That Pioneer Spirit
PhotoS: ©2018 Trusted Photographer. www.trustedphoto.com.
Inglenook: a recess that adjoins a fireplace, from the word ingle, meaning “fireplace” in Old English, and nook (a secluded or sheltered space).
“I’m a people person,” says Dorothy Matthews, “Frank (her husband) is not.” That explains why Dorothy ran their hearth shop, while Frank handled installations.
The hearth shop was (is) called Inglenook Energy Center, and it’s in the small town of Conifer, Colorado. From 1986 (their first “legitimate” store) to 2018, the two partners created a healthy hearth business while surviving the Great Recession, devastating wildfires, and a few “boneheads.”
During many of those years, Dorothy was a Vesta Awards judge, giving up a day of the HPBExpo, year after year, to be part of a program that promotes product innovation in design and/or technology.
Prior to entering the hearth business, both Dorothy and Frank had other careers. The economy, necessity, and just plain pioneer spirit changed all of that.
Hearth & Home: Tell us about your lives prior to owning a hearth shop.
Dorothy Matthews: “We’ve had two careers that were so different from running a hearth shop. It’s strange how we got into this. During the mid-’80s I worked in middle management for a big insurance company, and Frank is a structural engineer. Around 1984 or so, we were hit really hard when the economy plunged because of the oil industry. All the resources here in Colorado went flat, and the oil companies moved out, so the economy just went into the toilet.
“My husband had been laid off four times in two years in civil engineering. They would hire him; he would finish up one of their contracts, and then they didn’t have any more work so would let him go. He would move on to another firm, but it was the same thing.
“I was sitting in the dentist’s office with the kids and reading Mother Earth magazine. I came across an ad for August West, you know, practice chimney sweeping on your friends, build your own business. I went back to Frank that night and said, ‘This can tide us through for a couple of years. You like working with your hands.’
“So we sent away $1,600 or $1,700 to August West and a big box of stuff came with chimney brushes and what we used to call the Big Red vacuum cleaner, and he did it. He started cleaning chimneys. After about six months of that, I said, ‘If we’re going to do this we might as well go big or go home. Let’s open up a store.’ We were living here in the mountains of Colorado where it’s cold and the altitude is high; most people were using alternative heat because propane was the only available gas at that time and it
“Without Frank even knowing, I went and opened up a lease in a small little shopping center we had up here. Conifer is a very small town; it’s a bedroom community to Denver.”
How many people are in your town?
Matthews: “At that time, there were only about 8,500 in the whole corridor. It has grown since then, but most of the population up here lives on a few acres. Unless you’re right down in the commercial area, which is pretty small too, you don’t even see your neighbors. People are on two to three acres of property and more. They move up to the mountains to get out of the city.
“So I came home that night and told Frank, ‘Well, I just signed a lease.’ He was almost catatonic because he’s an engineer. He’s not a people person, so to speak. So I said, ‘Well, let’s just try it.’ We didn’t know what we were going to sell. We didn’t know anything about anything except that he could clean a chimney.
“It was a different time back then. When you don’t have any fear, when your husband is out of work, you just do what you have to do. He put an ad in the paper saying we were going to open a store, and Jim Gorman called and asked, ‘What are you going to sell? You’ve got a picture of one of my stoves in your ad.’
“Jim lives in Evergreen, which is the next town over; you can throw a stone and hit him. That’s how little we knew, that there were territories. He chuckled about it and said, ‘Why don’t you come on over?’ We went over to his house and he sat down and said, ‘Well, I’m going to help you out.’ He hooked us up with some lines and we opened our store.”
At that time, did he have the big RV that he drives everywhere?
Matthews: “Yes, he did. I do credit him with the courage to take us on and help us through what we didn’t know anything about. We opened up the store in a bad economy, and for whatever reason, it worked. In that little shopping center, there was no way to burn anything. There was one wood stove chimney in the store and we had a Quadra-Fire, one of the original Quadra-Fire 3100s, hooked up to that. That’s how we sold.
“We gained momentum and, by the time the three-year period was up and we had to move or expand, we figured, ‘You know, this is working out. Let’s just continue to do it.’ We opened up in our second location, which we shared with a paint store, and were able to put a few more stoves on the pipe there. We finally outgrew that space. They kicked us out because we were too busy and the parking lot didn’t have enough parking spaces.”
