Mornings in the Tub
By Bill Sendelback
PhotoS: ©2019 Daniel St Louis. DanielStLouis@iCloud.com.
What better way to start each day than having coffee in a hot tub and planning the day to come. That’s exactly how Norma and Pat Bourque prepare for their day as owners of Maritime Fireplaces in Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada. “We have our discussions, and Norma gives me my marching orders for the day,” says Pat with tongue in cheek. “A happy wife is a happy life. And this is a wonderful way to start the day.”
This might be a somewhat unconventional way to start each day’s business, but it may be helping the success of Maritime Fireplaces. Offering wood, gas, pellet, and electric hearth products, plus grills, kamados, cultured stone, other outdoor living products and chimney sweeping, the company has enjoyed 5% annual sales growth the last few years after surviving the 2007-2008 recession and today’s mediocre Canadian economy.
“It was a pretty rough time during that recession,” according to Pat Bourque, “but we had great help from one of our distributors, Compact Appliances in nearby Sackville, New Brunswick. About the same time, we read the late Tom Pugh’s book ‘Blueprint for Success.’ We took that as our bible, and it really changed our business for the better as we learned about profit margins and how to make money. Without this knowledge and help from our distributor, we may not have made it.”
With 3,000 sq. ft. of showroom space Maritime Fireplaces has ample room for displays and traffic.
Pat Bourque was working for his father as a wholesale distributor for Lotto Canada lottery tickets when, in his mid-20s, he found himself out of a job. A friend saw a newspaper ad for a chimney sweep business for sale in Moncton, a business started in 1978. Bourque had absolutely no experience in the sweep business, but in 1980 he and two buddies bought the business, basically just a van and a customer list.
With a few bucks saved, Bourque bought an apartment building in Moncton that included commercial space on the first floor, part of which would now house the recently purchased sweep business. The trio in 1981 visited the first Canadian Wood Energy Institute trade show in Toronto where they discovered and purchased PGS brand wood stoves, displaying them in their new office, and kicking off the new company’s entry into more than just chimney sweeping.
The next few years were eventful. In 1983, the wood-framed apartment building caught fire and was almost destroyed. Another friend, George LeBlanc, helped Bourque tear down the burned building and move the operation to Pat’s parents’ basement until they could find a suitable spot to rent. LeBlanc joined the team, and today is general manager of Maritime Fireplaces. The other two original partners are no longer with the business.
After a few years as a renter, Maritime Fireplaces in 1989 finally moved to its current location. “The fellow we bought the sweep business from in 1980 comes by every few years and says, ‘Gee, after seeing the company now, I kind of wish I would have stuck with it’,” says Bourque.
Bourque may have been new to retailing when he bought the business, but even then he was well aware of the need for customer service and the safe installation of chimneys and fireplaces. “We got involved with the fire department and the steering committees for the province of New Brunswick to help develop the first protocols for safely installing chimneys and hearth products and having them inspected, a precursor to Canada’s Wood Energy Technical Transfer (WETT) program.”
TOP RIGHT: In the foreground, two Valor inserts.
Bourque became active in the then-Canadian Wood Energy Institute (CWEI), which later became the HPBAC, and later became its president; LeBlanc stayed with the training and educational side of the hearth products industry. Today he still is an instructor for the WETT program and former national president.
“The values we hold to in our business really began way back then,” says Bourque, “honesty, teamwork, taking care of our customers, and making sure our products are installed and operated safely. We occasionally run into problems, like any other company, but in the end, we promptly tackle and fix the problem.”
Hearth products are almost three-quarters of Maritime Fireplaces’ sales with outdoor living products, including grills and fire tables, next best at 16%. “We’ve dabbled at outdoor kitchens over the years,” says Bourque. “In our climate we enjoy what summer we have, and this seems to be a growing category, especially outdoor fireplaces, but it is still not very important for us. We do, however, plan to expand our building to put in an outdoor living display area.”
Maritime Fireplaces already has a “huge” display of Big Green Eggs, and wife Norma is known locally as the “egg lady” because of the pulled pork sandwiches she prepares on a Big Green Egg at many area golf tournaments supporting the community.
While sales of wood-burners compared to sales of gas models used to be 60/40% for Maritime Fireplaces, today gas hearth product sales are almost twice that of wood-burners, and electric fireplace sales are now more than double sales of pellet stoves, and growing.
“We’re always looking at other products that may have potential to grow our sales,” adds Bourque, “but we really have not found anything. We tried HVAC from thermal heat pumps to central furnaces, but we dropped that effort.”
The store boasts a large display of Big Green Eggs.
Marketing in Moncton
Moncton is not a heavily populated area, totaling only 72,000 in the city and 145,000 in the market area. Even so, after purchasing the business in 1980 with only 1,000 names on its customer list, Maritime Fireplaces today counts 40,000 homeowners as customers, or almost one-third of the area’s population, many because of the company’s A-1 Chimney Sweepers division.
“Our economy has been pretty steady for the last several years,” says Bourque, “and much of our business is with new construction and home renovation. We have a lot of new-home construction, but it is not the larger housing projects using 200 or 300 fireplaces. Our subdivisions are houses built one at a time by custom-home builders.” Bourque says that his area has an aging population, “so our electric fireplace business has been good, going into condos and apartments.”
