Meet Dick Hoffman
By Bill Sendelback
PhotoS: ©2020 Sandra Stambaugh Photographer. www.sandrastambaugh.com.
It’s interesting, and important, that so many of the incoming chairmen (and women) of the HPBA assume that role with a pet project in mind. For Ingrid Schroeter and Amy Ryan, it was increasing membership in the association; for Joe Burns it was setting up a network of brokers to facilitate selling their business. Dick Hoffman’s goal is to increase the awareness of hearth products throughout the land.
Hearth & Home: Talk to me about how you got into the hearth industry, and then into patio and barbecue products.
Dick Hoffman: “I worked at a wholesale pharmaceutical distribution company. I had completed a 25-year career, having been through sales, buying, advertising, and promotion management. At a high point, I was the vice president of the corporation and a division manager. At that time, it was a $150 million company, and my division was a $50 million division.
“It was a fourth generation family business and had reached the point where they decided to exit; the heirs didn’t want to enter into it. It ended up with the business being sold. Within a short period of time, my division was consolidated with another startup division in Charlotte, and my wife Gleyn and I moved there. After a three-year run, we decided life was a bit too complicated, and not what we really wanted to do. We wanted to move back to Asheville and look for an opportunity.
“We met Debs Pedigo, who had a franchise situation developing out of the Charlotte base, and we made contact. Within a number of months, we were able to come into the category of hearth and patio. We developed a location in Asheville and started with trying to figure out exactly what that category meant to us.”
What year was that?
Hoffman: “That was in 1995. The hearth industry was well established at that point, and our startup was based on Debs’ particular format. He was in a milder region, so the category of patio was much stronger than hearth for him. He was doing quite a bit in gas logs, but not much else in hearth.
“As we grew the business in Asheville, it became pretty clear that our climate zone was much more of a winter category for hearth, and that category really outpaced patio. We began to understand that the business was more than just gas logs, as we thought it was at the beginning. So we became experts in how to work with wood stoves. That was the time when the categories were beginning to expand; fireplaces and direct-vent came in, and we really grew more and more into the hearth industry. We separated from the franchise in 2011 and renamed the store to better identify the business.”
I think many other people followed that same route, and many started earlier, in the late ’70s and early ’80s. First it was hearth, then it was patio, and barbecue brought up the rear.
Hoffman: “Barbecue was a small category for us in the very beginning. The only thing we did with barbecue was a Ducane grill. Of course, over the years we learned more about products, and grew along with the category. Eventually, the Hearth Products Association became the Hearth, Patio & Barbecue Association, as it is today.”
How many employees did you start with? Was it just a Mom-and-Pop operation?
Hoffman: “It was. It was my wife, Gleyn, and myself, and we had one employee, Ric Porter. We started in a location that was a subdivided building. A hardware store owner decided to downsize his building and we took over half of that space. We talked about what we were trying to do and, of course, followed along with some suggestions he had.
“Ric was the one employee that he recommended to us; he had been with him for a number of years but he knew that he had greater talents and more to offer than he was able to in his present position. So we ended up with that individual joining us. He became a full-time employee, and was with us for 23 and a half years.”
How large is your store now?
Hoffman: “The current store operates out of about 7,500 sq. ft. in retail. There’s some additional space that’s restroom and storeroom. And it’s backed up with a separate warehouse that’s about 10,000 sq. ft.”
So you’re well positioned. Am I correct that you’re very close to the entrance of the Vanderbilt Mansion?
Hoffman: “We’re probably a mile and a half away. We’re pretty much in a downtown area.”
What’s the population of Asheville?
Hoffman: “Ninety-three thousand is a pretty good number, and what would be considered the metropolitan area puts it up to 424,000 when you get outside the immediate Asheville area.”
It’s all these husky, young Millennial kids with a couple of bucks in their pocket and they want to go to good restaurants.
Hoffman: “You’re right. There’s a lot of foodie interest in our area. We’ve always had a reputation as being a tourist area, but I guess all that’s changed over the years. Asheville’s become a beer city with two national brands locating breweries here. There’s also a lot of craft breweries and a lot of interest in that. Of course, the downtown area is really outstanding and quite a tourist draw.”
Now, when the Great Recession hit, what percent did you drop in sales?
Hoffman: “I think we were down about 50% to 55%. It was a really traumatic period.”
Are you back to where you were prior to the Great Recession?
Hoffman: “Yes, but it required about nine years to do so. Then the last several years have provided for continued gains. The last two years have been particularly good.
“Over a period covered by the recession, we pared down a number of our lines. With the patio lines we merged primarily with those companies that were manufacturing in the U.S. or had just a little offshore. The exception, obviously, was in wood.”
What do you see as major problems for the industry as we head into 2020?
Hoffman: “Well, the industry has several fronts. They categorize it as Wood & Pellet-NSPS issues and changeouts. With gas, we are seeing the challenge of Net Zero carbon, or electrification with municipal bans on natural gas and licensing. We are also concerned about the exclusion of our trades to fully install and service products we sell. At HPBA we’ve dealt with things in Vancouver for natural gas exclusions and, of course, Zero Net Energy emergence.