(Laughs). Were you selling only Quadra-Fire at that point?
Matthews: “No. We were selling Whitfield. Here are some ancient names for you – Turbo Fire, Welenco, Englander. You know, Denny Wendt was an employee of Rocky Mountain Enterprises who had a distribution center in Grand Junction, Colorado. He would get an order from Jim Neuenschwander, load the truck and trailer, and sometimes deliver the same day, which was a five-hour drive. Now, that was service!
“Well, he showed up one day with five Country Flames in the back of his truck; we were just in our second year of business. He said, ‘Hey, how about being a Country Flame dealer?’ I said, ‘Well, show me what you have.’ He wound up leaving all five of those stoves at our store, and we had our first really legitimate wood stove line. The next time he brought Quadra-Fires and that was back in the time where Dan Henry and Alan Trusler were building stoves in their shed.
“Well, we just took right off, and before we knew it we were the biggest Quadra-Fire dealer in the area. Of course, we were one of the only ones. But for probably nine or 10 times in the history of Inglenook, we’ve been their largest dealer in the country. That’s how it started. It was just purely by accident.
“I don’t want to give people false hope that, okay, you can just stick your finger in the ground and plant a hearth stove store seed and it will turn into a giant beanstalk. It’s much harder now. It’s harder to get lines and to be credible, and there’s a lot of competition with the Internet.”
From the beginning, were you doing your own installs?
Matthews: “Yes. It was Frank doing them. I still had a legitimate job with a career. I would work the store part-time on weekends. Frank would be out doing installs; he had a helper and we had somebody in the store who was just answering phone calls.
“A few years later, when we were bigger and we were actually in our third location, I had a sales manager who was a good ol’ boy by the name of Bill Stidham. I don’t know how many people might remember him, but he was kind of a redneck guy who wore jeans and red suspenders, but he was a top notch salesman and he taught me everything that I know.
“Bill is not with us anymore. He passed away a couple of years ago, but we remained friends long after he retired. He’s the only legitimate Inglenook retiree that we ever had. One day, he and Frank said to me, ‘Come on, let’s go down to the Fort,’ which is a big restaurant down in Denver, ‘let’s go have dinner.’ Well, he and Frank had plotted to get me a little drunk and convince me to quit my real job that I had for 23 years, with a pension, health insurance, stock options, and everything else, and leave to work a wood stove store.
“I was almost in shock and didn’t think for a minute that I could ever do that, because I had a good job. But, after a couple of weeks thinking about it, I finally said to them, ‘I’ll do it. What the heck, life is short.’ So I did, and I was nervous for the first six months or so; after that it was worth doing, and I’ve enjoyed it ever since. I enjoyed it until the point where I said, ‘It’s time to get out. It’s time to retire.’
“I did it (the insurance job) for almost 30 years. I was a mid-level manager in a big company, so the top people didn’t know who I was and the bottom people didn’t know who I was, but I had a credible career in the middle. It worked and I liked my job, but it was time to do something different, so I did.”
What year was that?
Matthews: “That was in 1994. We had started up as a ‘legitimate’ store in 1986.”
That was right about the time the EPA decided to get into the hearth business.
Matthews: “Exactly. We didn’t even know what the EPA did. That year the trade show was in Denver. So after our meeting with Jim Gorman he said to Frank, ‘Come on, let’s go down to the trade show.’ It was funny because, at that point, a lot of manufacturers weren’t able to meet the new burn restrictions that we had in Denver, and a lot of them didn’t even show up and set up. That was a funny time.”
The building that you are in right now, did you put that up or was it an existing store?
Matthews: “In 1996 or so, we were afraid of being kicked out of our second location, which we shared with the paint store. We could see the handwriting on the wall. I had my local realtor/customer try and find a commercial location. You have to picture where we are. We’re in the woods. There’s not a lot of commercial stuff here. He found me something that actually was zoned commercial. It was on the major highway, but you couldn’t get there from the major highway. You had to go through a back street and on up, and I was afraid that the location move would just kill us.