Promoting their sales to homebuilders, Bourque’s staff works with the local homebuilders association. LeBlanc even has served as president of the association. “We’ve supported the association from our beginning,” says Bourque, “and have been displaying in its home show for 29 years. This is a very popular show, and our participation has been very profitable for us.
“Whether it’s for homebuilders or consumers, we do everything from budgeting to installing gas lines and venting. And if finish work is needed, we can box in the unit and finish it off with the cultured stone we offer. We sell the wall, not the just the unit.”
This all involves Maritime Fireplaces having its own service and installation crews. “We tried subbing jobs out, but when we did, we did not have enough control over the job to ensure that the work was done correctly and safely,” Bourque comments. “We want to have that personal touch with the customers to make sure they are happy with what we have done. And we definitely count our service and installation efforts as a profit center.”
In the relatively small market area of Moncton, Maritime Fireplaces does not have a lot of competition. Most of that competition comes from a Costco store, hardware stores and what Bourque describes as a “semi-specialty store” selling appliances, mattresses and kitchen products.
Sarah Kennedy, company vice president and the Bourques’ daughter, with her daughter Sydney.
“It’s more of a general store.” No matter the competition, Maritime Fireplaces sells on the knowledge and expertise of its staff. “Our sales people, who we call ‘sales advisors,’ are there to advise the customer on what is best for that customer’s home and what fits with his lifestyle,” says Sarah Kennedy, the Bourques’ daughter and company vice president. “We don’t push products. Instead we sell what is best for the customer.”
“We sell on technical issues,” offers Bourque. “We talk about safety and safe installations more so than the product, but of course we point out the quality of the products we offer. We know our competition, and we are constantly adjusting our product offerings to the needs of the customer so we can stay up-to-date and ahead of the curve.”
Pat and Norma Bourque have visited many hearth products dealer showrooms across North America looking for ideas to improve their 3,000 sq. ft. showroom and make it different. “We visited one California showroom, and it must have had 40 black boxes shoved against the wall,” says Bourque. “Everything looked the same.”
Bourque has divided his showroom into different sections with gas products in one area, wood products, including pellet models, in another, a large display of electric fireplaces in a separate area, and an indoor display of outdoor living products featuring the Big Green Egg. “With our growing sales of electric fireplaces, we have devoted quite a bit more display floor space to electric models than what we have seen in other dealerships,” says Kennedy. “We do that because we see how the demand for electric fireplaces is growing.
“We use lots of stonework, lots of tiles, a variety of mantels, and lots of different products to make each display look like one you would want in your home. And we are constantly changing and updating our displays.”
In the foreground at right, Ambiance Intrigue with non-combustible Ambiance beam over the top.
While Pat Bourque is president, daughter and heir apparent Sarah Kennedy is vice president managing Sales and Human Resources. George LeBlanc is general manager overseeing operations, service, and installations.
Bourque’s wife, Norma, better known as the “egg lady,” considers herself part-time after giving Bourque his morning “marching orders” each day. “Although we have 27 people, we’re still a small business,” Kennedy adds, “so we don’t do just one thing around here. We wear many hats.” And some of those employees have been trying on many hats for as long as 37 years, while the average length of service among employees is 15 years.
Like many employers throughout North America, Maritime Fireplaces has trouble hiring people who can and want to work. “We have three openings right now we are trying to fill, and it’s a challenge,” says Bourque. “We are not getting nearly as many job applicants as we did a few years ago. And when we interview, we find that many have no real interest in working. I’d certainly advise dealers to really focus on their customers to be successful,” Bourque says, “but keeping your employees and their loyalty is also important.”
In the foreground is the Ambiance p665 five-burner grill by Napoleon.
Like most retailers today, the Bourques have forsaken most traditional advertising to concentrate on word of mouth and social media. “We have really focused on our reputation and word of mouth,” says Sarah Kennedy, “and we are seeing just how important these are to our success.”
Maritime Fireplaces is using more and more social media, including Twitter and Facebook as well as its website. What little traditional advertising remains in the company’s promotional efforts includes radio spots “a couple of times a year” and mailings of promotional flyers provided by its supplier manufacturers. Last year the company held a Big Green Egg Fest weekend promotion. “It was a lot of fun and very successful,” adds Kennedy.
“I am very grateful to our industry, and the help of everyone, that I have been able to make it through the tough times and stick with it as long as I have,” says Bourque. “I am fortunate to be in a great industry with many wonderful people.”
Store Name: Maritime Fireplaces, and A-1 Chimney Sweepers
Address: 246 Halifax Street, Moncton, NB E1C-9S3
Number of Stores: One
Owner: Pat Bourque
Key People: Sarah Kennedy, vice president, George LeBlanc, general manager, and Jody Savole, sales
Year Established: 1978
Web Site: www.maritimefireplaces.com
Phone: (506) 857-2099
Fax: (506) 859-4410
Number of Employees:
Gross Annual Sales:
Sq. Ft. of Building Space:
Product Lines Carried:
Percentage of Gross Sales for Advertising: 2%
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