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With a focus on clever marketing and innovative design, award-winning Aussie exporters are setting the world on fire.

A children’s eye specialist and importer of construction silicon may not appear to have a lot in common in a business sense, but when Stephane Thomas and Uwe Backes teamed up to form The Fire Company in 2002, sparks flew.

The pair got together after Backes found an unsophisticated ethanol fire system he thought he could distribute in Australia. “It was very archaic, it had no safety features, no operation manual,” says Thomas. “It was very flimsy.”

So, after a year and a half of prototyping, they came up with a competitive product—the EcoSmart Fire—that was not only attractive and functional, it was also safe.

When they launched their first EcoSmart product in 2004, there was little competition around the world for this kind of product using this kind of fuel with an equal focus on safety and design. “We put a lot into R&D and making a product that was efficient, that was running the fuel to a relatively cost-efficient ratio and that didn’t compromise on the look and safety,” he says.

And although Thomas and Backes invested heavily in securing patents and IP protection for their products, Thomas has noticed a number of copycats on the market producing similar products and designs, a development he is not taking lying down. “We’re actually fighting some of the companies now.”

So to stay ahead of the competition and the copycats, he says, it’s imperative for The Fire Company to be constantly innovating the design and functionality of their products. Part of this includes partnering with lauded designers, bringing out signature, limited release designs. “We’re only as good as the last thing we produced,” Thomas says, adding that for each product released on the market, there’s another five or six going through the R&D process.

The team are always working with other designers on new ways of integrating other technology with existing products, such as remote controls and customer-specific safety mechanisms. “This is on top of signing renowned international designers to elevate the brand overseas.”

From day one, the plan for The Fire Company was to go global. And it certainly makes plenty of sense considering Australia’s climate. Even so, Thomas says they made sure they had the perfect product here before launching their assault on the world. “The Australian consumer is very fussy and educated, they are aware and demanding, and this has really forced us to dot the i's and cross the t’s—there was no precedent for what we had to do and we had to be right 100 percent. Being resolved for Australia, it was so easy to take the product overseas.”

Ninety-eight percent of the manufacturing process takes place in Australia, and the irony of what they are doing is never lost on Thomas. “We’re teaching the world about fire, and we’re from Australia. It’s like selling ice to Eskimos!”

The business got its export feet wet in the US, when an opportunity to trial this new type of product came their way. “When we told people we were making fire out of ethanol, a dangerous substance, everyone was closing the door on us, telling us we were crazy.”

So when they got their shot in the US they took it, with sales to Scandinavia and Germany (with the help of Backes’ connections) following closely. Although they use distributors in most markets, to meet demand in the US, they have recently bought the rights to a distribution company and have an office and a warehouse in LA, set to employ another handful of staff to join the 14 employed full-time in Australia.

As part of the Australian launch in 2004, Thomas and Backes made sure they had all of their marketing collateral ready to go, complete with a fully functional website with up-to-date product information and photos, to make sure all potential distributors were ready to hit the ground running. “Even today, we have 50,000 single views a month on our website. It crosses the planet very quickly when you’re very well ranked. Very quickly we had people coming to us and enquiring about how they can become distributors.”

Nowadays, the selection process to choose distributors is a tight one, after starting with a much less stringent one in the early days. “We were just happy to get someone on line,” Thomas admits. This proved to be a learning process, too. “We made a few mistakes, not too many, thank God, but now we have been able to pick good people, which is a key part of our success.”

With trade show attendance increasing awareness, quality distributors were quick to come on board. These days, The Fire Company exports to around 38 countries and sales to overseas market account for about 85 percent of the business.

And although he admits being pioneers of the product helps their profile in new markets, it also means there’s plenty of barriers to overcome to make a success.


As we chat, Thomas breathes a sigh of relief in recognition of successfully making their assault on the Russian market that weekend. “Russia’s a huge market,” he explains. “We had hundreds and hundreds of big projects booked in but we had a problem with fuel availability, because there’s plenty of red tape with ethanol over there. This part of the world is never to straight forward,” he quips.

“It’s a challenge in every country; every country has their own rules. Even in America, if you go from one county to another the rules are different. So you have to spend thousand of dollars getting your product approved in one state county, but the county next door is different.”

For example, he says, in some parts of California and New York, there are rules against flueless fireplaces, so there’s plenty of risk assessment and consultation with people “that have no idea”. But Thomas and Backes are nothing if not persistent. “We’re like two dogs with two bones, we just fight for it—we love it! Sometimes it’s frustrating but we enjoy all those challenges, and that’s probably why we’re so successful.”

This is where it helps to have great distributors on board to wade through the red tape and overcome challenges. “We work together so they are successful. If our distributors are successful, we’re successful.”

Part of that means ensuring the marketing collateral remains constant across the world. “Our distributors are supposed to focus on sales, so we need to make it easier for them to sell.

When they first started the business, Thomas and Backes decided nothing left the distributor’s warehouse without being paid for. This saved the business time and money, and meant they were able to maintain control over cash flow to help pay for additional products.

“And this means that we are on such good terms with our manufacturers because they know we pay on time, so we can jump queues on the production if we need anything urgent.”

Most sales are made to distributors in Australian dollars, but with market fluctuations, there are a few accounts that are maintained in the local currency.

Hand in hand with distribution of the product, Thomas admits there have been some lessons in the logistics of sending the Australian-made fireplaces overseas. As a high-end furniture produ
ct, packaging is vital for Thomas, and he advises other exporters to pay close attention to good packaging. “That’s where you can lose a lot of money and spend a lot of time on the phone fighting with transport companies.” His advice is to have a good relationship with your transport manager and find the right company experienced at sending goods like yours overseas.

With today’s interest in all things green, interest in the brand should continue to grow. And although there is no perfect fuel for fire, from an environmental perspective, most studies indicate ethanol is a safe, clean and renewable alternative to existing fossil fuels. But while the product has always been designed to consider lifestyle, design and warmth, until 12 months ago the ‘green’ aspect of the product wasn’t a major selling point. These days, Thomas says if it’s not green, it’s not cool. “Especially in America, we’ve found that you have to be in the green club to be cool.”

Sure-fire export tips

         Work hard and work smart. You have to choose the right people to be working with.

         Don’t cut corners. If you do, you’ll see how quickly it will catch up.

         Deliver on what you promise.

         Remember to have fun; it makes the journey more interesting.

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