Nothin' But Hearth
By Bill Sendelback
Photos: ©2019 Dave adams photography.
Hearth product retailers normally offer much more than just hearth products. Most have taken on grills, or outdoor furniture, or spas and hot tubs, or a dozen other products rather than just selling hearth. But Custom Fireside Shops has been successful for 51 years specializing only in hearth products.
With two stores in Sacramento and Elk Grove, California, Custom Fireside offers wood- and gas-burning stoves, fireplace inserts, fireplaces, pellet stoves and inserts, electric fireplaces, gas logs, glass doors, fireplace accessories, and fire pits.
“We tried our hand at selling quality gas grills, but we found it was hard to compete with Box stores like The Home Depot,” says Mitch Heller, president and co-owner. “What we are really good at are hearth products, so it made sense for us to make that our focus. That decision has proved to be the right one.”
Today 70% of Custom Fireside’s sales are gas hearth products, with wood-burners totaling 10%, and electric models at 10% percent and growing.
Custom Fireside was created in 1968 by then-owner Weldon Ward in the company’s current Sacramento location. It was a different time for the hearth products business, so the company successfully specialized in glass doors, toolsets, and other fireplace accessories; that was back in the day when dressing up wood-burning fireplaces was the way to go.
Having decided to retire, in 1994 Weldon sold Custom Fireside to his son, Brad Ward. Then Brad, who had been in hearth product retailing his entire life, wanted to move his life in a different direction. In 2004, Mitch Heller and his father Allan Heller purchased the Custom Fireside store.
(Brad Ward did change his life, and rather dramatically; after selling the store he went back to college and became a high school teacher.)
Allan (at left) and Mitch Heller.
Allan Heller was a general contractor, and son Mitch was a salesman with the Honeywell Corporation; he sold heating and air conditioning services as well as building control systems.
“When Custom Fireside became available, I had been looking for a company to purchase, but did not want just any old company. There was a very limited selection of available companies that were interesting, and from which you could make a good return on your investment,” says Mitch. “I had been building fires in our old wood stove since I was eight years old, and I had worked off and on with my father in construction. So I enjoyed and understood hearth products, and could really see myself selling them.”
Mitch Heller has since earned a master’s degree in business administration. Allan, now mostly retired, comes into the store about once a month.
“I had been in sales a long time,” Mitch says, “and I knew that I just needed to know a little bit more about my products than my customers did. So I started selling right away, but it did take some time to learn about the many different hearth products that we offered. We inherited great employees, some with 10 to 30 years of hearth product experience. Early on, Dad and I supplied the business acumen, and our employees supplied the industry and product knowledge.
At left, a variety of media on display, including logs and colorful stones as mass media.
“We’ve been successful because we are always investing in our business, and we insist on offering the newest and best products in the industry,” Heller explains. “We don’t do high-pressure selling. We learn what the customer wants and needs, and then provide the products and services to meet those needs.
“We are in it for the long term, so our goal is not just to make a one-time sale, but to make each customer so happy and satisfied that we may end up selling them more products down the road; we may even sell to their neighbors and friends. That strategy has worked for us.”
The economy in Heller’s markets is “holding steady,” he says. “Sacramento is the state capital, so a lot of our customers work for the state. But now, with the San Francisco Bay area being so crazy-expensive, we’re getting an influx of people selling their homes there and retiring in the Sacramento area.”
At left, an upscale, traditional mantel and surround; at right, a peninsula fireplace in a contemporary setting.
Sixty percent of Heller’s business is retail customers, with 40% being contractor sales; that includes custom homes and remodeling. “Remodeling really saved our bacon during the last recession,” he says. “Even though homebuilding was down, remodeling activity grew.” Heller is very involved with the National Association of Remodelers, serving on various committees and boards, and now being president of the local chapter. “The relationships we’ve built with remodelers have been key to our business in new-home construction.”
Any of Heller’s sales staff can work with any homebuilder in the showroom, and he has specific employees who visit the job site before, during, and after the job. “This way our contractors see the same familiar people in the field,” he says. Heller has an installation team dedicated to his contractor business; he subs-out retail installations.
