor, Bernard Dalsin, Mount Vernon Mantels and Thermo-Rite fireplace doors.”
So you made that major change right in the heart of the downturn, a very tough time to begin something new in the hearth industry.
Dolan: “Yes, it was tough, but this year it felt like it all turned around. But with Peirce-Phelps I had been calling on hearth dealers. I had my own territory and was calling on hearth dealers already.”
What areas do you cover?
Dolan: “I have Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland and, of course, D.C., and for a couple of lines I have a bit of Virginia. I’m based just outside of Philadelphia. I’ve been a south Philly girl most of my life.”
Now do you try to make an appointment before seeing a client?
Dolan: “I always make an appointment before I see a client. The only time I might not is if I’m in the neighborhood anyway. I’ll give a call and say, Do you mind if I stop by? Other than that, I never just walk in on somebody. I don’t feel right about it. It’s important to be respectful of the customer’s time and serve their needs, not mine.”
We’ve been hearing more complaints than usual from retailers regarding their reps. That they seldom show up in person, seldom make appointments beforehand, don’t really know their product line, etc.
Dolan: “I really believe that retailers have been underserved. There’s no question about it. Retail training is so important. I’m very lucky to represent Mendota and Valor who both do regional training. It’s the rep’s job to make sure that (A) the dealers know it’s there and (B) to get them there.
“I know that during the tough times of the past few years, a lot of manufacturers backed off from training. They thought it was too expensive and something they could live without.
“This is an area that I wanted to discuss with you, that the retailer has been underserved for an awful long time. When I compare a hearth retailer to an HVAC retailer, it’s night and day the kind of services that are provided for HVAC that aren’t provided for hearth. It’s amazing to me.
“For instance, if training was needed in almost any area, Carrier would send a guy over to do the training. If you needed help with accounting, that would be a day or two affair; if you needed instruction on how to build a service business, that would be a two-day class.
“This was much more focused training than an hour class once a year, and I think it stuck a little better.”
What were HPBA revenues prior to the downturn, and what are they now?
Dolan: “Revenues in 2007 were $7,061,128; figures for 2013 are not yet available, but in 2012 they were $5,657,729.”
What about HPBA membership?
Dolan: “Prior to the downturn it was 2,741; in 2013 it was 2,402.”
When HPBA affiliates first began having annual meetings, in order to increase revenues they sold tables on which manufacturers could put literature, and behind which they could station an employee or rep to answer questions.
That escalated to larger booths and even outdoor burn areas. There are now mini-trade shows taking place at affiliate meetings, and some manufacturers choose to exhibit there and not at the annual show.
In short, the annual HPBExpo, which is the cash cow that serves everyone in the hearth industry, is suffering from reduced revenues, and yet its offspring, the affiliates, are competing against it.
Do you think that’s justifiable?
Dolan: “If it’s not good for the national Expo, we shouldn’t do it. Expo is the lifeblood of the industry, and affiliates shouldn’t be competing with it. I feel very strongly about that. As the incoming Chair I want to address it. Nothing about it is right. If affiliates want to have a day of education for their dealers, that’s fine. But there’s no reason to be showing product and doing mini trade shows.
“Some dealers feel they don’t have to go to the national show because they can get what they need locally without spending the money. It’s my great passion to make it stop.”
What is your opinion of breaking HPBA manufacturers into sections, e.g., wood-burning products, gas products, etc.?
Dolan: “I think it was brilliant, because in the past HPBA would identify a problem coming from the government. They would then assess what it would take to handle it and then go to the manufacturers and say, This is what we’ve got. This is what it’s going to cost you. Manufacturers would feel HPBA was always coming at them for more money.
“Now, because we have these sections, all of a sudden you don’t have a messenger – a middleman – to beat up anymore. If the issue concerns wood burning and you manufacture wood appliances, then the issue is yours. It’s your responsibility to fund it.”
How much money has the HPBA spent on EPA’s NSPS (regulation of wood-burning appliances) thus far?
Dolan: “We’ve spent, to date, $2.25 million on the NSPS, and just over $2 million on fighting the DOE.”
Now, as chairman, do you have any particular project or issue that you would like to address to make it yours?
Dolan: “Yes. I have a tremendous passion for the retailer and I feel like he or she has been an unsung hero for quite a while now. As a rep, I’ve had a few dealers over the years call me on a Saturday or Sunday, and they apologize profusely for bothering me on the weekend. Here they are selling my product and they’re worried about bothering me.
“I take homeowner calls occasionally and they drive me crazy. I don’t know how our retailers put up with it. But they do and they don’t complain. I feel it’s time to start recognizing them in a different way. For example, I would like to highlight them in our Hot News letter once in awhile.
“Retailers are our frontline. They are taking all of the punches that we would be receiving directly if we were selling to homeowners. But they absorb those punches and, for the most part, don’t throw them back at the manufacturer or the reps. As a frontline for the entire industry, they are remarkable in how little they ask for and how little they get.
“Perhaps it’s because the economy is getting a little better and because some of the government issues are being put to rest, but it’s now time that we start addressing our frontline. I’m not sure exactly how, but I know it’s something that I feel passionately about.”