The owners of this Texas store credit HPBA for helping them run a successful business for over 30 years.
It's not uncommon for someone to drive 200 miles across Texas to Amarillo to visit The Fireplace Center and Patio Shop, one of the area's most respected hearth retailers. The 33-year-old business is committed to the more than 250,000 residents of Amarillo and the surrounding area in a way that makes them feel like family members. For the store's owners, brothers Randy and John Dryden, knowing their customers (and their business) is what makes the store tick and keeps people coming back for more.
The store was founded as an ornamental iron shop in the early 1970s. In 1979, Randy and John, who had recently graduated from college, were getting ready to settle into their respective careers when their father, Bob, spotted the store for sale in Amarillo.
Randy Dryden recalls, "He wanted to keep us in the area, so he recommended that we give retailing a try." The brothers had roots in the hardware and heavy-equipment industries, so they decided that it would be interesting to narrow their focus to one category: hearth products.
To the Dryden brothers, everything about the shop was attractive, including the fact that it is located on a major highway that offers great visibility to passersby (many of whom come in just to check out the store). It is also situated in the heart of a seriously hearth-reliant area.
"Most of the people in our market, which spans 200 miles in every direction, live in rural, agricultural communities, so they use hearth products as a source of heat," Dryden says. He adds that the competition will carry fireplaces, stoves, or gas logs, but there are not many other full-time hearth shops that are totally committed to the fireplace industry.
He says, "When people come into our store, they know we'll be able to help them find the right product, even if they don't know themselves what they want." The store carries a wide range of products, including stoves, fireplaces, gas logs, gas inserts, and fireplace accessories, at a broad range of price points, and it even offers firewood for sale.
In 1985, the Dryden brothers diversified their business when they purchased a local patio shop and brought both operations under one roof, naming it "The Fireplace Center and Patio Shop." Dryden says, "It rounded out our business because we needed the security of having something to fill in the gaps during the summer months." Today, the shop, on its 2.5-acre site, boasts a 7,000-square-foot showroom floor that is merchandised all year with all of its products.
Over the years, the Dryden brothers have made their business evolve, adding decorative gas fireplaces and other hearth products, but they haven't strayed far from their core business: customers who rely on fireplaces and stoves for energy. "It's normal for the rural communities we serve to lose electricity for up to two weeks after a major storm or a blizzard. People have no choice but to be energy self-reliant," Dryden explains.
The brothers are always looking for ways to offer more or better heating options for customers. They have recently started encouraging them to take a look at new, more efficient heating products, including gas inserts, which are the next step for someone wanting to gain more efficiency and heat from a conventional fireplace. "Customers look to us to know our products and to give them advice. That's why we are here," he adds.
Black & Stone knows a good opportunity when it sees one. As the world is going green and the U.S. government offers more incentives for people to use non-petroleum fuels, the company has moved to expand its range of eco-friendly ethanol hearth products. In 2012, Black & Stone USA Inc. will launch a lineup of stylish outdoor fire tables, firepits, and fireplaces aimed at specialty outdoor-living retailers.
The Australian company introduced its ethanol products to the U.S. hearth market in 2007, after they were a big hit with consumers in Australia. According to Graham Brake, the company's president, ethanol is a biofuel that is just now starting to gain some traction because of its visibility as a vehicle fuel—and the fact that it's being used in more products. The modern ethanol industry is several decades old, but a great increase in the number of U.S. ethanol plants has been seen over the past four to six years.
Ethanol, which is derived from plants and plant waste, is one of the cleanest-burning fuels available today. In its purest form, it is 100% alcohol, with 92% of the result of burning ethanol being water vapor (the balance is carbon dioxide). The byproducts of ethanol are very similar to those created when someone is breathing in a room.
Aesthetically, an ethanol fire is very pleasing to the eye. "The lovely thing about an ethanol fireplace is that it burns with a big, yellow, dancing flame that is similar to that of a wood fire," Brake says, adding that there is no smoke and no mess.
Black & Stone has been able to fill a niche in the U.S. hearth market that holds tremendous potential. According to Brake, there are only a few companies that manufacture and sell ethanol fireplaces (and most of those make high-end products), so the company's mission is to create an affordable range of ethanol products for every type of consumer. The U.S. operation, led by Tom Owen, is headquartered in Atlantic Beach, Florida, and its products are sold to specialty retailers nationwide.
Style and function best describe Black & Stone's lineup of VioFlame TM occasional fireplaces. The decorative series includes sleek wall-mounted and built-in models that add just the right ambiance to any room, and its convection fireplaces provide up to 14,000 Btu to heat a den or living room with ease.
VioFlame portable fireplaces have great flexibility and ease of use. "Customers can walk into a dealer at 4 p.m. on a Saturday, buy a fireplace, and have a fire burning in the living room the same evening," Brake explains. One of the company's most popular products, to date, has been its Ezy Flame ethanol firegrate, which gives consumers the ability to convert any wood fireplace to ethanol easily.
Black & Stone debuted its outdoor ethanol product series at the 2011 Chicago International Casual Furniture & Accessories MarketTM; it includes a range of firepits, fire tables, and decorative fireplaces, as well as an ethanol-conversion kit for firepits. "We are thrilled about our new outdoor line because firepits and fire tables are really big at the moment. It's nice to give people an alternative fuel source with the convenience of ethanol," Brake explains.
The Dryden brothers have been through many ups and downs with their business over the years, and they credit the Hearth, Patio & Barbecue Association (HPBA) with helping them stay in touch with the industry. They have been involved with the HPBA, attending trade shows and taking advantage of its educational opportunities, since it was founded in 1980.
"I can't say enough about how it has helped me as a small-business owner," Dryden explains. He was president of the HPBA's South Central region (Mississippi, Louisiana, Arkansas, Texas, and Oklahoma) for several years. This year, he took his involvement one step further by becoming a part of the national HPBA board of directors, as the representative for the South Central region. His position requires him to be the liaison between both boards, attending all the national and local meetings. "Every region has so much to contribute to the organization's big picture, and I am thrilled to be able to bring our insights and issues to the national table," he says.
So far, the biggest thing that Dryden has learned during his time on the national board is what goes on behind the scenes in the hearth industry, especially in its dealings with the EPA and the US. Department of Energy. "We are not a very big industry and are constantly working to make our needs and concerns known to these regulatory bodies," Dryden says, adding that it has been a real eye-opener for him. "What happens with these agencies affects what hearth products can be made, how people can use their products, and how we deal with our customers," he says.
He adds that the single biggest benefit that the HPBA has brought him and his business over the years, without a doubt, has been knowledge. "The knowledge I have gained through classes, seminars, and certifications, I would have had a hard time finding anywhere else," he says, noting that the organization is great at communication with its members as well. "The HPBA gives one more confidence as a business owner," he says.
He is a huge proponent of HPBExpo, which he attends faithfully every year. "There is no way I could see the beauty of a burning fireplace or touch the steel on a new stove if I just relied on catalogs or websites," he says, explaining that the trip is worth the time and money. He adds, "You don't have to bring the whole family. Just send one person from your shop who can share everything that he or she has learned."
As the new year approaches, The Fireplace Center and Patio Shop will continue to focus on serving the territory that has come to rely on it for its products, product knowledge, and service. There will be many more days when the Dryden brothers or their team members travel hundreds of miles to see a customer. "It's really not a big deal to us. I've been in this area my whole life, and people in every little hidden community are our friends," Dryden says. "We just want to make sure they have what they need when they need it."