“He found this location and it had been a converted old house that was occupied by a plumbing company at that time. So I bought it. There was nothing else available. I thought we were going to be kicked out by the paint store guys, and with the limited amount of commercial real estate that we had, I thought, ‘Well, I better do this or we’re going to die.’
“So I bought it and we leased it to the people who were already leasing it, which at that time was a glass company, for about a year, year and a half, until we did finally get kicked out of our other location and we had to move. We had no choice. But I always felt that we’re a destination business. We can make this work. We’re on the highway. With the right signage we’ll make it work, and again the stars and the moon aligned and it worked. We’ve been there ever since. It has been about 32 years.”
What do you have for square footage in your showroom?
Matthews: “I’m going to say the total square footage is about 3,000 because we were able to add on a sunroom, which is about 1,000 sq. ft. Then we had an oversized, double-car garage that we call the warehouse. It’s two double-car garages with high doors next to each other, but separated. Even with all the volume that we did, somehow we made it work. It was amazing.
“We call ourselves The Little Engine That Could, because it could have killed a lot of companies working under those constraints, but we had really good distributors and good manufacturers, and they worked with us – like Denny Wendt with the distribution center for Quadra-Fire down in South Fork. If I needed something, as long as I ordered a couple, he would put them in the back of his truck and run them up to us, and that was a four- or five-hour drive. They worked with us.”
At your peak how many employees did you have?
Matthews: “At one point before the crash in 2008 we had as many as 14. Right now the new owner, Mark Major, is working with about eight or nine. It’s funny how it all came about, Mark buying the business, because over the course of the last four or five years we had many people walk in and say, ‘You know, Dorothy, when you get ready to retire give us a call, I would be interested in buying your business.’
“We were dealing with a few of those guys for a while, but if you’re not working with a legitimate broker, go home. The guys that just walk in and want to buy your business have absolutely no clue what is involved. Even other stores that approached me wanted to buy it for nothing, and not pay for it for five years, that kind of thing. So we listed it with a commercial Keller Williams broker and it was the best thing we could have done.
“Do you remember Patricia and Alan Blick? You did a story on them years ago. They had a store in Carbondale out by Aspen. She and I were friends, and she encouraged me because her store was also for sale. She explained how the process was going for her. She said that hiring a commercial broker was the only way to go.
“Anyway, Frank was out on a call and Mark was buying a pellet stove from us; he was retiring from the railroad. He’s only 47 years old, but he wanted to retire from the railroad because he had the type of job where every time there was an incident on a railroad he was called out to take care of it. He was retired military so he had two retirements, and he was looking to be a local businessperson and be involved in the community.
“When Frank was out there doing the consult for his pellet stove, Mark said, ‘You know, I never thought of your business. Are you still selling it?’ Frank said, ‘As a matter of fact, it’s listed. You need to talk to Dorothy.’ So he called me, and I said, ‘It’s listed, but I’ve been down this road too many times. Just call my broker.’
“That was in September of 2017. It started out as this little snowflake; it started coming down and it actually turned into a sale on June 6, 2018. You think that selling a little business like ours is going to be simple, but I think it’s almost as complicated as selling IBM with all of the microscopic things that you have to do, and the due diligence and everything. It was a very long procedure.”
A pain in the butt, right?
Matthews: “Yeah. You never know until the check clears if it has really happened; that happened to me once before. In this case, we just kept plodding along and it went a little further and a little further. We weren’t even under contract yet, but we were getting pretty close when the trade show was coming around and I finally said, ‘Mark, you know I’m not going to take you to the trade show and introduce you as the owner unless we’re under contract.’
“So we got that done and we brought him to the trade show and introduced him to all of our vendors and it went well. He was encouraged. Frank and I are 71. He is 47 and he has business experience, but he has never had a retail business. He went to the trade show with big wide-open eyes and was very excited. Frank and I went with old tired eyes and tried to keep up our enthusiasm. Among the three of us, we got it done.”
Right now what’s the population of your marketplace?
Matthews: “Well, we’re a bedroom community to Denver. Even though we are up here in the boondocks, I’m usually down in the city three or four times a week picking up supplies. It’s really a great location. The ride to Denver is only about 35 minutes.
