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Hearth Retailer Profile

AES Reaches Out to Grow the Hearth Industry

Before the Hearth, Patio & Barbecue Association, before the Wood Heating Alliance, and (technically) even before there was a hearth industry, there was American Energy Systems. This progressive hearth manufacturer, based in Hutchinson, Minn., has been committed to making energy-saving products since 1973. After years of designing wood- and coal-burning fireplaces and stoves, the company made a name for itself, in 1977, by designing the first certified corn-burning appliance.

From that time forward, AES has been synonymous with innovation. Today, owner Mike Haefner is sought after worldwide for his foresight and expertise in the development of hearth technology. As the hearth landscape changes, Haefner continues to pioneer products and has become an advocate for keeping the industry strong.

Fueling Fuel

Over the years, AES has evolved into a manufacturer that specializes in appliances using hard-to-burn biomass fuels and flex fuels. According to Haefner, these types of fuels are the future of the pellet industry. “Our industry is struggling to provide consumers with fuel they need to run their appliances,” he says.

While wood pellets have long been the top choice, their dominance is dwindling because of lack of availability, poor quality, or price. “When consumers buy a $2,800 stove, they don’t want it to sit idle because they can’t get fuel,” Haefner explains. This is where flex fuel and biomass technology come in; these technologies allow burning more than one type of fuel (such as corn, wheat, oats, switchgrass, and hazelnut shells), either alone or blended with wood pellets.

AES is committed to furthering the use of these fuels and has set up a sophisticated laboratory that serves as a test site for several universities, fuel manufacturers, and even countries. Experts from around the world turn to Haefner for help in developing and fine-tuning new fuel options. “I’ve received test fuels that you wouldn’t believe, including coffee beans and all kinds of waste products. I have even worked with the Chinese government to test rice,” he says.

According to Haefner, while more fuel options are becoming viable, the issue of having the right appliance to burn them remains. “There are very few appliances on the market that can properly combust a variety of fuels or combination fuels,” he says. “Too many manufacturers are putting appliances on the market that are designed for wood pellets, saying they can burn other fuels, and getting themselves into trouble.”

AES is considered the leader in designing appliances for the future—and future fuels. Its popular MagnuM line has been around since 1973 and consists of stoves and fireplaces that use flex-fuel technology. The company plans to continue developing and adapting its alternative-energy products to meet changing market and consumer demands.

Embracing the Evolution

As fuel and appliance technologies advance and the industry evolves, Haefner explains that it’s crucial for manufacturers and retailers to keep their businesses fluid and to embrace modern marketing techniques. “I hate to say it, but there are many retailers out there who are not able to keep up with marketing changes,” he says.

Haefner reports that as alternative energy becomes a more desirable option, more players are jumping into the mix and bringing with them new marketing practices, one of which is selling hearth products 365 days a year, not just during the winter. “I see this as a huge change that will pull business away from existing hearth dealers,” Haefner says.

He also points out that retailers need to start looking at the ways in which they are marketing their businesses. For years, retailers have fought the Internet, but today, there is no way around it. “Consumers are educating themselves and buying products based on what they find on the Internet,” Haefner says. “Retailers need to sell their reputation and service, not just their products, on the Internet, so consumers will choose them over the big box.”

AES is launching a new marketing program that Haefner believes is going to revolutionize the way that products are sold in the industry. It’s targeted to work with dealers and to help them advance in the market if they can’t afford to invest in the changes that are necessary. Retailers will be finding out all the details later this year.

Haefner’s vision, for the past 35 years, has had one focus: to grow and spread the hearth industry. “I want to make good products, I want my competitors to make good products, and I want retailers to make good business decisions, so everyone profits,” he says. “It’s all about partnering together and giving one another what each one of us needs to succeed. If we succeed, the industry does.”

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