The Nicest Guy!
By Richard Wright
Photos: ©2019 Jim Linna
“A Little nonsense now and then, is relished by the wisest men.”
– Roald Dahl, British novelist
While Kurt Rumens is the president of Travis Industries, and certainly the creative force behind its success, Perry Ranes has been his right-hand man, the person in charge of hiring and running the company’s sales force throughout North America. In short, he’s in charge of sales and bringing in the money.
Hearth & Home: Let’s start with what you were doing prior to meeting Kurt Rumens. You were in the plumbing field, I believe.
Perry Ranes: “Yes, I was in it for about 12 years. I started off working in the warehouse, loading trucks. I did that for about a year or so. Then my boss moved me inside to an order desk where I worked for probably a year. One Sunday afternoon he called to tell me to wear Dockers and a nice shirt when I showed up the next day. One of our reps had suddenly decided to take another job and left right away. We were based in Portland, and supplied the mobile home industry in the Pacific Northwest with all its plumbing.
“When I showed up they gave me a big briefcase with all of our books in it; one rep took me on my route and stayed with me for two weeks showing me what to do. After two weeks my boss gave me keys to the car and a company credit card and said, ‘Go get ’em, Tiger!’ It took me a while to get it figured out, but it worked; I did that for about 12 years.
“Do you remember the Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh?”
Ranes: “It was a religious sect and they moved into Antelope, Oregon, and took over the entire town. They had about a 100,000-acre farm that they bought. They had tons of money, and Bhagwan had 11 or 12 Rolls Royces, but he couldn’t drive. They were in the headlines every day. We had a product called Quest, with polybutylene tubing. I got a call from Rajneesh and they were interested in our product because if you needed a 45-degree angle you just bend it, and crimp it.
“I got all excited. I thought, ‘Boy, I’m going to go out there and make some money.’ I went to the farm and met with one of the purchasing agents; she somehow got her hands on the price book and beat me up pretty bad on the pricing.
“At some point they tried to kill a federal judge, tried to poison him with salmonella. National Geographic even did an article on them. They had security forces with automatic weapons. The State of Oregon finally raided their compound. It was quite the deal. I used to go out there every three months or so and they would order a semi-load of the Quest tubing. I did that for 11 years.”
L to R: Quinn Wilks, Regional Sales Manager; Perry Ranes, Vice President of Sales; John Beiermann, Regional Sales Manager; Christian Hale, Western Canada Sales Manager.
It was a very smart move for you to back down on your pricing, given all the firepower around that compound.
Ranes: (Laughing). “Anyway, a good friend of mine was an independent rep; he carried a lot of different products, and one was Simpson DuraVent. He was selling venting, and he said, ‘How much longer are you going to be selling these toilets? I know a little company called Wood Energy Products in Portland; I know their rep is leaving, and they’re going to be looking for another rep.’ I asked, ‘What do they sell?’ He said, ‘Wood stoves.’ I said, ‘I don’t know that product.’ He said, ‘What’s there to know? The wood goes in and the smoke goes up.’
“I applied, got the job, and started working for Wood Energy Products, a distributor. The owner, her name was Nora Smith, a Lebanese woman, and I just fell in love with Nora Smith. She treated me like family and she taught me so much about owning a business. Her philosophy always was, ‘Keep a close watch on the dimes and the dollars will take care of themselves.’
“We had Lopi as a product to distribute, and we had a number of other lines such as RSF Fireplaces. I started going through Oregon and northern California; as the company was growing we kept adding staff, so she put me in charge of all the salespeople. We had about seven or eight reps in the field, and we had two tractor-trailers; we were doing our own deliveries.
“She was a wonderful person. Then she ended up with cancer. It broke my heart. They offered me a part of the business and I said, ‘No, I really don’t want to do that.’
“I had been with Kurt Rumens, attending a lot of meetings, spending time at the trade shows, and I really liked Kurt. One day at a trade show he said, ‘I’m looking for someone to come up and help, would you be interested?’ I said, ‘Yeah, maybe.’ We talked for a while and I finally said, ‘I would love the opportunity.’ A month later I went up to Seattle and started working with Kurt up there.”