“As the old realtor adage goes, it’s location, location, location. We had a fabulous location for what we do. Denver is about 30% to 40% of our business. And our trading area up here in the mountains has grown as well. In a four-town area there’s a population of maybe 35,000 people.”
I assume most people in your neck of the woods are heating with wood. Am I correct, or is gas the greater seller?
Matthews: “The only option up here for a long time, besides wood and pellet, was propane. But about 10 or 12 years ago a gas company ran natural gas lines. So more often than not, it’s a natural gas hook-up instead of propane. Right now, 40% of our business is gas, and probably 20% or so is pellet. The rest is wood. Pellet used to be 60% of our business.”
You think it’s the natural gas line that is changing that?
Matthews: “Yes. It has been around about 12 years now. As the population ages they are tired of dealing with wood, tired of lugging pellets. They are coming in for the convenience of gas, and there is no significant cost difference here.”
One time when you and I were having a chat, you mentioned that a wildfire had taken down a number of houses in Conifer.
Matthews: “Fire is a problem almost every year out here. But we had a fire about 10 years ago; it was called the Hayman Fire. That was the fire that the Park Ranger started, and it was the largest fire in Colorado’s history. I think it burned about 165,000 acres. The fire started to spread almost to the front range, and it went way down to Woodland Park to Colorado Springs. We probably had 70 miles of fire. It was unbelievable. But almost every year with the climate change, it is drier and it is warmer and we have to be very careful. There is no outdoor burning allowed whatsoever here.”
Is that year ’round?
Matthews: “Almost year ’round. In the wintertime you can burn, but of course you can also use your fireplace. In the wintertime there is generally a few inches of snow on the ground so there’s not much danger. But there used to be two to three feet of snow on the ground.”
When we had that chat about fire, I believe you told me that it took down a number of houses in your little town. Is that correct?
Matthews: “Oh, yes. There was a fire about five or six years ago that was so close that just looking over the ridge from our store we could see the fire. There were probably 37 to 40 houses lost at that time. Three people were killed in that fire.”
You also said that your business dried up. Nobody wanted to buy anything and bring fire into their house.
Matthews: “That fire was right about the time of the 2008 economic dive. With the combination of fires and the economy, nobody wanted to be doing anything, especially with wood. That was very tough on us because, up to that point, we were able to handle the valleys of the economy pretty well. Bill Stidham, whom I told you about, used to say, ‘When you’re a wood stove store, when the economy is good the sales are good. When the economy is bad the sales are great.’ He used to say, ‘It’s like a liquor store.’ But 2008 proved that theory wrong.”
Is it tougher today to be in the hearth business than it was, say, 20 years ago?
Matthews: “First of all, there are so damn many regulations coming from the EPA. Second, consumers are on the Internet checking prices; many of them come armed with a lot of false information, so you’re combatting a lot of that information and trying to set the record straight.
“So, is it more difficult today? I don’t know. There are really about the same number of hearth stores as there were back then, but the economy has weeded out a lot of the real bad ones.”
Now is Frank still one of your installers, or do you have another guy?
Matthews: “Frank has not done installs in 15 or 20 years; we really are not a store that does a lot of installations. The new owner has started to do them again, but in the last 10 or 15 years we’ve been using subcontractors. In most cases I feel they do a better job than the in-house installers. We’re in a big territory up here and our truck would leave and drive 75 to 100 miles and then the guys found that they forgot an elbow, and the whole job had to stop until they came back and got it.
“Being on an hourly wage, it was no skin off their teeth. But when a subcontractor is doing it, that’s their whole livelihood. If they screw up and it costs them 2.5 hours more travel time, it hits them in the pocket. So they make sure they get things done right.
“Frank still does a lot of the service work, but mostly what he does are the consultations, because he’s a structural engineer and understands construction really well. So if a consumer wants to do the project him or her self, and probably 40 to 50% do, we want it to go well. Once the customer has committed to us with a deposit, we will make a field trip to their house and Frank will give them a consultation as to what it’s going to be like and how long it’s going to take, and give them a list of the materials and pretty much tell them how it’s going to go together.
“Customers come and pick up their stuff, put their own stuff in, and if they have a question while they are doing it, Frank is available. We give them our cell phone numbers. I have customers even calling me at home and we’re okay with that, and we work it through. That is kind of our MO. I don’t believe anybody else does that. They all want to sell the install. But it has been very successful for us.”