“Our retail business naturally scales up and down based on the demand at the time of year or season. When it’s cooler in the winter, we sell a lot of retail products, but not so much when it’s warmer. Subcontracting our retail installations has allowed us to scale our retail installations to the business we’re getting.” Heller’s subcontractors have been doing business with Custom Fireside “for many years. We have a relationship with them,” he says. “We pre-site the work, they install it, and then we do any needed service work. It works seamlessly.”
Heller has 14 employees, and each has contributed to the success of the company. The average length of employee service with Custom Fireside is 10 years. “We support our employees with things like full health insurance coverage. We want them to have a good life and share in our success.”
Ron Franklin is Heller’s general manager, with “decades” of experience in installations. Glenn Strom is lead salesperson, and Rick Barton, lead pre-site person; they were both with Custom Fireside when the Hellers purchased it. Andrew Vaillencourt has managed the Elk Grove store for 15 years.
Displays of stoves, inserts, grates and other accessory items.
Heller does have some strong competition in his markets other than Big Box stores. “We compete with them by offering the best products and the best service,” he says. “We treat people as we want to be treated. We do an excellent job of solving customers’ problems, helping them with their needs, and making them feel comfortable in a low-pressure environment.”
Another way Heller competes in his markets is by “having the best showrooms.” He recently completely remodeled his 4,000 sq. ft. showroom in Sacramento. “This time we hired a designer because we’re experts in hearth products but not in showroom design. It was very beneficial to have an expert pick out details such as wall finishes and designs to showcase various styles so the customer can be inspired and visualize how a product is going to look in their home.” The Elk Grove 3,000 sq. ft. showroom was remodeled eight years ago after Brad Ward began at that location in 2000.
With his large showrooms, Heller is not shy about displaying products. “We have more than 100 products on display at each location,” he says, “including gas, wood, pellet, and electric models, and fireplace accessories. We have dozens of burning models. We display a very broad range of hearth products including super high-end designer and commercial products, so we can show just about any style and any price point to get the customer exactly what he or she wants and needs.”
Heller describes himself as being financially conservative, so he is “judicious” with his marketing. “You can spend an unlimited amount of money on marketing,” he says, “but you don’t want to spend more than you can afford.” Dealers spend their advertising dollars in a variety of ways, and like most, Heller spends his dollars in ways tailored to his markets. “We try to be savvy marketers,” he says.
Heller allots about 3% of his gross annual sales to advertising. Much of that is in television spots, and he uses billboards in the areas around his two stores, plus some print ads in local home magazines. “We still have a small presence in local phone books,” he says, “for those folks who have not yet adapted to the new era of finding things online.”
The Hellers know how to use every inch of space in their stores.
Heller also participates in the one big home show in the Sacramento area. “We like this because it brings in a large cross-section of the community,” he says, “people we may not reach with our other forms of advertising.” Like most dealers today, Heller is into social media but found he needed to do more.
“I was trying to do it all myself, but I didn’t have the time to do enough postings.” Now, one of his salespeople has the responsibility for Custom Fireside’s social media. “Now we have somebody who knows and loves social media; we’re doing much better and that is helping our sales.”
Custom Fireside sits in the hotbed of recent efforts in California to eliminate wood-burning, and now to curb the use of natural gas.
“Consumers need to be educated that they still can burn wood and still can install wood or gas appliances even in new homes,” Heller says. “This year we are benefiting from PG&E turning off people’s electric power in the name of ‘wildfire prevention.’ Our products still work and can still heat a home even without electricity.”
If Heller were to offer advice to a new dealer, he would say, “work with strong vendors who are going to support you and going to support their products. Keep your market area small enough, geographically, so your installers can get at least a couple of installs done each day. Be sure to treat your employees with respect, and align yourself with people who have strong expertise in our industry.”
Store Name: Custom Fireside Shops
Address: 5545 Auburn Blvd. Sacramento, CA 95841
Owners: Allan, and Mitch Heller
Year Established: 1968
Web Site: www.customfireside.com
Email: Click here for email
Phone: (916) 331-2438
Fax: (916) 331-8964
Number of Stores: Two
Number of Employees:
% of Gross Sales by Product Category: Hearth: 100%
Sq. Ft. of Building Space:
% of Annual Gross Sales for Advertising: 3% – TV 25%, Digital Media 25%, Print 25%, Special Promotions and Miscellaneous 25%