What year was that?
Ranes: “I started at Travis Industries in May of 1992, but I had been working with Kurt for 11 years prior to that, and I really liked him. He is full of energy. He was just consumed by everything he was thinking about and trying to design. It was exciting, and that brought me along. He can visualize exactly what he wants to build. Somehow, he can see it and we mere mortals have a hard time keeping up with him. He can tell if something is off by even a little bit.
“I’ve never known anybody like him, and Kurt has always treated me so well. He has a huge heart and is a very compassionate person. When he sees people who are down and out, or having a hard time and struggling, he always steps in and tries to help them.
“Initially, I was very involved with the Wood Heating Alliance and also with the Oregon DEQ. In Oregon, they would have to burn all their fields to totally purify them because a big part of what Oregon exports is feeds, and you had to get all the impurities off the buds. The wind would blow across I-5 and the skies were loaded with smoke. I remember the Federal Government saying, if you don’t get this corrected we’re going to withhold your highway taxes, or money for building bridges and roads.
“So Oregon folded right away and, of course, they came after wood stoves. I think you had to be under 15 gph of emissions. I remember going around to dealers and trying to get them involved, but everyone was too busy. I was telling them the price of wood stoves would now cost more money because they would now have to be redesigned. At the time we were saying that stoves were going to up to $600 and nobody was going to spend that kind of money on a stove.
“Do you remember Glen Yoder? I’m getting ready to give a speech to a whole bunch of dealers, asking them all to contribute with $100 to join the Wood Heating Alliance. I’m pacing back and forth. I’ve got my cards and unbeknown to me they brought in a big dessert cart. Kurt had told Glen he would give him $100 if he would push a cake into my face. As I’m pacing back and forth, I turned around and he hit my face with a cake. Oh, my God! My glasses were stuck. It was in my ears, on my clothes.
“I ran to the bathroom and here comes Glen, just a big teddy bear, and he’s got my glasses and he’s saying, ‘I’m sorry, Perry.’ I said, ‘Get away from me and give me my glasses.’ I had to get up on the stage, and everyone was staring at me and grinning. I got a huge commitment from those in the audience. A lot of people signed a check and joined the association, so I guess it was worth it. Glen and I became very good friends.”
That’s all part of what we, and many others, experienced (not the cake part). It was getting to meet an awful lot of very nice people from across the country. Everybody was involved in creating something new.
Ranes: “Exactly. Now the industry has changed; it has evolved. But it was all of these Mom-and-Pop businesses that started with little or nothing, and learned on their way. I’ve always loved this industry. So many of the people that I deal with on a daily basis started with little or nothing; they had a dream and worked phenomenal hours. A lot of people had a second job to keep the money coming in.
“I love this industry. I love the people I work with, and the memories I have of some of these dealerships and watching them develop and grow and become very successful. They found a way to make it work.”
You went up to Seattle in 1992. Were you still a rep or were you in charge of reps?
Ranes: “I came up and was given a territory; I had the middle part of the country. First, I had some unfortunate things to do. I had to get rid of some people and bring in other people, and start developing more of a baseline for reps who represented us. I did a lot of traveling with them, just making the business grow.
“I think I did that for four or five years and, close to Christmas time, Kurt called me into his office and said, ‘OK. After January 1, I want you to be in charge of all the reps – of all sales. I want you to be my Sales manager.’ I said, ‘I don’t think I’m interested in that.’ He said, ‘Well, that’s why I hired you, so you better get interested.’
“I didn’t go kicking and screaming. I think part of it was that I had developed such a close relationship with my market, and those dealers. And he said, ‘Well, you will still be dealing with them, but you will be dealing with a lot of other people, too. But I need you to do this.’ That’s how that got started, and I just fumbled my way through it.”
Kurt Rumens standing in front of the 66-ft. DaVinci.
Which states were you in charge of initially?
