Best Managed Companies

How Napoleon Grills uses insights from the shop floor to keep quality high

Starting from a Barrie, Ont. garage with five employees, Napoleon Grills has become a worldwide leader, selling barbecues and fireplaces in 34 countries

Canada’s Best Managed Companies
Napoleon Grills assembly line

On the assembly line at Napoleon Home Comfort in Barrie, Ont. (Cole Burston)

As with so many business success stories, the tale of Napoleon Grills begins in an immigrant’s garage.

Wolfgang Schroeter founded his steel fabrication business in 1976 in Barrie, Ont. He started with steel railings for local farmers, but his offer to manufacture a wood stove for his father-in-law soon led to a new line of business, with five employees working in a 1,000-sq.-foot facility. There was no plan except providing good products and a good customer experience. He certainly didn’t think he was founding an international manufacturer of coveted high-end fireplaces, barbecues, grills and furnaces. He just liked to do things properly.

But that commitment to quality allowed his company, Wolf Steel—and later the Napoleon brand, introduced by the firm in 1981—to evolve into Barrie’s largest manufacturer, with an impressive array of products distributed to customers in 34 countries. In addition to its financial success, Napoleon Grills has been named one of Canada’s Best Managed Companies for the past five years. “This company is a real Canadian gem,” says Peter Brown, a partner with Deloitte. “It’s a great business that’s growing rapidly. What they’re doing—especially with how they’re building and deepening their international footprint—really blazes a trail for other Canadian businesses.”

Brown sees the company’s phenomenal growth and global footprint as the almost inevitable result of Schroeter’s commitment to “building an exceptional product.” Commitment to quality is, of course, a common characteristic of successful companies. Napoleon Grills, however, takes a culture of constant improvement to new levels. “Everything we do today is better than what we did yesterday,” says Ron McArthur, the company’s president for the past five years. He joined the firm as part of a careful succession plan, in which the founding parents are transitioning control to their sons, aided by professional managers like McArthur as needed. Wolfgang continues to serve as CEO, and his wife, Ingrid, who has managed the company’s finances since its inception, is still the CFO. But increasingly, both the daily work and strategic planning are done by the Schroeter “boys,” both in their mid-30s. Stephen serves as the company’s senior vice-president for sales, marketing and administration, and Christopher is senior vice-president for operations.

It might seem difficult serving as the president of a family-owned company in the midst of a succession, but McArthur is thrilled with the experience. “We are moving into a second generation of a Canadian-owned manufacturing company, and we are moving into it successfully,” he says.

While other family firms falter during a generational transition, the company has doubled in size in the past five years. McArthur credits the success to the Schroeter family. “They have a vision,” he says. Napoleon’s leaders—in particular the second generation—understand they’re selling more than just a grill, fireplace, furnace or air conditioning system. They’re selling the experiences facilitated by those products. “We want them to have wonderful memories, a memorable experience cooking food on our barbecues with friends,” McArthur explains. “We want them to enjoy being with their family with a Napoleon fireplace burning in the background . . . Our vision is to create memorable moments.”

Of course, those memorable moments wouldn’t be possible if the products were of poor quality. “The number-one reason for buying Napoleon is quality,” McArthur says. “We stand for quality. And all of our associates, they stand for quality too. They are proud to be working for the Napoleon team. ‘I have a hand in making sure it’s a great product’—that thinking permeates our culture.”

Brown believes one of Napoleon’s “secrets” is its commitment to its company culture, and its efforts to communicate corporate strategy and vision to every single employee. The Schroeter family and senior management meet with every single associate once a year to explain the company’s big goals. More importantly, the executives listen carefully to the associates’ feedback, concerns and input. Its human resources folks meet with everyone in the company at least once a quarter. And every meeting is a dialogue.

That Napoleon refers to its workforce as “associates” rather than employees is a reflection of the culture built by the Schroeter family. “When Wolfgang Schroeter started the business, he was working with five people in a small space, and he thought of all of them as members of his team—his associates, not his employees,” McArthur says. “That culture continues today. We are all members of the team—we’re a team that works together to build memorable products for people.”

The Schroeters’ human focus coexists with a strong emphasis on efficiency and productivity. “They invest a lot of time and energy into productivity,” says Brown. “They are at the leading edge of robotics in their plants, and they ensure that the company stays on the leading edge productivity-wise. They manufacture in Canada, but also in China—they are where they can be and where they should be.”

And, as McArthur likes to point out, they are always improving. “We’ve spent a lot of money in the past few years developing Napoleon as a world-class brand,” he says. “We’ve long been well-known in Canada, but not as well-known outside Canada. And that’s input from the second generation—to enhance our global brand so that the customer around the world asks for it.”

That, for Brown, is the aspect of Napoleon’s strategy that he’d most like to see other Canadian companies emulate. “I don’t think we see enough private Canadian companies really aggressively pursue the kind of global positioning Napoleon has pursued,” says Brown.

McArthur’s advice to entrepreneurs looking to conquer the world is simple. “Why are we successful? We’re focused,” he says. “We have a vision and we have focus: focus on the customer, focus on the product, focus on the Napoleon brand.” And, behind the scenes, focus on the people who carried that brand from a garage to a tiny factory to the entire world.