A Good Story to Tell
By Bill Sendelback
It began in the ’20s, the 1920s, that is. The history of Miles Industries, manufacturer of Valor brand gas hearth products, goes back four generations. Today, the company, now headquartered in North Vancouver, British Columbia, offers a complete line of vented gas fireplaces, freestanding stoves, and fireplace inserts engineered specifically for the North American markets with modern technology inconceivable so many years ago.
Brothers Paul and Martin Miles now own the long-time family business. Paul is president, and wears a second hat as director of Sales and Marketing. Martin is director of Product Development.
Miles’ history began in the 1920s with the brothers’ great grandfather drilling gas wells and operating a hardware store in Saskatchewan. “Our great grandfather was really the gas company in that area,” according to Paul. “He drilled the wells, brought gas to the town, sold the gas, and the gas appliances.”
That venture also employed the brothers’ grandfather, and later their parents, Garry and Barbara Miles, who went on to found Miles Industries. “By the 1940s, our father, Garry, as a teenager read gas meters and sold and installed gas appliances, so Dad really cut his teeth on gas.”
Then, in the 1960s, Garry worked for a company selling industrial radiant heating equipment. That was the beginning of Garry Miles’ belief in radiant heat, a belief that today is at the core of the company’s Valor products. One large customer was Bethlehem Steel. Garry removed forced air heaters from Bethlehem’s operations, and replaced them with radiant heaters, resulting in cutting Bethlehem’s heating fuel bills in half.
“That formed a lot of my father’s opinions on heating,” says Paul. “He found that radiant heat would make homes more comfortable than having a central heating system blowing air around. We still believe this.”
Garry Miles went on to form Miles Industries in 1977 as an importer and distributor of hearth products in British Columbia. Paul and Martin’s grandfather also had been the Ashley Wood Stove sales agent for western Canada in the 1960s, and with that background, in 1977 Miles Industries took on the Suburban Woodmaster products and a few other hearth product lines. Martin Miles soon joined his father as a sales rep, selling primarily wood stoves, including sales through Miles’ own retail store in North Vancouver.
Then, in 1980, Garry Miles discovered Valor Heating’s gas hearth products while visiting family in England. Valor was then the leading brand of gas fireplaces in the UK, with its beginnings dating back to 1890. Garry, in 1984, negotiated the rights to import Valor products into British Columbia. Miles Industries began with Valor by selling Valor’s famous Homeflame, the world’s first direct-vent gas fireplace, called “balanced flue” in the UK.
By 1985, Garry was importing into Canada most of the Valor line. While Garry and Martin were setting up dealers in the West, Paul joined the family venture setting up dealers in the East from his base in Toronto. While dealers were being set up, Garry worked with the Canadian Gas Association (CSA) to gain product certification for the new Valor models.
In 1986, Miles Industries introduced North America’s first power-vented accessory for the Valor Homeflame model, a groundbreaking accessory developed by Garry and Martin. Garry, now 89, has since retired, but he keeps in touch with the company he founded.
The company’s first gas fireplace.
The Homeflame advertisement from 1986.
While the Miles family was selling Valor products in Canada, in 1987 Valor itself opened an operation in Tennessee to sell Valor products in the U.S. “But we were more successful,” says Paul. “Those quirky English styles sold better in the Canadian market than they did to U.S. consumers.”
Miles Industries began distributing Valor models on the West Coast of the U.S. in 1991, with the Valor Legend, a gas insert line built in the UK as Valor’s first dedicated product designed for North American markets. Then, in 2001, Miles Industries began exclusive manufacturing of Valor products to be sold throughout North America. That remains the case today.
“Everything we now sell is of our own design,” says Paul. “There is no crossover anymore between the UK product and our line over here. We keep in touch and exchange Christmas cards with Valor, now part of the Glen Dimplex Group in the UK, but we are totally independent.”
Miles Industries’ product development direction goes right back to founder Garry Miles’ idea that the most efficient, most effective, and most comfortable way to heat a home is with radiant zone heating. “We think this provides the most controllable comfort level rather than just blowing hot air,” says Paul. “We design our models to have controllable heat. You don’t want a stereo with just one volume level, or a car with just one speed. We build in as much range of heat output as possible so our customer can find just the right comfort level, and radiant heat is important to that controllability.”