Ranes: “Texas, Colorado, all of the Midwest and then over to Florida, Georgia, the Southeast. It was a huge territory.”
You were in charge of finding and running reps for that whole area?
Ranes: “Yes. I would find people who worked for other dealerships. I always looked for that person, male or female, who was a real family person, where family was very important to them. Then, technically, are they hands-on? Could they go into a dealership and help them as a problem solver?
“I always felt that the product itself was very good. But I wanted my reps to go into the dealership and help them solve problems. When my rep came in the door, I always wanted the dealer to say, ‘Oh, good, I’m glad you’re here,’ instead of, ‘Oh, great. It must be time to give you an order.’ Those were the two factors I always went with.”
I think some people just aren’t technically competent. I remember one of your reps, Paul Birnstihl, really didn’t want to be technically proficient. He felt it was someone else’s job.
Ranes: “Right. Yeah. Heart of gold, loved the industry, he did a lot of wonderful things. Kurt was trying to get ahold of Paul, and I said, ‘Well, I’ve got his cell number.’ Kurt ended up dialing his office, and a woman answered the phone. Kurt asked if she had Paul’s license plate number. She asked, ‘Why?’ He said, ‘I’m going to pull a little gag on him.’
“She gave him the license plate number, and he knew the BMW he was driving. He called Paul and said that he was a highway patrolman, and that, ‘We have an officer in the area. You’ve been clocked at 80 miles an hour, and the patrolman is coming up behind you and you need to pull over.’ Paul was saying, ‘I don’t think I was driving that fast.’ ‘Well, sir, we had you at it.’ Honest to God, he got Paul to pull over off the freeway and he was running out of stuff to tell him. ‘Is your blinker on?’ ‘It’s safe to pull over.’ ‘Turn your engine off,’ and stuff like that.
“When caller ID came on, I think it crushed Kurt because he did that to everyone.”
Today, how many reps do you have in the U.S.?
Ranes: “About 25 in both the U.S. and Canada. Now that’s also counting all the people who work at some of our distributors that are also out on the road.”
As I understand it, Canada has been a very good move for you guys.
Ranes: “It has been. We’ve got about 80 dealers in Canada. It really is working out. The difference in the dollar makes it difficult, obviously. The Canadian dealers have really embraced us; we give them the market room, give them room to run their ads and advertising and get a nice feedback from the market area they’re in. That has worked out really well for us.”
When Kurt and Lopi ran into financial trouble, and Travis Garske was there when needed, were you already with him at that point?
Ranes: “No, I was not. I was still in Portland. I think it was maybe just a year later that I came up to the Seattle area. Talk about the best in the world for running a business, Travis Garske is remarkable. He reinvests right back into this company. We don’t have to go to the bank for a dime. He has always done that, even in years when there has been a downturn. We try to hit the numbers that I think we need to have, and sometimes we miss those numbers. He’s always the first guy on the phone calling me and saying, ‘Don’t worry. We’ll get it next year, and we still made some money.’ ”
What did he think of your 66-ft. gas fireplace?
Ranes: “Oh, it just amazed him. He wasn’t thrilled at all about the DaVinci line. Neither was I. When Kurt was drawing out the DaVinci and explaining it to me, I said, ‘Really? It’s going to be 3-ft. sections that connect?’
“Kurt was very excited about that idea. I said, ‘So how much is it going to cost?’ His answer was, ‘Well, I don’t know. I think it will probably be this much per 3-ft. section.’ I said, ‘You don’t get any heat out of it?’ He said, ‘No.’ I said, ‘We’ll never sell any of those.’ (Laughing).
“That was my same response to the Bed & Breakfast. I was looking for a little insert that we really needed. So now I think Kurt runs the Perry test. If I don’t like it, he knows he has a winner on his hands.” (Laughing).
The DaVinci has been a very profitable introduction for you guys, hasn’t it?
Ranes: “Oh, it has been wonderful. It has absolutely been wonderful. It has opened so many doors for us and allowed us to bring in even more product to the builder network. The dealers have really embraced it. Giving everybody training has been difficult, and now it’s mandatory. You’ve got to come here for training because you really need to understand it; once it clicks it’s very easy.”