“The gas issue is growing more than we would like to see. Of course, there’s California where about 15 cities have taken steps to ban it. In Massachusetts, the city of Brookline is banning gas. Other cities may look at this and decide to do the same. It just creeps in there. Of course, the idea is to be more ecological and that’s great. But sometimes I think that individual efforts move so fast that proponents of banning gas don’t realize that it has a lot of good to it, and perhaps it should be integrated into using it without totally banning it.”
Is hearth still your main product?
Hoffman: “It’s still a primary. We’ve been moving anywhere between 65% and 75% hearth in the last couple of years. That’s been fueled a lot by some construction they’ve been doing in the area. A lot of new homes, remodels, etc., have been going in. We’re still in an area in the western part of our state where we have a fair amount of wood-burning stoves, wood-burning fireplaces, things like that. Patio’s been probably the category that has suffered most over the years. Then barbecue represents one of the smaller pieces.”
Coming into the chairmanship of the HPBA, do you have any pet projects you would like to implement?
Hoffman: “Well, I do. During the past few years, membership is an area that has really been discussed. That’s obviously an important thing, and I’ll try to find ways to support it. But the category that I want to focus on, and I’ve talked with Jack (Goldman) about this, is to find ways to increase and promote the awareness of our hearth products. As a trade association, we don’t really get into too much marketing, and that’s part of what a trade association does. How to accomplish that is the key. The HPBA has been fairly successful in promoting the barbecue industry.
“Let’s use some newer efforts that are tied to social media, that creates awareness in a different channel than what we’ve thought about in the past. I’ve had an opportunity to have some dialogue with Emily McGee, who is our Communications director. We have been brainstorming about additional ways to accomplish that.
“So that’s my objective, to find ways to better promote our hearth products. Think about a family, and an evening, in front of an inviting stove or fireplace; it’s a powerful message. I’d like to find ways to achieve that type of messaging and be more widespread with it.”
How do we get the funds to get that word out throughout the land? It’s a small industry, and the money just isn’t there.
Hoffman: “That’s true. Our manufacturers of hearth products are just not in the same category as brands that you see in magazines and on television. I think we’ve got to enlist our manufacturers to bring some ideas to the forefront, see if we can’t evolve some campaigns.
“I would challenge the HPBA, through Emily McGee, to come up with ways to create tools that retail members can use that are somewhat universal – that they can implement. I think there are ways. We just don’t have them down on paper yet. But my objective is to try and find ways to better promote hearth products at the consumer level.”
When Gene Butler was chairman (2016-2017) of the HPBA he came up with the idea of using social media and having the HPBA prepare the messages and the tools for retailers and distributors so they could get them out through social media and have a big impact. I’m not aware that it was ever tried. But it made sense.
Hoffman: “I agree with you. I don’t think it ever came to fruition. However, I think there has been some progress made using social media. But to carry it to that extent again, coming out with that toolkit and making it available to the members of the association, I think is doable. And I think Emily’s got some ideas on trying to do that.
“Another thing that’s getting some attention from Jack and the association is looking at how to increase the incident rate of fireplaces in new construction. He’s putting together some thoughts and guidance from individuals within the industry to come up with ideas and talk about it. I think there’s an opportunity there where the manufacturers will support it. All of that will combine to having a better presence and promotion and awareness of the category. I may have to call Gene Butler and pick his brain.”
I think Joe Burns (the present chairman), and Jack Goldman are responsible for getting the national brokerage firm called Sunbelt onboard and ready to help anyone trying to sell his or her store.
Hoffman: “Yes. I think Joe’s perception of that need found a solution that will help our industry. I’m an example of a 20-plus year retailer who got to that point where I needed to consider getting out. We were fortunate enough to realize the value in going through a broker, which led us into the ultimate sale of the retail portion of our business.
“What Joe has been able to do is to take that idea and find Sunbelt, a company that has a national presence. Most of them are franchise offices that can help across most of our geography. From what I understand, there have been a good number of people that have had some discussions. They had a webinar that attracted a pretty good attendance.
“One of the things that deserves a little comment is the fact that we have, in essence, sold the retail portion of our business. I continue in the industry with certain involvement, part of that being the obligation with the new buyer as ‘a consultant,’ to be helpful in guiding him along a limited basis as he gets a foothold and continues the business.
“By being able to be a consultant to him and do some other things, it gives me a great opportunity to devote time and thought to the HPBA and the chairmanship. I think other chairs have to eek out enough time to be credible in all the things they’re going to do.
“I bring a lot of experience from my time in this industry, as well as what I did in previous industries. It gives me a good opportunity. I’ve said many times, if you’re part of something, there should be a point where you give back to it. I learned that a number of years ago by getting involved at an early level. I had an opportunity to get involved on the regional affiliate board and asked to participate at different levels. And now it’s kind of an exclamation point in all of that. So I would encourage other people to get involved in the industry and try to give back too.”