Listen to Yogi
By Bill Sendelback
PhotoS: ©2020 John Carlson. www.carlsonpro.com.
“When you come to a fork in the road, take it,” advised the late baseball great Yogi Berra. Collin Emmett did just that, venturing out from a top management position with a major North American retail chain to take a chance selling wood stoves. He must have taken the correct “fork” because, after 41 years, Emmett’s Energy has grown from selling wood stoves one at a time from an old fruit stand to now having two very successful stores in the greater Detroit, Michigan, market offering hearth products, grills, patio furniture, and Outdoor Room products.
After earning a degree in Applied Arts and Sciences from the University of Michigan as the Vietnam War was winding down, Collin Emmett joined the U.S. Air Force and was stationed in Japan as a weather specialist. While returning to the U.S. from Japan after his military stint, Emmett’s seatmate on the plane was a manager for Sears, Roebuck & Company who suggested that Emmett join Sears. Emmett applied and was accepted for a management program at Sears, and eventually became a Sears division manager in the Detroit market. But after 10 years with Sears, he became disillusioned with big corporate business.
It was a time in the ’70s of the oil embargo and skyrocketing fuel prices. “While building a new house, I started looking for supplemental heating since I was then paying about $4 a gallon for oil,” Emmett says. “I came upon people selling things such as wood and coal stoves out of the back of their trucks, and this really intrigued me, especially when I saw people standing in line for the stoves.” Having experience working in his father’s hardware store, and with his retail background, Emmett thought he could make selling wood stoves a side business to his fulltime job at Sears.
Collin and Jane Emmett.
So in 1979, Emmett rented an old fruit stand in Romeo, Michigan; there he sold the now-defunct Black Bart brand wood stoves one at a time just as many early wood stove pioneer dealers did at the time. “I sold a stove and used that money to buy another, and my business began to grow,” he says. Emmett soon found himself competing with the local Black Bart distributor, and they pulled the line from him.
So he took on the also now-defunct Old Hickory brand wood stove line. “But I didn’t like buying through a middleman,” he says, “so I switched to the Silent Flame brand of wood stoves, and our business grew to where I was buying in truckloads. At that point, I decided to leave Sears and become a full-time hearth products dealer.” For most people, that decision might be a big leap of faith, but fortunately for Emmett, his wife, Jane, “made a decent living” as a school teacher and had family health insurance.
That one-stove-at-a-time operation in a little rented fruit stand soon developed into a 4,000 sq. ft. store displaying 50 stoves including 30 burning models, and soon Emmett added grills to his lineup. At that point, a salesman from a local distributor wanted to join Emmett’s growing operation by opening a second store in Waterford, Michigan.
“I probably was in a cocky mood, thinking I couldn’t lose even though my wife said it was a risky move. But she was on board with it and has always supported me, so we opened our second store. We built some pretty crude displays to begin with, but the store was functional.” Emmett started that second store with 1,000 sq. ft. but soon expanded to 5,000 sq. ft. including a 3,000 sq. ft. showroom and 2,000 sq. ft. of warehouse.
“With my wife’s income and insurance, we could survive. That’s probably the only reason I was able to stay in business in those early years,” he says. Emmett’s Romeo store “has always done well,” he says; it soon was grossing more than a million dollars, with today’s sales in the multi-million range. “Our sales last year were up almost 15%,” he says.
Emmett’s barbeque display.
But Emmett’s success has not come without at least one hiccup. With its growth, Emmett’s Energy became one of the nation’s largest dealers of a very major stove line. An individual with “big money” promised that manufacturer that he would open three stores in the Detroit area and wanted their line of products. “I was told I was no longer welcome to sell their products,” says Emmett, “but they did offer to buy me out. I told them just where to shove their offer.”
When one door closes, another opens. So Emmett took on the Travis line which today has grown to 50% of Emmett’s Energy’s sales as the company has become one of Travis’ largest dealers.
Emmett’s retail operation recently has grown with the purchase of a former Salvation Army store portion of a mall across the street from his previous location. “We went from about 4,000 sq. ft. to now 30,000 sq. ft.,” he says. That includes a 10,000 sq. ft. showroom and a 20,000 sq. ft. warehouse to now keep Emmett from having to move merchandise from the store’s former satellite warehouse seven miles away.
Emmett in 2006 opened a third location, but it is “strictly a working display” in the Michigan Design Center in Troy, Michigan, catering to high-end customers, architects, and designers. It features a working DaVinci fireplace with an employee on location to help prospects.
With the room in his Romeo location, in 2019 Emmett added patio furniture to his offering. “This was a little bit of a struggle,” he says. “It’s a learning experience because so much patio furniture business is done over the Internet. Markups in outdoor furniture are high, but it’s a cutthroat business, and it’s difficult to find a niche.”
Mix and match – fireplaces, stoves, and inserts.
Emmett’s Energy’s new, larger Romeo flagship store was designed by its employees and co-owner Jane Emmett. “She has a flair for design,” says Collin. Products are divided by product categories, including an entire wall of fireplace inserts and sections featuring wood stoves and gas stoves, fireplaces, grills, and patio furniture. “Where our old store was very basic and rough, this new one caters to all customers and features vignettes with custom touches like designer tiles and bricks, and custom surrounds. We have a burning, 6-ft. DaVinci fireplace and Tempest Torch outdoor heaters, 36 burning fireplaces, a nice area featuring grills and fire pits, and a custom coffee bar.