Are you finished testing for 2020?
Ranes: “Yes. All of our products are done. Everything in our lineup is 2020 approved. The dealers have been fantastic about stepping up and buying our existing product that are not 2020 approved, so we are going to start the new year with a really clean slate.”
Are any of your dealers in trouble with the old product?
Ranes: “There are some that still have a lot of inventory and most of the inventory they are carrying is not necessarily ours. But still, they need to clean that out and they are. But there are a couple of dealers that I know of that are working really hard to get rid of the existing stuff.”
Now, in your case, did the whole EPA procedure cause prices on your stoves to go up?
About what percent are they going up?
Ranes: “I don’t know if I can give you a percent because each model is a little different in the way we had to build it. But there were things we wanted to change and improve upon, so we saw it as an opportunity. We changed the doors, put on bigger viewing areas, different air controls, different fans, some now are coming with legs on as standard.
“So it wasn’t just the price of the components, but by adding all these other things to it that was also part of the price increase. So it’s coming standard, but with a lot of stuff that you have to buy as an accessory or add on later. That also was part of the price increase.”
Perry and Peggy Ranes.
So you’re not going to get much pushback from your dealers, is that correct?
Ranes: “No. Actually, we haven’t at all. I think most dealers are just excited that we have a full line of product and they can continue to sell product and not worry about it.”
Let me change course a bit here. When and how did you meet your lovely wife, Peggy?
Ranes: “Well, at a strip club, of course.”
That’s where you spend your free time anyway, isn’t it?
Ranes: “Exactly. Actually, Peggy was born and raised in Michigan and a job opportunity brought her out to Vancouver. I met her at a comedy club. She was with some friends of mine, so we were introduced and had an opportunity to sit down and talk. I found out that she really liked to ski, which I did also, and I said, ‘Well, maybe we’ll get together and go skiing.’ She said, ‘Are you any good at it?’ So, of course, I bragged a bit, but I later came to realize that she could ski circles around me.
“She wrote her phone number down and I had to leave, so I told her I would call, and we would go skiing together. Of course, I lost her number, but I kept going back to that club and didn’t run into her for quite a while. Then, there she was again, and looking at me like ‘Oh, what a jerk!’ But we did get together and I brought her out to my house. We were going to somebody else’s place for Thanksgiving, and I baked a pumpkin pie.
“Actually I’m a pretty good cook, and I had a small turkey that I cooked because I just like to have one in the refrigerator. I could almost hear her thinking, ‘Oh, OK. Here’s a guy that cooks.’ Both of us grew up around horses and had a passion for it, and our friend had a number of horses. I watched her out there riding through the corral and I thought, ‘Oh, boy. She is kind of a country girl and I like that.’ We started dating, went skiing, and like I said, she skied circles around me. That’s how we met.”
Ballpark, because I know your memory isn’t what it should be, when did all this happen?
Ranes: “Well, we’ve been married now for 34 years and we dated for two years, three years prior to that so 37 years ago. She had a great sense of humor, thank God, and she still does, so that kind of gets us through the day.”
When did she start working at Travis?
Ranes: “She worked there for 22 years, and she retired two years ago. So she started in 1996, and she worked for Kurt. Peggy is an incredibly detailed person. She helped Kurt organize functions for trade shows. She would get rooms and assign people to rooms. They would have to tell her what flight they were coming in on. She would keep all that organized, set the functions up, what was going to be for lunch, what was going to be for dinner, and contact different hotels, different venues, and she would put all that together and then she would keep her files.
“When I met her she was working up in Vancouver. She was working for PacifiCorp and they had a contract. They were laying fiberoptic cable from New York to England, and then also from San Francisco to Japan, and she was heavily involved with that.
“She was the executive secretary; she worked for the CEO of PacifiCorp. She would organize all the meetings and everyone had to be prepared. As I said, she is a very, very detailed person.”