What is the toughest thing about running a hearth shop?
Matthews: “Wow! There are a couple of them. Keeping up with the technology is the main one. Hiring people and keeping good staff is difficult too, because this is a small industry and the number of people who really know everything is even smaller yet. So if you spend a few years training somebody, you know there is always somebody putting out feelers and trying to snatch them away from you. So maintaining a good staff is very difficult.”
I hear many retailers say that the younger crowd doesn’t want to work. They don’t seem to be as nose-to-the-grindstone as perhaps you and Frank are. Is that your experience?
Matthews: “You hit the nail on the head. If we are talking about somebody from age 25 to, say, 40 or so – over 40 and it seems to change – most of those people are looking for instant gratification, and they don’t want the $12 an hour jobs. They want the $40 an hour jobs right off the bat, yet they don’t know anything. So we have to bite the bullet and hope we hire somebody who has the marbles to do the job, and we train them.”
Now that you’re retired, what are your plans?
Matthews: “Frank and I have another home down in southern Colorado that we have had for 30 years. It’s down by Pagosa Springs near a ski area called Wolf Creek. We don’t do winter sports, but we like to spend a lot of time down there in the good weather. I think we will spend probably two-thirds of our time down there and stay in the area.
“My house in Conifer – we bought it about 10 years ago because the people who lived in it did nothing but complain about our business – is right across the street from the store. That side of the street is commercial. Our side of the street is residential. It’s kind of a funky little neighborhood, but we like it. We will probably stay there a third of the time, but it may be difficult to be living right next door to what used to be our livelihood, and seeing things change.”
Well, your other home isn’t that far away, is it?
Matthews: “No. But Frank is an aviator. For 40 years we have had a small plane parked in Pagosa Springs. We have a hangar down there and our house is pretty much right across the street from the commercial airport. It’s a County airport, and it’s real little. It’s like having a fly-in residence, almost. He wants to do that now, because we’re both 71. Every two years you have to pass a flight exam and medical exam. As you’re getting older, every year you wonder if you will be able to keep your license. So I want to be down there with him, being able to do what he really loves before he loses his flying license.”
I understand that you go to Cabo San Lucas quite a bit.
Matthews: “We’ve been doing that for about 35 years. We like to go down in January and May and lay on the beach. Usually there is a little alcohol involved.”
(Laughing). I’ve never been there, but it sounds absolutely lovely. Now you’ve seen that area grow incredibly haven’t you?
Matthews: “Oh my gosh! It’s nuts down there. But we go to one little place like your writer, Bill Sendelback. He has met us down there a couple of times and we’ve thrown back a couple of margaritas at a place called The Office. Frank and I come from a beach area. We were originally from New York and Long Island and lived just blocks from the ocean, so whenever we vacation we like to go where it’s warm and where there is sand.”
Do you have another place down there?
Matthews: “Well, technically it’s a timeshare, but it’s really more like a private club. Nobody ever trades into it and nobody ever trades out of it. We all go and it’s actually owned by the members. We know the people there, they’re the same people who have been there over the years. We’ve got friends from all over the world down there. It’s sort of our home away from home.”
Will you continue doing that?
Matthews: “Oh yeah, as long as we have a pulse and can stand up we’ll do the same things we’re still doing now.”
You just took a wonderful trip from Vancouver, right?
Matthews: “We drove out to Vancouver because we had a wedding to go to on the way back in Idaho. We went from Colorado to Vancouver in two days, and then we got on the Rocky Mountain Railroad across the Canadian Rockies for a week, came back to Vancouver, and then drove home and went to the wedding. It’s a whole different feeling when you don’t have the responsibility of business and its financials. You can actually go and have fun.”
So you went from Vancouver to where?
Matthews: “Banff, Lake Louise and Jasper. We did a circle route, which left from Vancouver; we were four days on the train and three other days in hotels such as at Lake Louise, and then we got back on the train and went to Vancouver. It was fabulous. I recommend it, but my recommendation for anybody is to go big or go home. You’ve got to sit in those cars that have the glass tops with the wine cart going up and down the aisle all the time.”
That sounds great. (Laughs).
