Answering the Call
Successful southern Ontario company expands in central heating market
January 05, 2012— Barrie, Ontario
Wolf Steel Inc.
When opportunity knocked, this southern Ontario company responded—and thanks to some timely help from NRC-IRAP–it is now blazing a trail in the heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) market
The owners of Wolf Steel Ltd., manufacturer of Napoleon brand fireplaces, grills and furnaces, had been contemplating the idea of expanding into the central heating market for more than a decade when NRC-IRAP Industrial Technology Advisor (ITA) Bill Keith entered the picture in 2009.
Keith recognized the enormous potential for the firm in that market, and approached the owners. The rest is history—albeit recent history. By the end of summer 2009, Keith was working with Wolf Steel on an NRC-IRAP funded research and development (R&D) project that would see the company design, manufacture and market a new high-efficiency furnace by early 2011.
Not only are these the only gas furnaces made in Canada, they are also the industry’s most compact and attractive—and the silver and bright red units are so efficient that they can save the average homeowner more than $350 a year in gas and electricity costs compared with a mid-efficiency furnace.
Wolf Steel’s 9600 high-efficiency Furnace
Wolf Steel has been around since 1976, when founder Wolfgang Schroeter built his first wood stove in his garage. Neighbours soon began placing orders. Three decades later, the company had evolved into an industry-leading manufacturer of fireplaces and gas grills with 700 employees. It has several manufacturing plants as well as distribution centres across North America.
Yet Keith was convinced there was room for growth into new markets—and the owners agreed. They had long debated the idea of branching out into gas furnaces. Then in 2009, when gas furnace manufacturer ECR International decided to close down its southern Ontario plant, Wolf Steel saw opportunity knocking: The firm hired a couple of former ECR employees who didn’t want to relocate, and began serious discussions with NRC-IRAP.
“Luckily, Bill Keith understood that high-efficiency furnaces are the future,” says Stephen Schroeter, senior vice-president of sales, marketing and administration with Wolf Steel.
Focusing on R&D
From the outset, Keith encouraged Wolf Steel to launch an R&D department dedicated to central heating. He also recommended plant-wide productivity and improvement processes as well as a near-term corporate strategy to realize the owners’ goal of becoming a prominent central heating manufacturer.
“The R&D project that resulted in our new high-efficiency furnaces would not have been as successful or as timely without NRC-IRAP. Specifically, there is a good chance the project may have been stopped in its tracks.”
Stephen Schroeter, Senior Vice-Presidet of Sales, Marketing and Administration, Wolf Steel Inc.
Once the project to fund the furnace R&D was in place, Keith asked that a section of it include design for LEAN manufacturing, and leveraged LEAN results into a separate plant-wide NRC- IRAP project.
Wolf Steel reports that Keith was instrumental in boosting the firm’s fortunes and ensuring it made the most of its opportunity in the central heating market. “He helped improve our plant and process layout and productivity, developed and improved the firm’s intellectual property strategy, mentored us during the LEAN initiative, and put us in touch with key contacts, consultants and resources,” says Schroeter.
What’s good for Wolf Steel is good for Canada. Some 80 per cent of the firm’s manufacturing is done in Barrie, Ontario, and the firm supports local companies in purchasing parts and supplies when possible.
Since NRC-IRAP’s involvement with Wolf Steel in 2009, the firm has:
- Invested in testing equipment and built a new HVAC lab;
- Positioned itself for growth in an entirely new market;
- Created 25 jobs;
- Announced that it expects to create 200 more direct and indirect jobs over the next five years;
- Reduced its onsite inventory by $6.5 million thanks to LEAN manufacturing.
Schroeter expects the new furnace division will become a significant source of revenue for the company. “You may know us now for fireplaces and barbecues, but give us five or six years and you’ll know us for furnaces.”.
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