What areas of the country are your best in terms of sales? Is it the West, the South, the Midwest, or the Northeast?
Ranes: “These territories are so close. The West has for years really out-produced the rest of the country, but now the East is leading the way by a little bit. Other than that, they are just neck and neck. All my regions are just neck and neck, which is really nice. And here’s where I talk about my managers. Is this a good time to talk about them?”
Ranes: “I don’t know what I would do without these four managers. They are so good. They are so passionate about what we’re doing, and they have developed such close relationships with their customers, but they have always had my back. They kind of rally around me.
“As you know, I’m struggling with Parkinson’s, and I just don’t know what I would do without this group. I can’t say enough good things about them. They have been at it for a long time. Everybody has their strong area, but they are just really good and they believe in what we’re doing. They love the company. They just shine.”
So you divided the country into four pieces?
Ranes: “One is Canada, and then the U.S. is divided into three territories. Each manager is responsible for the particular reps they work with and manage those dealers in those territories. I work with both the managers and the reps, but by and large they do the heavy lifting. The one thing I’ve learned to do is to clear the path for them, but other than that I just get out of their way and let them do their job. They are just that good.”
Did a lot of the managers start off as a rep?
Ranes: “JB (John Beiermann) worked for Rich’s, I think, for 14 or 15 years, and managed all their stores. He’s an incredible hands-on guy. He works very closely with his reps; he does a lot of training, and a lot of traveling. John’s territory includes Ontario and Quebec, New England, New York, and the Mid-Atlantic, plus Arizona and Southern California, as well as Australia.
Melodie Kauf, Regional Sales Manager.
Ed. Note: Do you get the feeling that Perry was settling scores when he carved up John’s territory?
“Then, Quinn Wilks started off with Traeger, and he knows pellet stoves inside-out and upside-down. Quinn has been with us about 20 years. Again, he’s a real hands-on guy such as John Beiermann. There is not much he can’t fix or know how it works. Quinn has all of the middle U.S. from Texas to Minnesota.
“Then there’s Melodie Kauf. Melodie has been here 31 or 32 years working with Kurt, and she has quite a mind. Let’s say I’m putting together a notice, we’re looking at some marketing things, she can see the flaws in a second. She can read something and pick up on it immediately. Everybody has their strong areas. Her territory includes Alaska, Washington, Oregon, Northern California, as well as Idaho and Montana.
“Christian Hale has been with us for 13 years. Like the other managers, his background was in retail, but most of it was troubleshooting and installations for a company that sold HVAC products as well as gas logs, in Arizona. He came up to work on our tech line, where dealers call in with problems on installations and our techs help them out.
“Now he manages western Canada, from Manitoba to British Columbia. He also is in charge of putting our booths together for the IBS and HPBExpo. We also send him on installs that nobody else can figure out. He always figures it out.
“Then, with Kurt again, the vision that he has is remarkable. We have a dynamic team. I’m going to really miss these people.
“Also, the reps we have chosen, every one of them is hands-on. I know I keep using that term, but I think it’s so important to go into a dealership and actually have answers and be able to fix whatever is wrong, or spot something wrong with one of our fires, and get in there and make it better.”
Now, you’re still making tours around the country and calling on dealers on an annual basis, correct?
Ranes: “We are, the managers are, absolutely. Every year they usually start in June and go to meetings, traveling, visiting with the customers. Ever since my Parkinson’s it has become more and more difficult for me, so I haven’t traveled for the last two years or so. I haven’t been able to. So these guys are out there carrying the flag.”
I neglected to ask how many dealers you have right now. You gave me Canada, 80, but how many in the states?
So you’ve got a nice bunch, close to 1,000 people selling your products. That’s a lot. My guess is that the majority have been with Travis for years.
Ranes: “Yeah. Again, I tip my hat to our reps and managers out there for being able to get this many dealers, working with those dealers, and still figuring out what the market area is so they are not stepping on each other.”
Is there anything that you would like to talk about right now? I’ve got about three more questions left.
