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growth and productivity

A Prestige Pro grill from Ontario-based Napoleon.

Any manufacturer of seasonal products that can capture customers year-round has a good shot at success. More so if those sales come from across the globe.

That explains why Wolf Steel Ltd., the maker of Napoleon grills, fireplaces and HVAC equipment such as air conditioners and furnaces, has become a major player in its industry.

Indeed, many discerning backyard chefs buy products from Wolf, which is based in Barrie, Ont., in their quest to grill the perfect steak when the summer barbecue season heats up. Others turn to the rest of the Napoleon product line to heat or cool their homes. Since the early 2000s, those customers have increasingly come from outside of Canada.

In fact, exports now make up 18 per cent of the company's total revenue, with overseas sales growing 35 per cent annually over the past three years. The company maintains manufacturing facilities in Barrie, Kentucky and China, and its work force has doubled to 1,500 people worldwide, up from about 750 five years ago.

Export sales have helped the company double its revenue over the past five years, says president Ron McArthur.

So, how has a family-owned business with humble manufacturing beginnings – founder Wolfgang Schroeter got his start building wood-burning stoves in his garage – transformed into an export dynamo?

From its founding in 1979 through the early 1990s, Wolf Steel was focused on producing fireplaces. That was until Mr. Schroeter and his wife and co-founder, Ingrid, started diversifying the business.

The roots of Wolf Steel's international success stemmed from a determination to avoid laying off workers each spring when winter demand for the company's fireplaces flickered out. "Fireplace sales at that time were very seasonal," explains Mr. McArthur.

"Sales started early September and ended in February, so after February they didn't need as many people for the rest of the year. Wolfgang really believed that if they could add a second product line to their manufacturing operations in spring, he could keep his associates employed year-round."

Barbecues would complement the existing fireplace business, Mr. Schroeter reasoned, so he founded the Napoleon Appliance Co. in 1995 to produce high-quality grills with superior warranties that would retail for $1,000 or more.

The Schroeters' goal was to carve a sizable niche in the high-end barbecue market, a move that put Napoleon in competition with industry giant Weber-Stephen Products LLC, maker of Weber grills.

Sales in Canada quickly took off, but the Schroeters, who were born and raised in Germany, maintained strong ties to their birth country and saw opportunity in establishing a European beachhead.

That began a multi-year project to gain traction internationally. They started by working overseas trade shows such as Spoga+gafa, the largest home-and-garden trade exhibition in Europe.

The company soon received its first lesson in catering to the tastes of a foreign market: Reactions to Napoleon fireplaces were lukewarm at best. Most Europeans preferred wood-burning stoves with streamlined, modern designs that contrasted with Wolf Steel's bulkier, more rustic aesthetic.

"For years we tried to adapt, change designs and modify and comply with all certification processes," Mr. McArthur says. "When we finally said, 'No, it's not going to work,' it was a learning experience. It made sense for us to stop."

While the company still sells wood fireplaces in the Czech Republic and Russia, it largely abandoned European fireplace sales to focus on barbecues.

But formidable challenges soon mounted on that front, too. At the time, the European market was focused on cheaper charcoal units. "Europeans didn't want to spend the $1,000 or $2,000 on a gas barbecue when they were used to spending $100 or $200 on a charcoal one," Mr. McArthur says.

So, in 2010, the company introduced a charcoal grill for the European market, as well as a smaller, less expensive gas unit. Management also opened branch offices in Britain, Austria and the Netherlands.

Hiring local managers and support staff paid dividends and helped Wolf Steel gain a better understanding of local consumers' diverse tastes.

"By displaying our products at Spoga and having distributors from around Europe seeing us there continually, seeing our commitment to Europe, seeing our models becoming more Europeanized and smaller to suit their [preferences], we started having requests from distributors around Europe to distribute our products."

A slow and steady approach – one focused on gleaning feedback, analyzing the competition and introducing new models – has since helped the company gain distributorships across Europe, as well as in Israel, Dubai, Mexico and Chile.

"We've seen our whole international strategy expand significantly," Mr. McArthur says. "Today in Europe we're a close second to Weber for gas barbecues in Europe."

Another move that helped the company perform better abroad was the development of global design and manufacturing standards that helped deliver consistent product quality across markets.

Napoleon grills are made in various regions, but all research and development is managed from the company's Barrie headquarters, which helps maintain standards. Wolf Steel also owns its own production facilities.

Exporting the Canadian, high-quality approach to manufacturing also became a useful marketing tool that, along with Wolf Steel's family lineage, helped the company stand out. "Being family-owned and made in Canada are two of the value propositions for our consumers," Mr. McArthur explains.

"Canada is very well perceived internationally. Being made in Canada is a huge selling point to Europeans, but also to Americans, particularly for fireplaces," he says. "I guess they think we should know how to build fireplaces given our colder climate."