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My Turn

Triumphing Over Tough Times

From tough times emerge great opportunities. This fact is what drives Charles Collison, the hearth-division manager for Rinnai Corp. Collison joined Rinnai in 2008 to help guide its U.S. operation’s new hearth division during a time when the economic environment is anything but ideal. “The entire Rinnai team never stops looking for new, creative ways to grow its business and serve its customers better,” he says.

Collison came to Rinnai (based in Peachtree City, Georgia) after eight years with Hearth & Home Technologies™ and 12 years at Honeywell, bringing with him experience in sales and marketing, business development, and operations. Rinnai Corp. (a $2.5 billion global gas-appliance company) entered the hearth market for the first time in New Zealand, in the mid-1990s.

Its overwhelming success abroad led to the introduction of its gas fireplaces in North America in 2002. “Gas fireplaces are the perfect fit because they allow Rinnai to take its strengths—gas technology and energy efficiency—and leverage them in new ways in its hearth products,” Collison explains. The company is known for its ability to use its technology to offer consumers solutions that improve their lifestyles.

Rinnai became a household name in the United States when it introduced its tankless water heaters, in the late 1990s. The category doubled in size in just three years as a result of heavy consumer advertising. Today, consumers ask for Rinnai’s tankless water heaters by name.

“We plan to use the lessons we learned from that success to build our hearth category,” Collison says. Over the next few years, with support from Rinnai’s leadership and the entire organization, he plans to increase the hearth division’s visibility, focus on distribution, and expand its products.

Collison’s first big step for Rinnai’s hearth division was to find a smart way to increase U.S. distribution. With no large hearth-focused sales force available in-house, he turned to an independent sales group called RepCorps (Hender­sonville, North Carolina) to represent Rinnai’s products to dealers. “It’s the perfect fit because RepCorps has established relationships and a knowledge of the industry,” Collison says.

RepCorps represents a number of products that complement Rinnai’s offerings, which means that it’s calling on dealers outside the traditional hearth category. “The reps are getting us into places we would not have approached on our own,” Collison says.

One example is Chicago Roof Deck and Garden, a company that specializes in creating outdoor-living areas on condominium rooftops in Chicago and its suburbs. The company doesn’t focus on hearth products, but it wanted to offer fireplaces to customers as a part of an overall solution. “This new way of thinking benefits us and the dealers who carry our products,” Collison says.

Rinnai is also looking for new ways to work with distributors so they can be more than just keepers of inventory. For example, it has partnered with one of its distributors in Northern California, the McNeely-Yuill Corp., to create Energy Savings Centers in the stores of a few of its top hearth dealers.

The centers visually bundle three of Rinnai’s high-efficiency products—its tankless water heater, EnergySaver power-vent fireplace, and EnergySaver direct-vent heater—on the showroom floors. “It’s a great way to expose customers to multiple Rinnai products and build on the energy-efficiency message that is so important to consumers today,” Collison says.

Collison sees the outdoor room continuing to develop as an important category. “People need to see the value of investing in something that en­hances their lifestyles and will hold its value over time,” he says, adding that people are even creating outdoor rooms in lieu of remodeling the interiors of their homes. Younger consumers who are buying their first homes are drawn to outdoor rooms because they fit their active, social lifestyles.

To take advantage of this opportunity, Rinnai has introduced an innovative outdoor product called the Impression Outdoor Fire. This modern, linear fire feature has been cleverly designed so that it can be enjoyed as a linear firepit or as an outdoor fireplace (when it’s fitted into a single-sided or see- through cabinet). It’s so versatile that it works in almost any outdoor scenario. Because of its minimalist design, it can be a focal point without dominating the space.

Collison is excited that the Impres­sion see-through fireplace will be featured in the HGTV Dream Home 2010 near Santa Fe, New Mexico. The home is currently being promoted on HGTV’s Web site, and the television pro­gram will be aired sometime next year.

“We are always seeking out high-profile opportunities to create consumer awareness and demand for our products,” he says, adding that Rinnai’s indoor EnergySaver power-vent fireplace will be featured as part of HGTV’s eco-friendly Green Home 2010 in Plymouth, Massachusetts. “National exposure like this ultimately culminates in more leads for our dealers,” he explains.

Collison says that Rinnai is always looking for the next big opportunity that can build upon its strengths: a strong organization, a solid brand, and great technology. He encourages retailers to do the same. “We all have to look for pockets of opportunity where we can leverage our strengths, rather than trying to be everything to everyone,” he notes. Collison predicts that businesses are going to emerge from these tough times as different companies than they were going into them. He says, “Our job is always to be on the lookout for new opportunities, to be ready for change, and to help each other succeed.”

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