Ranes: “I hate to see what’s happening in our industry right now, because we are under siege. It’s a fight trying to work with some of these people who know little or nothing about our industry; they just go on pure emotion and make what I think are bad decisions in different communities.
“If I had any kind of regret it would be that I didn’t stay more involved with the HPBA. I wish that I had stayed with that, passing the knowledge I have now to the dealers. I really do have a passion for this industry, and what I’m going to miss so much are the people I interact with daily.”
After this year ends, you and Peggy will be traveling around the country, seeing sights you never had the time to see when you were helping to build Travis Industries.
The nice thing is that, wherever you go, you will know someone with whom you have most likely talked, or seen at a party. That’s got to be important to you. You could stop every once in a while, and go in and say hi to somebody who is part of the Travis team.
Ranes: “Absolutely. In fact, that’s one of the things I’m looking forward to. With many of our dealers, we’ve enjoyed watching each other’s kids grow up, and you get to know them very closely; it’s much more than a business relationship, it’s a friendship.”
Dorothy Matthews, whom you know, retired a year ago from her retail shop. She had been a Vesta Awards judge for many years. She asked if she could continue doing so indefinitely because it’s a way to come up and see her friends. So whenever you need a bit of old friendships, just head for the HPBExpo.
Ranes: “Kurt has invited me and Peggy to go to the Builder’s Show (IBS) and to the Expo in New Orleans; we are definitely going to do it. It will be different not going in with a setup crew, but I can go in and just critique the job and see everybody.”
As you know, not only is wood being banned, but now we’ve got gas being banned in Vancouver as well as on the West Coast; in some developments it’s forbidden to even lay a pipeline through a development. We’ve been dealing with people banning wood now for a long time, and wood is still around and kicking. But natural gas is a greenhouse gas, and we’re on the wrong side of history; that’s a real problem. Do you see that being the biggest problem we’re facing right now?
Ranes: “Oh, I think it’s huge. The different communities and the way they are going about it is being put in the Building Codes. If you’re watching what is going on in California – I’m not talking about the fires, which are horrible – the electric company has to shut everybody down to avoid more fires. They say that’s going to be the new normal, but at the same time, everything in the house is supposed to be electric.
“They need to figure that out before they can sell the whole concept, and they are a long ways from doing that. I would hate to be on the Board right now in some of these communities where they are trying to sell that concept in California that it has to be 100% electric and at the same time you’ve been out of power for four days again. But it’s slowly coming and I do see that as a huge threat. All of a sudden, wood is looking more attractive to a lot of these people.”
Absolutely. Frankly, I’m pleased to see companies such as Stûv and Spartherm coming in with beautiful wood products.
In Canada, Spartherm has joined with Powrmatic for distribution of their product. Stûv has made a major commitment by building its own factory on the outskirts of Montreal.
Ranes: “It gets more excitement back in something new, something fresh that people will look at. It doesn’t mean they are going to necessarily buy it, but every one of those introductions just builds excitement. It gets people back in the stores. So, yes, I do see wood starting to grow again.”
I remember that Tom Pugh (a rep for ICC/RSF) said, ‘The future is going to be electric fireplaces.’ I’m interested in what your view is on electric fireplaces.
Ranes: “We’re thinking the same thing. We think that electric fireplaces is a direction we need to get into, and we are not interested at all in going to China to do so. Kurt has some ideas right now that would make it a Travis product. It would make it unique. To me, that is what we want to bring to the dealer network, something that is going to be more expensive. I think electric is going to be the next big thing.”
Listen, I want to thank you for spending all this time with me (2 hours, 25 minutes, 45 seconds).
Ranes: “It’s an honor. I really appreciate you doing this. Like I said, it must be an awfully slow news day. One thing I would ask is if you could mention how much I rely on my managers and my reps, and how fortunate I am to have them. I can’t say enough good things about them; they make my job so easy. They just have my back all the time, and it is really appreciated.”
At Perry’s request (again), here are the names of his managers: Melodie Kauf, Quinn Wilks, John Beiermann, Christian Hale.