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Hearth & Home February 2019

Model ML72.

Quietly Growing

By Bill Sendelback

PhotoS: ©2019 FuzeBox Studios.

In 1980, “Barney” O’Donnell saw an opportunity to use his company's expertise in gas heat; he purchased Mendota Hearth Products and has been growing it (quietly) ever since.

Some companies spend a lot of time praising themselves. Others simply let their products tell the story. That’s the way of Mendota Hearth Products, a manufacturer of high-end, vented gas fireplaces and inserts. Despite flying under the radar, Mendota has consistently enjoyed double-digit sales growth to become one of North America’s highly regarded manufacturers of luxury hearth products.

Mendota Hearth is a division of Johnson Gas Appliance Company; it was created in 1901 by the Johnson family in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and acquired in 1937 by the O’Donnell family as a manufacturer of gas lamps. Today, Johnson Gas is still a family-owned and family-operated company; it designs and manufactures industrial gas furnaces, gas heat treating furnaces, and concrete curing systems.

In 1980, family patriarch and Johnson Gas president Barnes “Barney” O’Donnell saw that the gas fireplace industry was in its infancy, and that represented an opportunity for the company to get in on the ground floor. So Johnson Gas purchased Mendota Hearth, a small manufacturer of multi-fuel furnaces then based in Mendota Heights, Minnesota.

L to R: Steve and Bill O'Donnell, vice presidents, Mendota Hearth Products.

“Barney recognized that, at that time, there were no big manufacturers producing gas fireplaces,” says Bill O’Donnell, Barney’s son and company vice president, “so this was an opportunity to combine our strong expertise in gas appliances and burner systems with Mendota’s hearth product engineering to create the extensive line of high quality, luxury, vented gas fireplaces and inserts we have today.” Today, Mendota represents 80% of Johnson Gas’ sales.

Now in its third generation of family ownership by the O’Donnell family, in addition to Barney, in his late 80s, and son Bill, Barney’s other son, Steve, is also company vice president. As company president, Barney now is taking life a little easier, letting sons Bill and Steve run the day-to-day operations. With 124 employees, Johnson Gas, including the Mendota division, still operates out of the original Cedar Rapids factory location, now with 360,000 sq. ft. of manufacturing and warehouse space. In addition to warehousing products at the Johnson Gas facility in Cedar Rapids, Mendota also has regional warehouses in Nevada and Pennsylvania, that allows it to offer products in a timely manner.

Mendota produces a wide range of direct-vented gas fireplaces and gas fireplace inserts, all heater-rated with overall efficiencies exceeding 77%. The current line includes 17 gas fireplaces and six gas fireplace inserts. The company’s fireplaces are available in 21 sizes in square, landscape, arched, and linear styling. Add in 15 styles of fireplace fronts, four different log sets including birch, Norway spruce, white oak, and premium oak, and 15 styles of refractory firebox lining in a variety of finishes and you have at least a thousand different variations, all based on basic fireboxes and two burner styles.

Model FV42.

Mendota’s exclusive Burn Green technology, available on most products, allows the customer convenient control of the fire to increase efficiency. That control includes turning burners and pilots on or off, adjusting the heat and blowers, turning off the rear burner for less heat, and controlling room temperature with a remote control.

Ron Schinnerer, North American Sales
and Marketing lead.

“We’re not just offering a black box,” says Ron Schinnerer, North American Sales and Marketing lead. “We offer customers the opportunity to design their own fireplace. If you’re a golfer, you don’t go to the golf course with just four clubs in your bag. We offer our retail partners a complete bag, from sand wedge to driver. We want to make sure our dealers have a full bag and the club they need to make the sale. We want our dealers to be able to say ‘yes’ to whatever the customer wants.”

Mendota’s online design tool allows its dealers to create virtual fireplaces from these hundreds of options. The company soon will be adding three new linear models, including a new 72-inch model. “Our goal is to offer high-efficiency, heater-rated appliances,” Schinnerer says. “We offer single-sided fireplaces rather than less efficient, decorative-rated, see-through or three-sided models. The sales percentages of those styles are not yet large enough for us to consider.

“We build our fireplaces and inserts with a ‘wood stove’ mentality – heavy-gauge steel to retain heat, reduce noise, and ‘oil canning’ during start up and cool down. We combine more than 100 years of gas technology with craftsmanship, quality materials, and innovative product development to offer high-end, top-quality models.”

“And we believe we offer the industry’s best-looking flames,” adds Bill O’Donnell. Mendota focuses solely on specialty hearth dealers in the U.S. and Canada, according to Schinnerer. “We want a direct line of communications with our retail partners,” he says. “By taking the middle man out of the mix, it gives us a better ability to support them. That’s important to us.”

With the very broad range of shapes, sizes, features, and options in the Mendota line, Schinnerer says dealer training is critical to the success of Mendota’s dealers. “We don’t talk a ton about Btus and technical things on the retail sales floor, but we train our dealers to be able to communicate to their customers the variety we offer and how we can tailor products to fit their homes and their wants.”

Conducting a quality check on an
antique copper door.

Mendota does not sell directly to homebuilders, but encourages its dealers to work with builders, designers, and architects. “Traditionally, tract builders are looking for price points we don’t offer,” explains Schinnerer. “We and our dealers look more for builders of larger, custom homes, those building 10 or 15 homes a year rather than 1,500 a year.” The company also hosts roundtables for designers, architects, and builders to demonstrate to them the very wide range of product design options Mendota offers.

“We’ve recently made some changes in our staff, and those changes are working out wonderfully,” says Bill O’Donnell. “We’ve expanded our Operations, Sales and Marketing teams, and that collaborative effort with the rest of our company is bearing fruit.” O’Donnell also points out that the company has hired more women, another move he describes as “great.”

With a very broad and strong line of today’s most popular gas hearth product categories, Mendota Hearth continues to do its own thing in a quiet way that is bringing more innovative products and more options to its dealers. That all adds up to success in the marketplace.

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