If there’s one thing the COVID-19 pandemic has taught us it is how important it is to have a comforting and safe home. And one of the biggest contributors to that feeling of safety and comfort is keeping our house warm.
As we continue to spend increasingly more time in our homes, people are focusing more and more on comforting home improvements – and a fireplace or wood stove is something that can add a whole new level of warmth and security.
Marc-Antoine Cantin knows exactly what that’s like. “They are such an important asset for any home,” he says, “not only to provide useful heat in the case of a power failure, but also to provide ambiance and cosiness. In many cases, especially in rural areas, it is also the most efficient and cheapest way to heat a house.”
As president of Stove Builder International (SBI), Cantin has built a solid reputation for developing new ways to warm and comfort people throughout the world. The pandemic has even spurred business growth, with vacation plans on hold and home renovations in demand, making 2020 a boom year.
SBI traces its Quebec lineage all the way back to 1875. The company was emerging from bankruptcy in 1996 when Marc, his brother Jean-Francois and their father bought a 60 percent stake. Over the course of the next several years, SBI would become one of the premier builders of wood stoves, known for quality craftsmanship and exceptional customer service. The company also makes all the accompanying ventilation systems, including chimneys, and markets them to specialty hearth retailers.
The Cantins have turned an operation of about 25 people into a global player in the industry. “Our business isn’t easy,” he says. “It is highly competitive and capital intensive. We have to consistently invest in new technology to meet environmental regulations and maintain our competitive edge.”
While so many companies have taken their production to Asia, SBI is committed to keeping its manufacturing expertise in North America, where investments in automation have been critical to business development.
“We are talking about the whole 4.0 ecosystem,” says Cantin. “It’s not only the welding robots, but also everything that makes the business more digital – from software for accounts payable to connected objects. We’re able to receive data from the field on a wood furnace and troubleshoot a system because we have all the combustion data we need.”
Cantin credits the support of Quebec City and provincial enterprise Investissement Quebec for promoting the digitalization of Quebec-based businesses like his own. SBI is in the process of securing the funding that has been made available for automation plans.
“Our local officials have been very supportive,” he explains. “Both Quebec City and Investissement Quebec saw the real potential of SBI and believed in our desire to create sustainable employment by investing in automation and digitalization.”
One of the long-term goals for SBI was to expand beyond its roots in Quebec and tap into the much larger U.S. market. The company also wanted to expand beyond building wood stoves and fireplaces into the much more widespread gas heating industry.
“We were looking at teaming up with another family-owned business that was strong in gas because we were only building wood stoves. So we wanted to explore that side of the market.” They found a company in the U.S. called Empire Comfort Systems, which is an 80-year-old, third generation family-owned company that also wanted to be in wood stoves.
“We felt that we could achieve more growth through local employment and by teaming up with a family-owned business in our industry that also believed in making stuff right here in North America.” Cantin is also quick to point out that this is a true partnership and not a merger, as both companies remain independent. One outcome of this partnership is the new Valcourt L48 Linear gas fireplace which was introduced to Canada this past May and has been very well received in the market.
As you might imagine, being in the home heating industry comes with a few challenges, not the least of which are environmental concerns. Combine that with the new 2020 regulations set out by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) that wood-burning appliances must have an emission rate of 2.5 g/h or less to be sold in the U.S., and it’s no understatement to say that meeting these standards is a core part of SBI’s business. “We had to rise to the challenge,” says Cantin. “It was also an opportunity redesign the appearance of our products.”
However, this was no easy process. It takes on average six months to certify a product and finalize the paperwork with the EPA. Then you have to prepare for mass production, make sure you have the right tooling, and rewrite the owner’s manuals; all of this can take up to 12 months to complete. The cost is also significant. It takes hundreds and hundreds of hours in lab time, design time and production planning. SBI has even teamed up with Laval University in Quebec for modeling the combustion of wood in computer software. Simulating and optimizing the combustion can be done in the design phase before you build a physical prototype and put it on a test bench.
The outcome of all this work and investment is that the company now has one of the deepest portfolios of 2020-certified wood heaters in North America.
This ongoing innovation has also impacted the company’s line of Osburn wood heaters. Osburn is one of SBI’s top-selling lines of products, which has been around since the late ’70s and was a big seller in the U.S. While it’s an established product, the company has made updates to keep the product current, like the Osburn Matrix 2700 wood insert. SBI also found more efficiencies in wood heating through the Enerzone Solution 3.5 wood stove, which is one of the largest units available on the market today. And It is designed for serious heating. “The wood stove enthusiasts love it,” Cantin says.
And when it comes to designing stoves, beauty can truly be in the eye of the beholder. “You may say, ‘oh, that one is pretty rustic.’ But some products end up in a log home. Other people want a more traditional style. Then you are also selling to urban areas with very modern homes, and what they want is something that is extremely clean that’s just glass and that’s basically it.” Thus, coming up with the right design for the right market all while staying on budget has a lot to do with the research and development of new products.
And while the outside appearance of a stove is important, ultimately clients are looking for efficiency and comfort. That’s why SBI has launched one of its most exciting products to date, called the Drolet Heat Commander wood furnace. This is not your dad’s wood heater or fireplace. The furnace is an integrated, central system designed for whole-house heating. It is also one of the few wood furnaces on the market that meets those tough new EPA rules for central systems. “We have worked on this furnace for almost two years now and we will finally hit the market with it,” Cantin shares. This furnace actually uses a lot of automation to correct potential user errors that occur in loading and operation of the heater. In other words, it’s a smart furnace.
To be sure, it is looking ahead to that next cold winter that really keeps SBI grounded. It is easy to say, ‘how much do stoves really need to change with the times?’ But it’s that forward-looking approach that has helped SBI continue to grow and stay on top of the industry.
“If we were just focused on the short term, it just wouldn’t work,” says Cantin. “But as a family-owned business, we have the right long-term mindset and the surfer’s attitude – patiently waiting to catch the next wave.”