Featuring its radiant heating, Miles Industries also adds secondary heat exchangers to extract more natural convection without using fans. “Some areas are prone to power outages,” says Paul. “Customers appreciate the fact that our products will heat even when the power goes out and gas continues to be available. This is a level of security for our customers.
“Our products today tend to sell in the medium to upper price ranges, starting at about $2,000 up to about $8,000. We certainly don’t sell on price. We offer a pretty wide range of products, and we think we present a better quality product with better performance at a great value.”
Contributing to the effectiveness of Miles Industries’ Valor products is the company’s patented Auto Fire System. This bi-metallic damper system has been adapted to direct-vent, co-linear venting, allowing combustion air for the unit to be opened up for cold starts, and then automatically be throttled back as the unit heats up for maximum efficiency.
“This system probably gives us four or five more percentage points of overall efficiency,” Paul adds. “But while we add technology to improve our efficiencies, it’s frustrating to see some companies inflating their advertised efficiencies by maybe 10 points and then getting away with it. We definitely need to see these efficiency ratings cleaned up in our industry.”
Yes, Miles Industries is now a manufacturer. But it’s the company’s history as a distributor that has guided its sales paths. “We really came from a distribution background, and that has formed a lot of how our company has developed,” says Paul. “That background colors how we work and why we have always been a dealer-focused company.”
Valor LX1 Pier Gas Fireplace.
It may be that focus on its dealers that has resulted in double-digit annual sales growth for the last 20 years. “We like dealers who can sell the benefits of our products. We tend to develop long-term relationships with our dealers, and we don’t like dealer turnover. As our sales have grown, we have not done that by adding more dealers or loading up a territory. We do it by selling more through each dealer. We like to give our dealers market space to promote our products. And we don’t do multi-channels.”
Paul tells dealers that if any of their suppliers use the term “channel management” to be “very suspicious. That can mean that the supplier is going to sell its products to the Big Box guys or to online sales outlets, or even to guys in vans.”
Paul Miles puts the confirmation of the company’s product direction and development at the feet of his dealers. “It’s amazing how many of our best ideas have come from our dealers,” says Paul. “With our Heat Shift System that offers a ducted heating system for our linear fireplaces, a lot of that design actually came from our dealers. That relationship with our dealers has really helped us recognize new ideas and concepts.”
Now, with almost 1,000 dealers throughout North America, most of those dealers purchase dealer-direct. Miles Industries maintains warehouses in North Vancouver, BC; Seattle, Washington; Portland, Tennessee; and Milton, Ontario.
The company has 25 independent manufacturers’ representatives across North America selling to and servicing its dealer network. “I am a very firm believer that the relationship between the sales rep and the dealer is critical,” says Paul. “That is where it all happens. The guys back in the boardroom or the office think they can pull levers and make things happen, but it’s the relationship between the rep and the dealer that is critical. Our reps probably have the most important job in our company.”
Valor Legend G3 Insert Series.
While many manufacturers build products complete and from scratch, since 2001 when the company began its own production, Miles Industries has found it more efficient to rely on local fabricators to build its fireboxes. “We are fireplace nerds, not metal bending experts,” according to Paul. “We’re good at product ideas, and we like to develop products. Our local business partners handle all of our metal work; they are the metal-bending experts. These guys have all the equipment needed for fabrication, so we don’t have to worry about keeping up with the vast amount of expensive equipment needed. We do the assembly. This arrangement, frankly, has been one secret of our success.”
Between Miles Industries’ workforce of about 50, and the employees of its business partners used to fabricate the company’s products, Paul Miles estimates the total workforce to produce the Valor products at more than 200.
“In our operation, we don’t vary our employee head count. We don’t want to lay people off in the off-season and then try to hire them back again in the busy season. We want to keep those experienced people, so we allow for inventory build-up in the off season in order to keep our people.”
Paul Miles is concerned about the recent attacks on gas products as emitters of greenhouse gases. “I am not sure that people really appreciate just how clean natural gas burns. You can burn it in your kitchen stove, unvented, and be comfortable. People love to cook with gas. It’s a hundred times cleaner than burning with wood.
“With zone heating, you can effectively heat a house and actually cut down the amount of fuel you use. You are heating only about the 20% of the home you are in, and actually using less energy than if you used your central heating system. Potential regulations of natural gas are of concern, but we feel that if we burn clean fuel, and burn it efficiently, we have a good story to tell.”
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