“We run our business not just to provide superior customer service,” says Emmett. “It’s more about earning customer trust and showing appreciation to those customers. We have a customer-friendly operation that makes our customers feel comfortable doing business with us. And we believe in prompt follow-through to earn the trust of our customers.”
“Sometimes we spend maybe 20 minutes just getting to know our customers,” adds Jane. “We want to know who they are, where they are from, about their family, what are the determining factors in making a purchase, and who will make the buying decision. Once we have all that nailed down, we know what direction to take to provide that customer with the products they need and want.”
Emmett’s Energy’s market is in the eastern Detroit area, according to Collin Emmett. “We’re a statewide dealer, but we install in the 10 counties surrounding us. The local economy is pretty decent, and everyone is paying their bills. I started with blue collar customers, but now we’re doing business with every category of customers in our market.”
The Internet is Emmett’s Energy’s biggest competitor, says Collin. “Those internet sellers beat us up pretty badly as we’re now finding with patio furniture. With hearth products, we simply try to sell the advantages of our products and the services we offer. When you sell products in which you have confidence, people tend to see that and buy into it.”
Emmett’s Energy does have other competitors in its market. “But we’re not in a battle with them,” says Emmett. He points out one competitor who tries to sell by bad mouthing other dealers. “He used to really bad mouth us and lie about us,” says Jane. “Customers would leave his store and come to ours and say, ‘This guy is bad mouthing you, so we’re going to buy from you.’”
Like many hearth product dealers, Emmett shuns tract homebuilders, leaving them to one-step or installing distributors. Instead, Emmett works with custom-home builders. “Early on I got into the mass builder market, and those guys were really like the Italian mafia, stringing out payments. Honestly, we just have not had the time to pursue builder business. We don’t go knocking on doors the way we should. The builders have come to us over the years because we offer products and services they cannot get anywhere else. Today, custom-home builder business represents about 40% of our sales.”
But Emmett has pursued larger commercial projects including recently signing a $60,000 contract to install Travis’ DaVinci fireplaces in a local commercial building. “And we recently sold and installed seven DaVincis in a Veterans’ Home.”
The store has its own employee teams doing installations and service. “There are expensive insurance, payroll, operational costs, fuel and truck upkeep to consider,” says Emmett, “so you have to look at service knowing that it has to make money for you. There will always be a need for service, and with the Internet, this is a way to set us apart. I think service is the future of our industry, especially with all the old hearth products still in use. We make a fairly good profit on service, and that’s where we’re going to grow, maybe even more than in our retail business.”
Like most successful retailers, Collin Emmett values each of his employees and gives them credit for most of the success of the company. Collin’s wife, Jane, is co-owner and, no longer teaching, is a “Jack of all things” in the company plus the designer of store layouts and arrangements. “Besides keeping Collin in check, I walk around the store and make sure that I like what I see from the view of a customer and of a woman.” Their son Brian is Emmett’s Energy’s IT person.
The use of color highlights the various fireplace designs.
General manager Eric Stevenson has a unique history with the company. While Jane was teaching school, she saw promise in Eric, then a sixth grader. “I had a gut feeling that he should work for us, even if it was just sweeping floors in the beginning,” she says. So Stevenson joined the Emmett’s Energy crew when he was just 16 years old. “He’s forty now, and he’s been a stalwart in our business,” says Collin. Both Brian and Stevenson have been with the company 25 years, but many of the company’s employees have at least 15 years of service.
Conventional consumer advertising has gone the way of the dinosaur for most retailers, especially with Emmett’s Energy. Most of the company’s advertising is using Google as a search engine, which highlights Emmett’s Energy as a local hearth product and outdoor living dealer. And Emmett makes certain to maintain and update the company’s website. “Our son, Brian, is always upgrading, putting photos of current installations and adding sale coupons to our site.” Emmett also emphasizes the comment cards that go to every customer, and he asks customers to follow the company on Facebook and rate it.
Emmett is having success with bulk mailers targeted to selected ZIP codes. “We design quality 8½- by 5½-inch postcards featuring selected products and promotions, and targeting subdivisions or what the U.S. Post Office describes as mail routes. This seems to be working for us,” he says.
It’s been 41 years of success for Collin and Jane Emmett. “It’s been a labor of love and sacrifice and a lot of hard work,” says Jane. “So now we are considering retiring. But there is a lot for us to consider because we have so many good employees, and we don’t want to leave any of them stranded in any way. Whatever happens and whenever it happens, it has to be good for us and our employees.”
“My dad owned a pretty successful hardware store,” says Emmett. “He worked long hours, six days a week. So he told me not to go into retail. I guess I didn’t listen. I got cocky when I took on this business. I never realized just how many hours I put into this business and how many hours I missed with my family until now that I have gotten up in years and my wife reminds me.
“So, if you are considering going into retail, marry a good wife,” Jane adds, “someone who’s willing to work in the business with you and take care of the family.”
Store Name: Emmett’s Energy
Locations: 70945 Van Dyke Rd, Romeo, MI
Owners: Collin Emmett, Jane Emmett
Key Executives: Eric Stevenson, General Manager
Year Established: 1979
Phone: (877) 836-6388
Number of Stores: Two
Number of Employees:
% of Sales by Product Category:
Sq. Ft. of Building Space:
Advertising % of Gross Revenues: .5%
Advertising: Website 40%, Google search engine 30%, Direct mail 30%