“One of the things that I wanted to say about our leaving this business is that I have had so many really good relationships over the last 30 years that are going to be impossible to maintain, but you see people at trade shows and some of them will be maintained. There are some real boneheads out there, but I’m going to miss most of the people that we have worked with over the last 33 years, and are casually acquainted with. That is going to be hard.
“We were in it from almost the beginning. I remember Alan Trusler and Dan Henry, they are both friends of ours, when we first started selling Quadra-Fire; it was pretty primitive. It was like the good old days where you were actually not a number, you were a person, and they didn’t have so much red tape when you needed something.
“I used to call up if I needed a warranty plate and the guy who was the head of that would just go down into a bin, grab a handful, put them in an envelope and send them to me. Now you have to go through a ream of paperwork to get anything like that. It has become a lot less personal.
“I’m going to miss the good relationships that we had. I had a text from Dan Henry yesterday. He and we are going to be in Denver for some kind of an EPA meeting in October, and we’re going to have dinner. I hope to maintain some of those relationships, like with you guys. Any time you’re desperate for a Vesta judge give me a call and I might be able to do it.
“You know, my best friend in the hearth industry is Gary Spinuzzi down in Big Horn. You did a story on him about a year ago. You either love Gary or you hate him, and I just happen to be in his fan club. We have gotten along for 20-25 years. Those kind of relationships can make or break a store too, because he is also a Quadra-Fire dealer, and a Jøtul dealer.
“Gary would call me up and say, ‘Do you have a 7100 I can have?’ And I would say, ‘You know, Gary, I’ve got three of them. I’ve got two of them sold, but you can have the other one.’ He would come up and get it, and if I needed something he would be there. We would cut off each other’s arm to help one another. We’re going to miss each other in that way. But Sherry and Gary and Frank and I will always be friends, and I’m grateful for that.”
Correct me if I’m wrong, but you’ve been very heavy on Hearth & Home Technologies’ product all these years, correct? That’s your primary brand, isn’t it?
Matthews: “Ever since about 1988 we’ve had Quadra-Fire blood running through our veins, and that was initially because of the relationships we had with the distributor and Alan, Ann Mortenson, and the guys. The manufacturers and the relationships that you have can make or break a store.
“In 2005, when sales were off the roof and we were selling stuff in October that we couldn’t even get until March, we were encouraged by manufacturers to buy, buy, buy and have it in the warehouse. They said they were not going to be able to make it fast enough.
“When the economy plunged in 2008 we had a million dollars’ worth of inventory sitting in our little warehouse, and it wasn’t even all in the warehouse. We had stored some outside in the yard three-high with tarps over it.
“Problem was, we had nobody to buy it. The economy was in the toilet here. All of our good customers, who were mostly professional people, were losing their homes. So it was tough, but the good manufacturers that stuck by us and helped us – God bless them. But there were a couple that didn’t and they chose other people because we became slow pay. We had a million dollars’ worth of inventory that I had to pay for.
“Alan Trusler called me up one day and said, ‘Hey, Dorothy, how are you doing?’ I said, ‘What are we going to do? We’ve got a lot of stuff.’ He said, ‘I can come and get it.’ I said, ‘No, Alan. Just give me some time and I’ll get it sold for you.’ He said, ‘Done. Go for it.’
“It took three years to get rid of all of that inventory. I had $750,000 worth of their inventory and they stuck with us, and Jøtul stuck with us and helped us get rid of it – others didn’t. They just said, ‘Goodbye.’ After we got everything paid off a couple of years later, Hearth & Home Technologies sent their comptroller into our store, he said, ‘You know what? In the history of HHT nobody has ever done what you did.’
“I was shocked. I said, ‘Really? I couldn’t not do this.’ I believe in the Golden Rule, and sometimes integrity and character have to shine through. When you have something like those relationships, that’s really important and it’s a good reason why we’ve been so successful.”
Ed. Note: While remarkable, the experience of Dorothy and Frank Matthews is similar to that of many of the early entrants into the hearth industry. That pioneer spirit – the will to succeed and the guts to make it happen – is seen in many members of the hearth industry, be they retailer, manufacturer, distributor, or rep, excluding, of course, all the “boneheads.”